2018-01-14

Will Turkish occupation of Syria follow Israeli experience in Lebanon?


For almost a year Turkey, Russia and Iran have been coordinating their efforts in Syria. Since January 2017 three countries have not only significantly reduced the level of violence, they also have been cooperation over zones of de-escalation, which triggered a mechanism for negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the government of Syria and gave hope for a political solution to the civil war. Obviously, thanks to these agreements, it was also possible to reduce the level of danger emanating from international terrorist groups based in Syria as well.

However, despite a fully functioning mechanism of coordination of policies of the three states in Syria, sides still have a number of unresolved issues. For instance, relations between Ankara and Moscow are complicated by differences in views on the role of Syrian Kurds in the political future of Syria. The recent incident with the attack on the Russian base in Latakia carried out with drones launched from the territory under Turkey's responsibility once again demonstrated the need for closer cooperation.

Another important issue that can significantly complicate bilateral cooperation in stabilizing Syria may be the future of the Turkish occupation zone in the northern Aleppo. It is in this zone that the Turkish authorities are trying to create quasi-state structures that should be controlled by opposition forces calling for the overthrow of the Syrian government. The issue of the occupation is further complicated by the fact that the status of the territory occupied by the Turkish troops since August 2016 has not been defined by the agreements either with the Syrian government, Russia, Iran or with Western allies of Turkey.

The question of the military presence of Turkish military contingent in the territory of the sovereign Syrian state is extremely controversial. One should remember that the Turkish operation was launched on August 24, 2016 in response to numerous IS mortar shelling of border cities with civilian casualties. Operation in Syria was an effort to free the adjacent territory in the sector between the cities of Jarablus, Azaz and Al-Bab from terrorist groups. Yes, another objective of the operation "Euphrates Shield" was to prevent the linking of Kurdish forces, seeking to gain control over the entire Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey has been perceiving Syrian Kurds acting under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party as part of the Turkish terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers' Party. Consequently, according to the Turkish official stance, military operation in Syria against terrorists was legitimate, what has been repeatedly challenged by Damascus, who insists on transferring control over the occupied territories to the legitimate Syrian authorities.

In this regard, the question of why Turkey continues to refuse to transfer the territory under the Syrian control is on the agenda of Ankara's relations with Moscow. At the same time, Turkish policy in regards to the occupation in some ways begins to resemble the Israel's actions in South Lebanon in 1976-2000 when the Israeli authorities were trying to create and support a so-called "Free Lebanon", a buffer quasi-state.

Since the 1950s, during numerous discussions on the issue of the military-political doctrine of Israel, it has become increasingly common to hear decision-makers talking about the need to create  strategic depth around the national borders. Successful negotiations to normalize relations with Egypt and Jordan in the mid-1970s allowed the Israeli leadership to focus on stabilizing the situation in neighboring Lebanon, where the Palestine Liberation Organization continued to operate and from where its assets managed to carry out attacks against Israel. The increased number of terrorist attacks in Israel itself prompted the country's leadership to take measures to create an effective military and political structure in the territory of southern Lebanon from among local Christian and Shiite communities that could resist the numerous Palestinian refugees, among whom PLO activists were acting and recruiting new members.

In response to another terrorist attack by Palestinian militants, on May 14, 1978, Israel launched "Litani" military operation in Lebanon's border area with a goal of destroying the PLO camps. Already in June 1978, mostly due to international pressure, Israel had to withdraw the bulk of its armed forces. On the other hand, in parallel with the military operation, Israel prepared necessary organizational infrastructure for the formation of a friendly puppet government on the territory under its control. On April 19, 1979, the state of Free Lebanon under the leadership of Saad Haddad was proclaimed.

Despite its name, the Haddad government operated only in southern Lebanon, and all financial and material support was coming from Israel. Main task of the State of Free Lebanon was, through local armed forces, to prevent the terrorist activities of the PLO. By the summer of 1981, however, it was clear that the Haddad government failed to fulfill its main mission, since the PLO had increased the intensity of rocket attacks on Israeli territory. In June 1982, Israel again had to launch a war with a neighboring Lebanon provoking a civil war.

Turkey's actions in northern Syria in many ways repeat the policy of Israel to create a buffer zone in southern Lebanon. Ankara is actively supporting the creation of functioning security agencies and local military forces. Among the priority directions, it is also possible to indicate steps to create a functioning political system, led by loyal Syrian activists, including many Turkmens, representatives of the Turkic people. These steps are combined with humanitarian support: hospitals, mosques are being built, schools are now teaching the Turkish language instead of French as a foreign language, and diplomas are recognized by Turkish universities.

Creation of loyal armed forces from local Syrians is Turkey's most important task for today. As in the case of the Israeli project for the establishment of the South Lebanese Army, the presence of loyal Ankara armed forces could help reduce the involvement of the Turkish army in Syria's internal affairs while eliminating threats to Turkey's national security. First of all, this concerns the issue of counteracting the expansion of Kurdish forces along the Turkish border: the transfer of theater of operations to the territory of Syria would give Ankara more operational room for maneuver, without creating political problems for the Turkish government in a form of criticism from the domestic opposition in case of failures that could lead to losses among Turkish armed forces.

Another important aspect of the Turkish occupation of northern Syria can be considered the creation of political levers of pressure in the hands of Ankara in relations with the Syrian government. As in the case of Israel and southern Lebanon, Turkey, through controlled quasi-state entities, has the opportunity to influence the alignment of forces in Syria during post-conflict stabilization period. But, despite some successes in the issue of creating a loyal buffer zone on the critical section of its own border, Turkey, sooner or later, will face a number of important problems.

First, even if we admit that the military operation to purge the territory of northern Syria from terrorists has reached its goals, success of Ankara's subsequent actions to confront the armed forces of the Syrian Kurds will depend on Turkey's cooperation with the Syrian government. Against the background of the developing cooperation of Syrian Kurds with the United States and a number of European countries, especially in the issue of reconstruction of territories and the fight against terrorism, Turkey has to look for partners to balance the influence of this cooperation. Recognition of the Syrian government, in turn, can nullify all the existing political gains of Turkey in Syria and harm Ankara's image in a broader region.

Secondly, construction of an independent and effective polity in the Turkish occupation zone requires serious financial and material costs. So far, Turkey makes it clear that it is not ready to invest in the development and maintenance of a controlled enclave in the long run. On the other hand, in case of significant expansion of its presence in Syria, if security situation would require so, Turkey may face significant anti-Turkish sentiments among the local population, as well as a protest from main allies of the Syrian government, primarily from Iran.

It is not yet clear what position Ankara will take in the issue of  support for the Turkish occupation zone in Syria, but given that ambitious politicians in Ankara still continue to determine Turkish foreign policy, it is fair to say that the destabilization of military and political situation in northern Syria is not improbable.

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