Turkey’s policy on the Syrian war has shifted dramatically over the last year. This is largely due to the failed military coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in July 2016, which resulted in a rapid effort to strengthen ties with Russia for security purposes. Having once championed the revolution, Erdogan is now indulging Russian policy in Syria and contributing to a campaign of regime preservation. This has been most obvious in Turkey’s actions toward East Aleppo.
The Turkish government seems to have created a dual system, when it comes to Syria, in which Erdogan remains committed to a populist, pro-revolutionary rhetoric, while the Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, makes statements supporting Russian policy. And while Erdogan may have fooled many of his supporters into believing he was acting out of concern for Syrian civilians, Syrians on the ground, and those who have contacts inside East Aleppo (including prominent citizen-journalists and rebel commanders, like Ghassan Ibrahim, and Abu Al-Abed), have vocally condemned Turkey for riding on the back of their suffering to push a grim agenda.
In an interview with Syria Deeply, Middle East Institute fellow, Charles Lister, aptly observed that the Turks were “willing to see Aleppo city eventually fall out of opposition control in exchange for being allowed to establish this kind of zone of control in northern Aleppo.”
Erdogan, the Puppet Master
Just one month after the failed coup, Turkey launched a new military operation in Syria known as Operation Euphrates Shield (OES). The purpose of this operation was twofold: to oust ISIS from the Northern Aleppo countryside, and block the potential formation of a unified Kurdish state on the border with Turkey.
Even though OES’s end goals were in sync with some of the Syrian rebels’ short-term objectives, it was not ultimately focused on ousting President Bashar Al-Assad. In fact, Erdogan’s willingness to collaborate with Putin, for the sake of OES’s success, directly contributed to the collapse of the rebels’ four-year-long hold over East Aleppo.
As Russia and the Assad regime were committing atrocities in East Aleppo, Turkish warplanes unleashed a relentless campaign of airstrikes which resulted in several massacres, like the December 2016 attack on the Aleppan town of Al-Bab, which killed sixty-three civilians, including fourteen children. On other occasions, Turkey also directly coordinated with Russia, and indirectly cooperated with the Assad regime, in their bombing campaigns against Al-Bab. Erdogan also reportedly paid-off some rebels—often with no more than $200—to redirect their attention away from Aleppo.
Following East Aleppo’s inevitable and catastrophic fall in December 2016, Erdogan orchestrated two political moves which, though ostensibly humanitarian, created further hardship for the Syrian people—especially the revolutionaries.
First, Erdogan coordinated with Russia to enforce an “evacuation plan” for the city’s rebels and civilians in a phony act of humanitarian assistance. As the head of the Syrian National Council, Anas Abda, said, the effort amounted to political and ethnic cleansing of the city, as thousands of Syrians were transferred to Idlib, where they were subject to another round of attacks by the regime and its various allies. The United Nations went as far as to describe the East Aleppo evacuation as a “war crime.”
Second, following the “evacuation” of East Aleppo, Erdogan helped facilitate so-called peace talks between the Assad regime and an otherwise reluctant Syrian opposition in Astana, Kazakhstan. The talks contributed to massive fissures between various rebel groups, and ultimately emboldened extremists. For example, after the “peace talks,” one of the largest rebel groups in Syria, Ahrar Al-Sham, saw a number of its brigades defect and merge with other rebel factions, including Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, to form Haya’at Tahrir Al-Sham. This happened because many rebel factions did not want to participate in the talks, as long as the regime and its allies were bombarding the region of Wadi Barada.
Notably, the rebel factions that did attend the Astana negotiations did so largely because they had received guarantees from Turkey that any resulting ceasefire would be respected. This, of course, was a complete lie. Wadi Barada ultimately fell to Assad in January 2017, and the peace talks reached no positive conclusion.
As more Syrian activists have become aware of Turkey’s true motives, and understand OES as the disaster it truly is, Erdogan’s popularity has spiraled downwards. His willingness to cooperate with Russia, and by extension Assad, is a harsh betrayal of his original commitment to the Syrian uprising. For Syrians, Erdogan is no longer the ally many envisioned he was.
Short Term Success, Long Term Failure
Although the Turkish government declared OES’s “successful end” in March, it left behind a small stretch of land (covering scattered parts of Azaz, Jarablos, and Al-Bab) surrounded by Assad forces in the South, Kurdish YPG forces in the West in Afrin (with Russian forces), and Kurdish YPG-led SDF forces in the East in Minbij (with Russian and American forces).
Perhaps most astonishing is the fact that Turkey declared an end to OES without actually fulfilling one of its primary objectives: taking over the city of Minbij from SDF forces after liberating Al-Bab from ISIS. In March, the SDF surrendered the outskirts of Minbij to the Assad regime, to Turkey’s complete silence.
There is a reason the Syrian uprising is known as al-thawra alfaadha—or “the revolution that exposes.” It has plainly exposed those figures, like Erdogan, who have exploited populist rhetoric to advance their own interests at the expense of the Syrian people. In the words of the many revolutionaries who continue to dream of a better Syria: may the thawra alfaadha continue to ifdah.