Will northern Syria become another Northern Cyprus?

Turkey may be plotting to install a reliable, Ankara-friendly pseudo-government in northern Syria.

ISIL may not be willing to cede territory for Ankara's proxy government experiments, writes Unver [Getty]

In his book, “Identity and Foreign Policy: The Kemalist Influence in Cyprus and the Caucasus”, Umut Uzer discusses how “outside Turks” have played a key role in traditional Turkish foreign policy. The plight and suffering of Turks living outside Turkey, according to Uzer, has generally been a premise or rationale of Turkish interventionism, citing how Hatay in 1939 and Northern Cyprus in 1974 became Turkish territory, citing such suffering as a reason for military intervention.

If traditional, Kemalist foreign policy cited the plight of the Turks abroad, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) could be credited – with some controversy – for shifting this focus from an ethno-nationalist protectionism into a larger Sunni-based sensitivity. Many names were attributed for this new perspective: neo-Ottomanism, pan-Islamism and so on, but in its gist, the new perspective saw post-1908 Turkish history as non-existent, or an “anomaly”, reverting back to the principles and hypotheses of the first decade of Ottoman 20th century.

In this context, Benghazi was considered a national security issue for the “new Ankara”, just as Pristina or Nagorno-Karabagh was. The perspective was hammered down by Fatih Tezcan, a pro-government pundit, who lashed out against critiques of AKP’s “overstretch” in the Middle East: “Cairo is the duty of [the] Turkish Ministry of Interior. Cairo is our 82nd province. Damascus 83, Baghdad 84, Mecca 85, Medina 86… Aleppo is mine, Damascus is mine, I’m a son of Ottomans.”

Ottoman legacy

Yet, neo-imperialism requires imperial capabilities. Few realise the fact that these capitals remember the “Ottoman legacy”, symbolised as a large janissary garrison, headed by a dreaded governor, with the powers of a Roman proconsul and his personal-political connections to that province’s disliked notable families. And it took Ankara until the Arab Spring movements to realise that soap operas, incomplete diplomatic initiatives and goodwill don’t really create the kind of influence Turkey wanted to build in the region to solidify its new ambitions.

It took Ankara until the Arab Spring movements to realise that soap operas, incomplete diplomatic initiatives and goodwill don’t really create the kind of influence Turkey wanted to build in the region to solidify its new ambitions.

This shift coincided with the rise of a sectarian “Game of Thrones” in Turkey’s southern neighbours – as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad engaged in radically anti-Sunni practises, opening the Pandora’s Box of sectarian power balances. The “new Turkish foreign policy” became a mirror-image of its old, Kemalist self, making the protection of “outside Sunnis” in its southern neighbours a national security priority.

To that end, the rise of ISIL across Iraq and Syria was long coming according to Ankara, a natural and predictable result of Assad and Maliki’s policies. To counter ISIL, you had to eliminate its root causes, and these causes had to do with a renegotiated Sunni-Shia balance of power across Syria and Iraq; this meant the ascension of an Iraqi leader not hostile or humiliating towards Iraqi Sunnis and either removal, or territorial confinement of Assad in southern Syria.

Coupled with ISIL’s wide social base in Sunni provinces – perhaps mixed with fear, but all of it being the lesser of evils when compared to the alternative – Turkey long saw ISIL as a natural extension of a traumatised Sunni mindset. Hence, de-radicalisation would start with de-traumatisation, and this in turn, would start with eliminating all hostile threats to Iraqi-Syrian Sunnis.

Thus emerged the idea of a safe zone and a no-fly zone, to be jointly enforced in northern Syria, to host all Syrian Sunni refugees. If the safe zone is made to work well, Ankara can make the case to ISIL that this is a territory safe for Sunnis and negotiate the organisation’s withdrawal from these areas. The Doudyan, Al-Bab, Ain Issa and Tel Abyad rectangle would be administered by an international peacekeeping force, but would also become the training ground for the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (SMDK), headquartered in Istanbul and Gaziantep to properly rule over the safe zone once the international peacekeeping force stabilises the territory.

Practically a mirror-image of Kemalist Turkish foreign policy, Turkey would practically carve out a portion of Syrian territory, not for annexation perhaps, but for the installation of a reliable, Ankara-friendly pseudo-government there. While the joint no-fly and safe zones may begin as a humanitarian project, it may as well turn the Doudyan, Al-Bab, Ain Issa and Tel Abyad rectangle (possibly expanding southwards into Aleppo-Raqqa corridor in the long-term) into a Turkish protectorate, essentially creating somewhat of a resemblance of a Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The territory cannot be self-sufficient financially – it will depend on funds form Ankara, and possibly Riyadh and Doha. While the idea of a “Turkish Republic of Northern Syria” may annoy many at this point, Ankara can always market it as the lesser of evils on the ground.

However, this is a high-stakes gamble and exaggerates Ankara’s ability to negotiate with ISIL. Currently unstoppable, ISIL may not be willing to cede territory for Ankara’s proxy government experiments, or recognise SMDK as a trustworthy ally. Scenarios include ISIL resisting the safe zone to cement its own rule and targeting both Turkey and SMDK in the medium-term to prevent loss of territory. With the expansion of ISIL ideology into Turkey and the possibility of the organisation skyrocketing recruits from Turkey once Kobane falls, Turkey may as well discover that the war has already reached its southern cities.

If the gamble fails, Ankara will certainly look like the early 20th century Ottoman palace, trying to hold onto far off lands, while neglecting the order and defence of its inner territories; or as the Turkish idiom goes: “Lose all the bulgur at home, while going to Dimyat for rice.”

Akin Unver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul and an energy and political risk consultant. He is the winner of 2010 MESA Social Sciences Award and a former lecturer at Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies Department.