Turkey has threatened a new invasion of Syria similar to the ones in October 2019 and January 2018 that resulted in the widespread ethnic cleansing of Kurds, Yazidis and other minorities.
In comments this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Ankara was planning a new military operation. This could result in demographic change as it has vowed to return Syrian refugees, who are mostly Arab, to the "safe zone" it wants to create.
In the past, Ankara's invasions led to Kurds and other minorities being persecuted and forced to flee and extremist groups taking hold in Turkish-run areas.
Turkey's far-right regime, which mixes extreme nationalism and religious fundamentalism rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, has vowed to create a "safe zone" along the border. This is similar to the "safe zone" it created in October 2019 when it caused 200,000 people to flee and invaded eastern Syria.
At the time, Ankara had close relations with the Trump administration and got the White House's green light to invade and attack the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group the US supported. In a bizarre series of events, Washington found itself opening the door to its "NATO ally" Turkey to attack the very people America was also training to fight ISIS.
The White House claimed Turkey would fight ISIS and that the US would leave Syria. The Trump administration received such tough push-back by Congress and members of the administration that it reversed course. But the damage was done, a border area had been destroyed and key civilians such as Hevrin Khalaf, a young female political leader, were hunted down and murdered by Turkish-backed extremists.
Ankara refers to the people in Syria as "terrorists," a term it uses for any critic or opposition to the AKP ruling party. This usually means journalists, women rights activists, gay rights activists, youth, intellectuals, teachers, students, artists, Kurds, Yazidis, Christian minorities and others.
For instance, in Afrin, a Kurdish area Turkey invaded in Syria in January 2018, around 160,000 Kurds were driven from their homes. Yazidi temples were destroyed, graveyards desecrated and the area was then turned into housing for extremists that Ankara sent to Syria. The extremist groups, some linked to former Syrian rebel groups, kidnap women and are accused by the US, UN and others of human rights abuses.
One of these groups has even been sanctioned by the US. This means that Ankara, which claims to be a "NATO ally" supports extremists and groups linked to terrorists, while claiming to be "fighting terrorists." The regime has also hosted Hamas terror leaders.
Now, as Ankara's ruling party faces elections next year, it appears to be paving the way for more chaos in Syria.
Turkish invasion and ethnic cleansing
Syria is already poor and the people are recovering from ISIS crimes. Ankara's goal is to destabilize the areas that were liberated from ISIS control and remove minorities from the border. This historic ethnic cleansing is similar to what was done in Turkey after 1915 during the Armenian genocide and subsequent genocide and massacres of Christian communities in what became Turkey in the 1920s.
Ankara has done this before in Cyprus when it invaded in the 1970s and expelled Greek minorities from its northern regions. The ethnic cleansing of Afrin, Sere Kaniya and other areas along the border in 2018 and 2019 has changed historical patterns of settlement, removing indigenous minorities. This is similar to what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s – except that Ankara has used its NATO membership to claim it needs "security" by removing minorities.
Turkey also backs extremist groups that often shell Tel Tamr and Christian minority areas of eastern Syria. It also conducts bombings of Sinjar in Iraq, an area where Yazidi genocide survivors live. Ankara has also bombed Christian villages in northern Iraq, claiming to be "fighting terrorists."
Oddly, the regime's "war on terror" always seems to target minorities in the Middle East.
Turkey and NATO
The threat of a new invasion comes as Turkey is trying to prevent Finland and Sweden from joining NATO. These two democratic countries have now been threatened by the authoritarian government of Ankara that they must expel dissidents and bend to its demands or they can't join the Western alliance.
This odd turn of events means that NATO now revolves around whatever Turkey wants. A defensive alliance, NATO has been roped into Ankara's invasions and abuses in Syria.
"We will soon take new steps regarding the incomplete portions of the project we started on the 30 km.-deep safe zone we established along our southern border," Turkey's president said this week.
Ankara's threats come in the wake of Turkey bashing the Greek prime minister and also bashing the US over its sanctions relief for eastern Syria. Clearly, the regime is now shifting policies from trying to reconcile with Greece, to pushing new threats.
In 2019 and 2020, Ankara also threatened Athens. It continued this policy until US President Joe Biden was elected and then shifted course. This is because Turkey's ruling party has lobbyists in Washington, including having influence at several important think tanks, that sought influence over the Trump administration.
In those days, the Ankara lobby would claim that Turkey was an ally against Russia and Iran, even as Turkey bought Russia's S-400 missile defense system and worked with Iran. Now, Turkey has been in the spotlight because of the Ukraine crisis as it seems to work with both Moscow and Kyiv. Turkey has sold drones to Ukraine but is buying the S-400. It also wants to acquire more US warplanes but is angry that some countries have sanctioned it over the abuses in Syria.
Ankara shifted in 2021 to try reconciliation, first with Egypt and the UAE and then also with Israel, hoping to make new friends in Washington through these new policies. For instance, the regime has mobilized its embassy in the US to work with pro-Israel voices and hopes that through working with Israel, it might make new inroads.
To this end, Ankara invited Israeli President Isaac Herzog for a visit earlier this year and has been doing outreach to the Jewish state, including sending its foreign minister this week.
The question that remains is whether Ankara will try to trade Finland and Sweden entering NATO for another blank check from the defensive alliance for its "security," meaning a new invasion. Ankara, like Russia, tends to claim that, for its own "security," it has to invade other countries and cause people to flee. Russia used the same excuse to invade Ukraine.
It is unclear if the Biden administration will stand up to Turkey's threats. Last year, Ankara also promised a new invasion but appeared to climb down.
Turkey walked away from its promised invasion in November 2021. Will it back down again? It is unclear, but Ankara has vowed to expel millions of Syrian refugees and appears to believe that it can accomplish two goals at once: remove Syrian refugees and destroy Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria, bolstering populism at home while harming adversaries abroad.
Turkey could also try to harm the new American initiatives in eastern Syria and use this to blackmail NATO at the same time. It's unclear if Ankara can truly do all this, but it will probably try.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.