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Turkey’s Strategic Interests Are Threatened by Security and Social Collapse in Northern Syria

The Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations were a military success – but there is growing evidence that Ankara is losing the peace.

Turkey’s Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations – which united a number of Free Syrian Army rebel groups to fight both ISIS and Kurdish forces controlling territory near Turkey’s border – were a notable military success for Ankara. ISIS was expelled from around 2,000 square kilometres of territory, and Kurdish forces were prevented from establishing a Kurdish-controlled entity in Afrin as they had in Raqqa and Hasakeh.

But what has been a military victory has been a social failure. The areas captured by these operations are suffering from a breakdown in security and growing social problems, creating a threat to Turkey’s strategic interests.

The security problem pairs increasingly lawless areas – where there is a proliferation of weapons, theft and indiscriminate shootings – with abuse by security forces, who frequently conduct arbitrary arrests on fabricated charges. In addition, police agencies are unable to control rebel groups who abuse their position out of fear of revenge attacks. Turkish regular forces cannot intervene because they it is difficult for them to deploy on a large-scale basis, as their presence is limited to military barracks outside the cities.

Not all of this is reported. Media close to the opposition are wary of covering these types of abuses out of fear that they bolster the Assad regime’s message that their opponents are corrupt. In addition, many of these outlets are based in Turkey, which is in the midst of tightening restrictions on the media and political dissent. In recent days, a Syrian doctor who criticized President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was sentenced to five years in prison and made to pay a fine.

Police forces in the region are ill-equipped to respond to the violence. Most lack necessary equipment, and some officers have also been given leadership ranks without academic qualifications — some of them do not even hold a complete primary school degree. Coupled with a lack of strong official institutions to hold police forces to account, trust in them is low.

On top of the security issues, there are signs of increasing social strife. There are reports of revenge attacks between tribes and families. Corruption in what passes for official institutions is rampant, with widespread favouritism in employment and the proliferation of forged diplomas.

Action against Kurdish civilians is likely to exacerbate social tensions. After Turkey and the Free Syrian Army factions took control over the Afrin area, the groups allied with Turkey confiscated a large amount of Kurdish property and prevented many residents from returning to their homes under the accusation of belonging to Kurdish political parties. Some groups also confiscated some properties belonging to Kurdish civilians.

Turkey has tried, along with some compliant rebel groups, to restore matters and to put pressure on non-compliant rebel groups to prevent such practices. But if they are unable to put a stop to this phenomenon, it will continue to expand social divisions and ethnic discrimination between Kurds and their Arab neighbours, creating a social environment built on ethnic revenge-taking whose impact could last for generations.

The failure of the Turkish-allied rebel groups to administer the Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield regions is leading Turkey to review its dependence on these groups, whether in Idlib or other parts of northern Syria. Unfortunately for Ankara, they have few other options.

Turkey might prefer, after the fighting stops, for the Syrian regime to administer regions on its border rather than rebel groups. But it fears that the regime cannot be trusted, and is further worried that handing over these areas to regime control would inflame the opinion of Saudi Arabia, which has the power to strengthen the hand of the Kurds elsewhere. Turkey is in an especially difficult position as it recalibrates its other alliances, notably with the United States.

It therefore is forced to keep the card of the rebel groups in its hand for the near future.


Sultan Al Kanj is a Syrian Journalist and researcher born in rural Aleppo. He studied Philosophy at University of Aleppo and worked as a journalist covering Syria since 2012. He writes for Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Arabi 21 and Al Jazeera blogs. He has experience in academic research including philosophical research, history of religious groups, intellectual doctrines, and history of Islamic civilization.