Kemal Kirişci | Senior fellow and director of the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
I strongly doubt it. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, before his death, is reputed to have instructed his chief diplomat Numan Menemencioğlu not to get involved in the internal affairs of neighboring countries and to stay away from irredentist military adventures. These instructions kept Turkey away from the calamity of World War II and also constituted the reason why, in 1990, the then-military chief of staff, General Necip Torumtay, resigned in protest against prime minister Turgut Özal’s ambition to join the U.S. intervention against Saddam Hussein’s forces, which had invaded Kuwait. In Turkey, it is generally recognized that similar instincts are what pushed the Turkish military to resist their political masters’ pressures to intervene in Syria, until their traditional influence was decimated by the failed July 2016 coup attempt.
Since then, Turkey’s Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations have been driven primarily by domestic political considerations, ahead of a set of critical national elections. The determination to win these elections is leading Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to adopt a nationalist agenda and court a coalition of nationalist actors in Turkey who resent Kurdish aspirations and the U.S. presence in Syria (and not so much Russia’s and Iran’s). The policy aims to achieve three goals: prevent the Syrian Kurds led by the Democratic Union Party from constituting an independent state or autonomous region along the length of the Turkish border; shape the new Syria, or at least a corner of it, to suit his political preferences; and create circumstances for the return of some of 3.5 million Syrian refugees, reducing growing public resentment against them ahead of elections.
Gönül Tol | Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies
Critics accuse Ankara of neocolonial ambitions in northern Syria. On the surface, they may have a point. In the territories Turkey captured from the Islamic State, students learn Turkish and Turkish administrators run hospitals. Turkish signposts, Turkish-trained police forces, and Turkish-built post offices all point to Turkey’s deepening role. The Turkish military has a reputation of remaining in the territories in which it intervenes outside its borders, but it might find it tougher this time. The Turkish military incursion into northern Syria was made possible thanks to a Russian green light. However, in the long term, not Russia, the Assad regime, or Iran are likely to tolerate Turkey’s military presence there.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is certainly seeking to enhance Turkey’s sphere of influence in northern Syria, but calling it “neo-Ottoman” is misleading. The original use of the term “neo-Ottomanism” implies a post-nationalist vision at peace with Turkey’s multiethnic identity. It seeks to coopt rather than confront the Kurds. Turkey’s military operation in Syria, however, was driven chiefly by Ankara’s fear of Kurdish separatism. Turkey launched the operation to block the advances of Syrian Kurdish groups that Ankara deemed to be a national security threat. What Erdoğan is pursuing in Syria is an anti-Kurdish, Turkish nationalist agenda rather than a neo-Ottoman project.
Henri J. Barkey | Professor of international relations at Lehigh University, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations
Turkey’s occupation of northern Syria will not be permanent. It will, however, continue until such time as there is real progress toward a solution to the Syrian civil war and the costs associated with it become prohibitive.
The Turkish occupation in northern Syria has come in two phases. The first, under the auspices of the Euphrates Shield operation, has resulted in Turkish control of an area delineated by the towns of Azaz, Al-Bab, and Jarablus. The Turkish government has assumed direct administrative control of the region and has appointed officials who are seconded from Gaziantep Province. Similarly, it will assume control of Afrin and appoint a sub-governor and other officials, representing a significant investment, both political and economic.
The mobilization of jihadi fighters under the rubric of the “Free Syrian Army” to dislodge the Kurds will create problems for Turkey, as they are very radical and undisciplined. Managing these unruly elements, in addition to potential resistance from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia and eventually Syrian regime- and Iranian-backed proxies will make the Turkish occupation a costly endeavor.
The temptation to change boundaries is an irresistible one for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. These efforts at implanting officials may indeed represent a test case. In the end, however, the burden, both political and military, will eventually prevent the Turks from staying the course.
Marc Pierini | Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, Brussels
It is hard to conceive that Turkey would end up annexing the Afrin and Jarablus districts it now controls, despite the occasional reference to Ottoman times. Rather, Ankara seems intent on continuing to occupy these territories, first to exert military control and replace the previous dominance of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, and second to engineer political change in order to make sure local structures are in line with its policies. As long as such actions suit Moscow, they will unfold relatively smoothly.
The real issue is what will happen in Manbij and east of the Euphrates River, where U.S. forces are present alongside the Syrian Kurds. Nobody can be sure. Ankara’s fierce statements are geared at domestic politics. Washington is fluctuating between a reinforced military presence and a complete withdrawal. Moscow has given political guarantees to Syria’s Kurds since September 2015. And some European Union countries (France is one) are keen to preserve the Syrian Kurdish identity. There is no easy way forward.