Blurring the Border, Turkey Deepens Roots in Northern Syria

A newly paved road links the Turkish town of Cobanbey to its Syrian sister, al-Bab, across the border. In al-Bab, Turkish and Syrian flags line the streets, and signs on government buildings are in Arabic and Turkish. One of the first billboards honors Turkish soldiers killed in the battle to liberate this town from Islamic State militants, The Washington Post reports.

Overseeing the beehive is a veteran Turkish provincial official, Senol Esmer, deputy governor of the Turkish city of Gaziantep, sent here to direct al-Bab’s development. His office is in the local police station which swarms with Turkish security alongside construction workers building an extension.

“The main reason for Turkey’s support is humanity,” Esmer said. “We call it ‘justice of fraternity’ because we have been living together with these people for 600 years, since Ottoman times. And after that, as neighbors,” he said, referring to Syria’s longtime place in the Ottoman Empire, which fell with World War I.

Turkey is growing long-term roots in its northern Syrian enclave, nearly two years after its troops moved in, modeling the zone on its own towns and bringing in its own administrators and military, financial and security institutions. Turkey now holds sway over more than 4,000 square kilometers  of Syrian territory. Almost a quarter of Syria’s population is under Turkish control indirectly or directly — including 3.6 million refugees in Turkey, around 600,000 people living in the enclave, most of them displaced from elsewhere in Syria, and the 2 million people in Idlib, the last remaining rebel-held province, where Turkey has gained a major say.

The major Turkish investment has raised speculation Ankara has ambitions to revive old imperial claims to Syrian provinces, Associated Press adds. But there are key strategic goals behind its deepening hold. Fundamentally, Turkey aims to keep out its nemesis, the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG. Also, Turkey, presenting itself as the protector of the Syrian opposition, is now positioned to be the main negotiator along with Russia over shaping Syria’s future. Moscow may be open for that: It gave a green-light for Ankara’s move into Syria. Turkey hopes its weight will lure U.S. away from the alliance with the Kurds to rely on it as a bulwark against Iranian influence in Syria.

“The Turkish intervention is the “most important development” in the Syrian conflict since Russia threw its military might behind President Bashar Assad in 2015,” said Nicholas Heras, of the Washington-based Center for New American Security.

Having troops on the ground and controlling large parts of the Syrian population “definitely means no solution is possible without Turkish cooperation,” said Heiko Wimmen, project director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon with the International Crisis Group.

According to ABC News, the zone is the latest phase in the evolution of Turkey’s aims in Syria’s war. It joined a Western and regional alliance funding and arming rebels with the aim of ousting Assad. Then it said it needed to protect its own security, fearing the growing clout of the Kurdish militia.

In the summer of 2016, Turkey launched its military incursion alongside allied Syrian fighters to drive out both the Islamic State group and the YPG. It took more than three months of fighting for the Turkish-led forces to take al-Bab district, killing more than 70 Turkish soldiers. Now Ankara is installing a Turkish-European style government in what it calls the Euphrates Shield area. Esmer, the Turkish official, oversaw the formation of a 21-member governing body in al-Bab, which employs nearly 150 staff, most paid by Turkey. He estimated the council will collect some $1.7 million in revenues from rents, taxes and municipal fees in 2018.

“We provide the flour, but they (Syrians) process it to make bread. With a small profit, they organize the distribution,” Esmer said.

A new $17-million hospital financed by the Turkish Health Ministry opens this month in al-Bab. A Turkish university plans a branch in the town, and others held tests here for Syrian students wanting to enroll in Turkey. Turkey has moved its troops out of towns, positioning them mostly on nearby hills. In al-Bab, it trained some 2,000 Syrian security, including 100 women, to police checkpoints in al-Bab.

New courts are overseen by Turkish judges and prosecutors but uses former Syria government judges, following Syria’s French-inspired code. A terrorism court opened in Azaz. Al-Bab boasts a modern correction facility. To facilitate financial transactions, Turkish post offices — which serve as banks — transfer salaries and funds to Syrian towns, in Turkish liras.

Mohammed ElSheikh, 25, a humanitarian worker in al-Bab, said he expects Turkey’s control of northern Syria to last for a decade. He said Turkey is serving “the Syrian revolution” and that it and Moscow will work out a new system that keeps Syria together but doesn’t include Assad. But ElSheikh said Turkish control can be heavy-handed as well. He said it took him months to wade through Turkish bureaucracy and security checks for approval of his organization, which supports school drop-outs.

Turks, he said, “must help Syrians, not rule them. Right now, they are ruling.”