By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin*
During Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tenure as president, Turkey has lurched from prioritizing good relations with all neighbors to rivaling Russia in its expansionist, imperialist ambitions. Neo-Ottoman Ankara waded into the Libyan conflict, dominates territories throughout northern Syria, consolidated ties with Doha and Tehran, and last week staged yet another offensive against Iraqi Kurds.
Turkey has no intention of relinquishing its Syrian conquests. By keeping these territories out of the news, Erdogan hopes the world will turn a blind eye as he progressively renders Turkish control irreversible.
A Turkish lira zone is being instituted throughout these areas, facilitated by the collapse in value of Syria’s currency. Civil servants, security forces and some private sector employees receive wages in Turkish lira, further reinforcing economic ties. Goods and fuel display Turkish prices. In Idlib, 95percent of goods originate in Turkey. Economists note that this incorporation within Turkey’s economic orbit amounts to de facto separation from the Syrian regime. Syria expert Charles Lister argues: “The departure of nearly a third of Syrians from their national currency may prove to be the nail in the coffin for Syria’s economy.”
Towns such as Tel Abyad and Jarablus are now under direct Turkish rule, with Ankara providing essential services and overseeing local governance in line with its policy of ensuring that these areas are dominated by a pro-Turkey demographic. Ankara appoints Turkish governors, bolstered by over 10,000 troops in the occupied region. Branches of the Turkish postal service act as banks, and the electricity grid is enmeshed with that of Turkey. Turkish and Arabic are taught jointly in Turkish-run schools. Erdogan talks of inaugurating entirely new cities, making little attempt to mask his regional aspirations.
Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs manages religious education and oversees Syrian imams. Observers worry about the consequences of the combustible confluence of Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood model with the militant world view of entities such as Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham. Turkey has meanwhile been criticized for the damaging impact of its military operations on Yazidis, Christian communities and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, while Daesh has exploited the chaos to resume its own persecution of these groups. Ethnic cleansing of Kurdish communities, efforts to resettle two million Turkey-based Syrian refugees, and the imposition of a Turkic ruling class amount to a brutal program of demographic engineering in Ankara’s zone of control.
When Turkey embarked last year on its occupation of northeastern Syria, a European diplomat warned me that it would be used as a staging point for incursions against Kurds in Iraq — as we have indeed been seeing. Shelling of adjoining regions is an indicator that Erdogan plans further expansion. Just as Putin’s occupation of Crimea and Georgian provinces becomes increasingly permanent with each passing year, Erdogan appears to assume that occupation ultimately is equivalent to ownership.
In a world in which, according to former aide John Bolton, the US president told his Chinese counterpart that locking up a million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps was “exactly the right thing to do,” the international rule of law is in serious trouble. Bolton also says Trump told Erdogan that investigations into the laundering of billions of dollars by Turkish state banks on behalf of Iran could be made to disappear.
As well as the inevitable “national security” justifications, Turkey and Russia portray their adventures in Syria and Libya as ultimately a profit-making exercise, hoping to emerge as the principal beneficiaries from massive reconstruction contracts. However, given their role in causing so much of the damage, this would be like awarding Al-Qaeda the contract for rebuilding New York’s twin towers. Attempts to monopolize these states’ oil reserves only partly offset the massive cost of military engagement.
Facing a multitude of domestic crises, Erdogan has been able to counterbalance his increasingly chilly reception overseas through his lucrative alliance with Qatar which last month pledged to bolster Ankara’s foreign currency reserves by about $10 billion.
A cluster of states — notably Turkey, Russia, Israel and Iran — have profited from the willful sabotage of international law mechanisms to follow one another’s example in embarking on conquest and annexation. But these increasingly overstretched states find they cannot reap any kind of peace dividend, precisely because the multilateral institutions mandated with putting failed states back together have been rendered impotent.
Europe’s default response has been appeasement and feeble guestures of concern, but these aggressors are increasingly pushing up against vulnerable states on the southern and eastern borders of Europe. The fate of eastern Syria may not keep world leaders awake at night; but what about when the sovereignty of Latvia, Finland or Malta is threatened? Or when Turkish frigates embark upon aggressive maneuvers against the French Navy in the Mediterranean, as occurred last week? The post-Second World War, UN-centered international framework is all we have to prevent bully states from devouring their smaller neighbors; to abandon this is to condemn the planet to a permanent state of globalized conflict.
Instead of northern Syria becoming a profitable Turkish colony and a buffer against regional threats, experts warn of the risks of its “Gazafication”; a perennially poverty-stricken and unstable territory that becomes a financial, security and moral drain on the Turkish state.
Putin will be painfully aware of how embroilment in an unwinnable Afghan conflict collapsed the Soviet Union. If Russia and Turkey want to avoid the same fate, they should sooner rather than later be beating a path to the UN Security Council and NATO and pleading for beefed up post-conflict mechanisms to put out the fires that these pyromaniac states themselves helped ignite.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.