by The Region 27/03/2018
Ever since the “Antalya Conference for Change” in Istanbul officiated the existence of the Syrian National Council, it has often been remarked that Turkey has had an undue influence over the Syrian Opposition.
But since 2016, when the Turkish Intervention in Syria began, Turkey has moved beyond providing moral, financial and political support to the Syrian opposition, and has often partnered with the Free Syrian Army brigades to further its own interests in Northern Syria.
Turkey has, for sure, been involved in the Syrian Civil War from the very start. It housed the earliest trained defectors of the Syrian army, and together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar supported multiple armed groups, including at one point, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda: Al-Nusra Front.
However, its incursion into Northern Syria since the Euphrates Shield operation — aimed to drive a wedge in between territory held by Kurds that was liberated from IS — has meant that Turkey has had its own boots on the ground since at least 2016. The latest assault by Turkey, launched in 2018 on Syria, has been dubbed “Operation Olive Branch.” What began as a successful occupation of Kurdish held Afrin now aims to completely occupy the whole Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (Rojava).
How long does Turkey plan to stay in these territories?
In the beginning of January, Erdogan said that Turkey is ‘not occupying’ Syria’s Afrin. For to Erdogan, he is engaged in a so-called humanitarian mission.
“We are not occupying Afrin. On the contrary, we are trying to make it a livable place for the real owners while cleaning out terrorists from there,” he claimed.
And yet, immediately after occupying Afrin, a group of 30 organised themselves in Turkey to forge a council that would replace the Afrin administration. To get a glimpse of what Afrin’s future could look like, it would be wise to see how Turkey operates in areas it has already occupied.
The “Free Police” in Euphrates Shield territory
Almost immediately after Turkey was able to secure Al-Bab and Jarablus in Northern Aleppo, it began heavily investing in what has been called the “Free Syrian Police”. Reports indicate that the Euphrates Shield branch of the Free Syrian Police has brought a modicum of stability in an area torn apart by banditry and criminal opportunism amid war, albeit as a proxy force for Turkey.
They were first deployed to Jarablus in January 2017, where they oversaw towns and villages in the area. Most were local, and some were refugees. They were trained by the police of Mersin, Turkey. A new branch was deployed in Azaz in February, shortly followed by the “Free police” of Al-Bab. All of these areas are key military checkpoints for the Turkish military and its FSA affiliates in Euphrates Shield territory.
From training to gear, Free Syrian Police officers often find themselves having to pay homage to Erdogan and the Turkish State. They are taught to be convinced of the sanctity of Turkish involvement in Syria and are often even seen displaying Turkish insignia on their uniforms.
After occupying al-Bab, Turkey also began setting up its first industrial city. It is a project that is overseen by Ali Yerlikaya, the Gaziantep governor in Turkey. Indeed, the Gaziantep local administration will overlook the project, which will be over 56 hectares, and will include hotels, gas stations, and a power station. Not only then, is there a process of Turkification across civil institutions across Northern Syria as analyst Ahmad Al-Rashid told the Region, but there is a process of institutional building rooted in Turkish nationalism.
Afrin: Occupation under a “humanitarian” blanket
On Monday, the semi-official Anadolu Agency — which is closely linked to Erdogan’s government — reported that Turkey had already begun “renovating” schools in northwestern Syria. Bizarrely, they even took quotes from school-children that condemn the PYD.
“We thank Turkey for reopening our schools and saving us from terrorists here,” Seyma el-Hasan, an 11-year-old student allegedly told Anadolu Agency.
It is not difficult to imagine where a child will learn to see Turkey as liberators, as the imagery released by the agency has since confirmed the prevalence of Turkish flags and imagery across the school. As students walk into class in the morning, they are greeted with a huge portrait of Erdogan alongside the Turkish flag.
Afrin is, of course, no stranger to the imagery of imposed Turkish nationalism. On the day of its occupation, right after allegedly bombing Afrin hospital and perhaps before pulling down the Kurdish Kawa the Blacksmith statue in the city, images were released to the public showing the Turkish flag imposed on the Afrin administration building by FSA fighters.
All of this, of course, poses a serious question about political opportunism and Arab chauvinism in the region. Isn’t it the case, that either through silence or vocal affirmation, the Istanbul based Syrian opposition has shown itself perfectly willing to literally sell their country, its institutions, its schools to Turkey, if it means they can wrestle just a tiny bit of territory away from the Assad dynasty?
Is it not the case that they could literally allow for Northern Syria to become a colony of Turkey if it means that common ground is found in doing everything they can to prevent Syria’s Kurds from their own dreams of self-determination? Is this how far they will go?
And finally, under what circumstances has this war devolved away from being one about Syria, if Syrian students in so-called “liberated territories” are pledging allegiance to another country’s flag?