By Dr. Jiyar Aghapouri
Jiyar Aghapouri explores Turkey’s moves into Northern Syria.
On 17 October 2019 in a joint agreement, Turkey and the United States agreed on a five-day ceasefire following the Turkish offensive in the Northern Syria – a heavily Kurdish area known as Rojava, or West Kurdistan. This ceasefire comes after immense pressure on the US president Donald Trump throughout the US and the world, and even from colleagues in his own political party following the unilateral, “hasty,” and “unthoughtful” decision to withdraw American troops from Syria which has been interpreted as abandoning and ‘betraying’ Kurdish allies crucial to the suppression of the Islamic State.
Trump is happy to be making “a great deal,” especially while he is in the spotlight as the dealer and kingmaker on the scene. Turkey also seems to be very happy about this, as according to a spokesman to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, cited by Washington Post, they “got everything they wanted.” According to US Senator Maggie Hassan however, the ceasefire is a “capitulation to Turkey at the expense of our Kurdish allies.”
At this stage, any ceasefire measures must be welcomed in order to alleviate the tensions and war fatalities by facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance. However, quite contrary to what Donald Trump argues, it is not a balanced, fair, and well-mediated agreement. A glance at the terms of this ceasefire, reminds us of the colonial agreement of Sykes-Picot, when at the end of World War I, the British and French senior diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, signed an agreement to gain control over a collapsed part of the Ottoman Empire. According to Sykes-Picot, France was to take half of the province of Mosul which included the current Syrian Kurdistan, and Britain was to take the other half which included Iraqi Kurdistan. Although the Persian part of Kurdistan remained untouched, the Sykes-Picot agreement literally brought about the division of Kurdistan (as well as the remnants of the Ottoman Empire) into several new countries without even mentioning or discussing the Kurds and the other nations of the region.
The current ceasefire agreement is about the Kurds and it is supposed to be for the good of the Kurds, as the US president claims. However, it does not even mention their name in any way and Turkey has skilfully been able to insert the word “terrorists” in referring to the Kurdish forces under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who have been fighting against terrorism and paying a huge price in this venture. The agreement is going to lead to establishing a large so-called ‘safe zone’ extending over the Kurdish territory of Syria to be controlled by the Turkish Forces, something that Turkey have been dreaming about for years, and it can achieve it through a ‘successful’ deal with the United States.
Turkey knows what is going down and where it is leading. In fact, all of the actors involved in Syria, including Russia, and Iran, know why they are present, and they have their strategic plans, while the US has no single solid and articulated strategy in the region, neither to its rival states nor toward its allies. Despite the terms of the agreement that are too slanted towards Turkey, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said in a press conference with Mike Pence, the US Vice President, following the agreement that “this is not a ceasefire. We will pause the operation for 120 hours in order for the ‘terrorists’ to leave. We will only stop the operation if our conditions are met.”
Of course, the Turkish conditions are not met yet. They want more, and the current operation is not the first and it won’t be that last operation by Turkey in Syria, Iraq or in other areas. These acts are derived from the historical background of Turkish identity and its dreams for the revival of the Ottoman ‘golden era’ by adding strong elements of Turkish pan-nationalism. This doctrine is known as Neo-Ottomanism and determines Turkish acts and policymaking in the regional and international environment. This neo-Ottomanism is embodied in the excessive emphasis on nationalism (Pan-Turkism), the ideological invocation of the Ottoman Empire, and in the unity of the (Sunni) Islamic world, and has created more setbacks for Turkey in recent years, clouding the possibility of full membership in the European Union too.
Based on this doctrine, Turkey should reach to a level of influence that enables the country to be a regional power, or possibly even a single power in the region and control the historical geography of the empire, especially in the Islamic world. As former Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu – one of the main ideologues of this approach – states, Neo-Ottomanism is a policy to emulate, and portray some functional experience of the Ottoman Empire and the revival of its glories. Neo-Ottomanism relies on two central points. First, it relies upon the reconfiguration of the national identity of Turkey by creating re-imagining self or the collective self, and second it relies on the geopolitical implication that views the Middle East as a region where Turkey should actively hold sway in economic, political, and security equations.
According to this doctrine, not only the Kurds of Syria and Iraq, but many other countries and groups of the Middle East are part of the historical geography of Turkey which provides further justifications to intervene for the purpose of rebuilding its historical role. Turkey has certainly not made a secret of expressing this ambition. In fact, just last week, Turkey’s Minister of Defence, Hulusi Akar, tweeted a map showing an enlarged Turkey encroaching on land belonging to its neighbours, particularly Syria and Iraq, and even Armenia. Therefore, according to such reasoning and geopolitical dreams, the Kurds, in order to be secure, should be eager to conform to the new system of Ottomanism by becoming part of what is called, the ‘great’ country of Turkey. Otherwise, they could be perceived as outsiders, and ‘others’ and Turkey should confront them. It appears that later scenario is occurring even though not everyone is in agreement with this idea as the best way to move forward.
I am not sure whether this agreement works as a temporary ceasefire agreement only, or if it is going to be the fundamental basis of a strategic and long-term accord for the design of the post-ISIS era in the Middle East. Also, it is not clear that Russia, Iran, Syria, Iraq, and even Israel and some Arab states will comply with a new order in Syria brought by a US-Turkish bilateral agreement. However, if they conform for any number of reasons, we will see another division of Kurdistan in Syria in a way that could be even more dangerous than the Sykes-Picot Agreement, The Treaty of Lausanne, and other colonial treaties that were contrary to the aims and rights of the Kurds – and other minority peoples.
This time, by attempting to resettle Arab refugees in the borders between Syria and Turkey, the Kurdish geography will be faced with another division. This act will also result in terrible cultural, economic, political and social consequences, let alone the fact that the placement of millions of Arab refugees in the Kurdish territories that comprise a population of two million can be considered as nothing except an ethnic cleansing – and even genocide.
Jiyar Aghapouri is a New Zealand Kurdish scholar and a graduate from the University of Auckland. His research and teaching areas of expertise are diaspora and identity politics, online nationalism, politics and the media, Kurdish politics, and international relations of the Middle East.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.