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 Turkey in Syria (2011- 2020): Politics, Demography and Infrastructure

Seda Altuğ


It would not be a too ambitious statement to argue that until recently Turkish and Arab Middle Eastern scholarly and non-scholarly communities sharing common research interests have lived in almost parallel universes, with seldom-overlapping scholarly agendas and debates. Speaking of historians whom I know the best, Turkey in its current borders formed the main research area for Turkish studies scholars, while for the Ottomanists, Ottoman-Arab provinces usually functioned as an accessory, but not as a formative and organic part of the whole (the empire). Similarly, scholars working on the Middle East (locals or non-locals) have operated within their own national borders, employing their own local written/oral sources and developed area specific conceptual tools.

There are various reasons underlying the discrepancy and disparity between these two worlds and historiographies. If language barrier is one reason, different historical trajectories that the post-Ottoman Arab lands and Turkey have gone through is another. However, as brilliantly elaborated in Adam Hanieh’s paper, it is actually methodological nationalism that underlies the almost mutually exclusive scholarly and public debates in and about Turkey and the Arab Middle East. Methodological nationalism on the Turkish side is embedded in what has recently been called Turkish orientalism, namely Turkish superiority over its own Orient both as a place and people manifested at various times and in various ways throughout the 20th century and after. Countless historical examples can be given concerning the Orientalist, unmindful and apathetic attitude of the Turkish ruling elites vis-à-vis the post-Ottoman Middle East and the politics.

The AKP (Justice and Development Party) rule in Turkey from 2002 onwards was celebrated by many analysts as a move against Turkish orientalism and a novel beginning as it symbolized a return to origins, namely Islamic roots thanks to its Islamist ideology as well as increasing social, political and economic orientation towards the non-west, in particular the Middle East. Neoliberal parliamentary Islamism, or what is called the Turkish model, was presented as a creole where Turkey would confront and redefine its own unresolved ethnic and sectarian questions as well as its symbolic and material relation with the Middle East. 

AKP elites, however, viewed their Middle East strategy as a tool of soft power (Taşkın and Çalışkan, 2009). This became more obvious in the direct Turkish involvement on the side of the Islamists during the early days of the Arab spring, a strategy which was disliked by Turkish seculars/leftists yet praised by Islamists as an expansion of Turkish political and economic influence, if not direct involvement as in the case of Syria and Libya.

The last 10 years witnessed an exponential increase in the scholarly and public discourses in Turkey about the social, economic, political and humanitarian issues in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, but only as much as and to the extent that it concerns the Turkish state’s domestic security and politics. The war in Syria (but not really the uprising which only saw a brief crystallization of Syrian agency), and the particular ways in which Turkey and the Turkish society engaged with the Syrian issue under the AKP rule are the two processes through which the Middle East is introduced to the Turkish public. Presentism has dominated most of these analyses regarding the Turkish political, military and economic involvement in Syria. Syrian local dynamics, Syrians political demands and agency, refugees and others, were not given a voice, but Syria has come to stand for a range of unresolved regional and global conflicts under whose light Syrian and other local/ domestic questions are viewed if not shadowed. In the meantime, similar to other contexts, Syria has become a signifier for many things in Turkey, from regional political hegemony to the global refugee issue and more importantly the changing terms of the Kurdish issue in Turkey and in Syria.

However, this rescaling as revealed in the direct Turkish involvement in Syrian affairs is neither a fully novel phenomenon, nor is it a simple territorial, economic and political expansion. And here lies the difference between today and the 1930s in terms of a rescaling of Turkish relations with Syria. In the 1930s, French-Syria was a point of destination for the undesirables of the new Turkish republic and the Turkish state’s political motivation at the time was to discipline the cross-border Kurdish and Armenian political activity in Syria as the latter was seen as a threat to Turkish domestic security. Cross-border trade was considered a lucrative business by the locals, but its share in the GDP was less than 4 percent.

However, the Turkish military, economic, and political involvement in Syria in the last decade (as well as in Libya, the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt and even Lebanon) has had a formative role in the making of the national as well as the global. The Turkish ambition of dominating the Kurdish movement in and outside Turkey has survived as one of the primary goals throughout these years. Yet, the peculiarity of the last 10 years is the production of a new cross-border space, a regional scale through Turkish military, economic and demographic practices across the border in northern Syria as well as the flow of almost 4 million Syrian refugees into Turkey. The new regional scale through its geographical organization and territorially shifting forms of governance has a very important role in the re-constitution of the Turkish national and the global.

There are three neighbouring Turkish spheres of influence in northern Syria: al-Bab, Jarablus with a Sunni Arab majority (2016), Afrin (2018), a Kurdish enclave and Tall Abyad, Ras al-‘Ayn (2019), a Kurdish-Arab mixed site neighbouring the Kurdish administration in the northeast. The most important makers of this heterogeneous regional space are as follows: the cross-border flow of human resources in the form of military personnel, administrative personnel and social workers, resettlement of Syrian IDPs and refugees in Turkey back to these zones especially Afrin and al-Bab, Jarablus respectively and infrastructural work undertaken by the Turkish state.  The Turkish government has assumed direct administrative control of all three regions and has appointed a sub-governor and other officials who are seconded from Gaziantep, Hatay and Urfa provinces, respectively. Turkish signposts, Turkish-trained police forces, Turkish-built post offices as well as Turkish managed hospitals, public facilities and a branch of Gaziantep University operate in the al-Bab and Jarablus region. The region represents a significant investment, both in political and economic terms. This research focuses on the interlinkages between the political, economic and military power in this region and its weight in the making of the national political and economic discourses.

Seda Altuğ is a Lecturer at the Atatürk Institute for Modern Turkish History at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul. She received her PhD from Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Her dissertation is entitled “Sectarianism in the Syrian Jazira: Community, Land and Violence in the Memories of World War I and the French Mandate (1915–1939)”. Her research interests are state-society relations in French-Syria, sectarianism, land question, empire, border and memory. Her recent work concerns land, property regimes and citizenship practices in the late Ottoman East and Syria under the French mandate.