Turkish occupation of northern Syria
The Turkish Armed Forces and their proxy forces have occupied areas of northern Syria since August 2016, during the Syrian Civil War. Though these areas nominally acknowledge a government affiliated with the Syrian opposition, they factually constitute a separate proto-state under the dual authority of decentralized native local councils and Turkish military administration.
Northern Syria Security Belt
Occupation zone after Operation Peace Spring (black)
|Government||Provisional Government (dual authority of decentralized local councils and military administration)|
• Prime Minister
• Minister of Defence
|Self-governance under military occupation|
|24 August 2016|
|20 January 2018|
|9 October 2019|
|8,835 km2 (3,411 sq mi)|
|Currency||Syrian pound, Turkish lira, United States dollar|
Turkish-controlled areas of Syria consists of a 8,835-square-kilometre area which encompasses over 1000 settlements, including towns such as Afrin, al-Bab, Azaz, Jarabulus, Jindires, Rajo, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. The majority of these settlements had been captured from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), organisations designated terrorist by the Turkish government, although some towns, including Azaz, were under the control of the Syrian opposition before Turkish intervention. The Syrian Interim Government moved into the Turkish-controlled territories and began to extend partial authority there, including providing documents to Syrian citizens. These areas are referred to as "safe zones" (Turkish: Güvenli Bölge) by Turkish authorities.
2013–14 proposals for Safe Zone
Turkey and Syrian opposition proposed a safe zone that includes some regions of northern Syria in 2013, however United States and the other Western states were not willing to accept these plans. After the advancements of ISIL in Iraq, Turkey and United States negotiated 'safe zone', while USA accepted 'ISIL-free zone', US officials were reluctant to accept a no fly zone.
After the attacks of ISIL in Syria, tens of thousands non-Sunnis, Christians and Yazidis fled to Turkey. In the beginning of 2015, refugees began to cross Turkish-Greek border, escaping to European countries in massive numbers. The huge refugee flow resulted in reconsidering the creation of a safe zone for civilians in Syria. In February 2016, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel said, "In the current situation it would be helpful if there could be such an area where none of the parties are allowed to launch aerial attacks – that is to say, a kind of no-fly zone".
The creation of the safe zone failed in early 2016 due to disagreements between the United States and Turkish governments, primarily on which actor is to be eliminated first. While Turkey wanted the Syrian government to be overthrown as soon as possible, the US prioritised the war against ISIL. The US also feared that the Syrian Air Force would bomb the area, which would make the idea of a safe zone impracticable. The government rejected the safe zone for being a safe haven for both civilians and rebels.
The outline of the safe zone was another reason for the disagreement. According to Turkey, the safe zone should include a no fly zone, whereas the US rejected establishing a no-fly zone, which would bring a conflict with the Syrian government.
Turkey designates the Kurdish YPG to be a threat, due to its strong ties with the PKK. On the other hand, the US said that although they deem the PKK as a terrorist organisation, the YPG is a distinct actor, constituting one of the main allies of the US in its war against ISIL.
Another debate was about the name of the safe zone. While Turkey called the zone a 'safe zone from ISIS, the Syrian regime and YPG,' the US, however, declared that they will only accept an 'ISIS-free zone'.
On October 7th, 2019, the President of the United States ordered the withdrawal of US military troops stationed on the Syrian-Turkey border. This withdrawal of military support was ordered by the President with the disapproval of the Pentagon and the US Intelligence community. The US President ordered the withdrawal of military troops under the premise that Turkey would not invade the region being held by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); however Turkey attacked the SDF within 24 hours of US military withdrawal from the region.
The territory of the Turkish-controlled region is entirely located within the northern areas of the Aleppo Governorate, with the southern tip of the territory located 40 kilometres northeast of Aleppo. On 26 February 2018, the territory connected with the mostly rebel-held Idlib Governorate.
Turkish-backed forces captured an area of 2,225-square-kilometres during Operation Euphrates Shield. Areas captured during the operation included villages between Azaz and al-Rai, such as Kafr Kalbin; Kafrah; Sawran; Ihtaimlat; Dabiq; Turkman Bareh; Kafr Elward; Ghoz; Ghaytun; Akhtarin; Baruza; Tall Tanah; Kaljibrin; Qebbet al-Turkmen; Ghandoura; Arab Hassan Sabghir; Mahsenli; Qabasin and Halwanji.
Following Operation Olive Branch, Turkish-backed forces extended the region with the capture of the entire Afrin District. In addition to its administrative centre Afrin, the district includes settlements such as Bulbul, Maabatli, Rajo, Jindires, Sharran and Shaykh al-Hadid. According to the 2004 Syrian census, the district had a population of 172,095 before the war.
During the currently ongoing Operation Peace Spring, Turkish Armed Forces and their allies captured a total area of between 3,412 square kilometres (1,317 sq mi) and 4,220 square kilometres (1,630 sq mi), and 68 settlements, including Ras al-Ayn, Tell Abyad, Suluk, Mabrouka and Manajir and cut the M4 highway. Turkish-backed forces captured 3 villages in the Manbij countryside shortly after the launch of the operation.
There are further intentions by the Turkish government to include the areas captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces during their offensive west of the Euphrates into the safe zone, which includes settlements such as Manbij and Arima.
The Turkish-controlled region is ethnically diverse, inhabited predominately by Turkmens, Arabs, Kurds and Yazidis, with Circassian minorities near Azaz. More than 200,000 people fled from Afrin District during the Turkish intervention by March 2018.
Politics and administration
The occupation zone is formally governed by the Syrian Interim Government, an alternative government of the Syrian opposition based in Azaz. Despite this, the area is governed by a number of autonomous local councils which work closely with Turkey. In general, Turkey exerts a direct influence on the region's government, and Turkish civilian officials such as governors have been appointed to oversee the area. Accordingly, Turkey is in the process of forming a proto-state in northern Syria, and regional expert Joshua Landis has said that the country "is prepared to, in a sense, quasi-annex this region" to prevent it from being retaken by the Syrian government. Turkish Minister of the Interior Süleyman Soylu declared in January 2019 that northern Syria is "part of the Turkish homeland" per the Misak-ı Millî of 1920.
Since the establishment of the zone, the Turkish authorities have striven to restore civil society in the areas under their control and to also bind the region more closely to Turkey. As part of these efforts, towns and villages have been demilitarized by dismantling military checkpoints and moving the local militias to barracks and camps outside areas populated by civilians. Turkey also funds education and health services, supports the region's economy, and has trained a new police force. Some locals describe these developments as "Turkification" of the region. However, many locals have accepted or even welcomed this, as they said that the area is better off economically, politically, and socially under a Turkish protectorate. The White Helmets volunteers entered Afrin region after Turkey occupied the area.
Following the conquest of Afrin District, civilian councils were formed to govern and rebuild the area. A first temporary council was organised by the Turkish-backed Syrian Kurds Independent Association in March 2018 to oversee aid, education and media in the area. It was later replaced by an interim council that was established in Afrin city on 12 April. The latter council, appointed by city elders, included eleven Kurds, eight Arabs and one Turkmen. Zuheyr Haydar, a Kurdish representative who was appointed to serve as president of the council, stated that a more democratic election would take place if displaced citizens return. PYD officials have criticized the council and said it was working with an “occupying force”. On 19 April, a local council was established in Jindires. During Operation Peace Spring, local councils have been established in Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn.
After the Turkish-led forces had captured Afrin District (Afrin Canton) in early 2018, they began to implement a resettlement policy by moving their mostly Arab fighters and refugees from southern Syria into the empty homes that belonged to displaced locals. The previous owners, most of them Kurds or Yazidis, were often prevented from returning to Afrin. Though some Kurdish militias of the TFSA and the Turkish-backed civilian councils opposed these resettlement policies, most TFSA units fully supported them. Refugees from Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, said that they were part of "an organised demographic change" which was said to replace the Kurdish population of Afrin with an Arab majority.
On 30 May 2017, the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (or National Syrian Army) composed of Syrian Arab and Syrian Turkmen rebels operating in northern Syria was formed, mostly being a part of Operation Euphrates Shield or groups active in the area that are allied to the groups participating in the operation. The general aim of the group is to assist Turkey in creating a "safe zone" in Syria and to establish a National Army, which will operate in the land gained as a result of Turkish military intervention and answer to the Syrian Interim Government.
By August 2018, the TFSA was stated to be an "organized military bloc" that had largely overcome the chronic factionalism which had traditionally affected the Syrian rebels. Military colleges had been set up, and training as well as discipline had been improved. Though clashes and inter-unit violence still happened, they were no longer as serious as in the past. A military court had been established in al-Bab, a military police was organized to oversee discipline, and local civilian authorities were given more power over the militant groups. Nevertheless, most militias have attempted to maintain their autonomy to some degree, with the Interim Government having little actual control over them. To achieve the formation of a new national army without risking a mutiny, Turkey has applied soft pressure on the different groups while punishing only the most independent-minded and disloyal among them. The FSA units in the zone have accepted the Istanbul-based "Syrian Islamic Council" as religious authority. TFSA fighters are paid salaries by the Turkish government, though the falling value of Turkish lira began to cause resentment among the TFSA by mid-2018. One fighter said that "when the Turkish lira began to lose value against the Syrian pound our salaries became worthless".
By July 2018, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) have built "at least" six military bases in the zone, "raising concerns that [the TAF] may be settling in for a long-term presence in northern Syria".
Turkey has organized a new law enforcement authority in the zone in early 2017, the "Free Police" which is divided into the National Police and Public Security Forces. The Free Police includes both male as well as female officers. It is trained, equipped, and paid by Turkish authorities, and consequently loyal to the Turkish state.
The National Police, headed by Maj. Gen. Abdul Razzaq Aslan, is further divided into the Civil Police Force and the Special Forces. Most of the police members are trained in the Turkish National Police Academy. To maintain security in Afrin District, Turkey has also employed former members of the Free East Ghouta Police who had relocated to northern Syria after the end of the Siege of Eastern Ghouta.
By July 2018, Turkey was playing an "increasingly prominent—and contentious—role in the region's local economy." It invested heavily in the zone, providing work opportunities and helping to rebuild the economy. Turkish-led development projects restored infrastructure such as dams, electricity and roads. Turkish private companies, such as PTT, Türk Telekom, the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen Association, and ET Energy launched projects in the area, as did a number of Syrian firms and businessmen. One problematic result of Turkey's economic influence was that the country's currency and debt crisis has also affected the zone, as Turkey pays salaries and services with Turkish lira whose value greatly dropped in course of 2018, harming the local economy.
As result of the Turkish-led invasion, Afrin's tourism sector which had survived the civil war up to that point, collapsed. After open combat between the SDF and pro-Turkish forces had mostly concluded, Turkey attempted to restablize the region and to revive the local tourism. It removed the tight control over visitors and passers that had previously existed under the PYD-led administration, and the new local councils and the Free Police attempted to provide stability and incentives for tourists to return. By July 2018, these measures began to have an effect, with some visitors coming to Afrin's popular recreational areas, such as Maydanki Lake.
Turkey has taken "full control over the educational process" in the zone, and funds all education services. Several schools have been restored or newly built, with their curricula partially adjusted to education in Turkey: Though the curricula of the Syrian Ministry of Education still provide the basis, certain parts have been modified to fit the Turkish point of view in regard to history, for example replacing "Ottoman occupation" with "Ottoman rule". Turkish is taught as foreign language since first class and those who attend schools in the occupation zones can subsequently attend universities in Turkey.
Reactions within Syria
Democratic Federation of Northern Syria – The Shahba region civilian council condemned the occupation of Jarabulus as a Turkish attempt to expand into Syria, likening it to the Battle of Marj Dabiq and suggesting that Jarabulus would become a "grave for the criminal occupier Erdoğan and his mercenaries". Kurdish National Council – The ENKS has called for the expulsion of Turkish forces from Afrin. ENKS voiced its support for the establishment of an ethnically-diverse local council in Afrin.
- Democratic Conservative Party – The Democratic Conservative Party condemned the occupation, stating that Turkey was attempting to annex Afrin.
Azerbaijan – Qənirə Paşayeva, member of parliament, said on 3 September that Turkey would have an obligation to protect the civilians in northern Syria from terror groups and would have the right to protect itself from the attacks originating from Syria with the intervention. Cyprus – The Cyprus House of Representatives on 9 September unanimously adopted a resolution condemning "the unacceptable invasion of Turkey into Syria, under the pretext of war against terrorism." It also called on the international community to demand Turkey's withdrawal from Syria. Iran – Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi on 31 August urged Ankara to quickly wrap up its military intervention in Syria, saying it was an "unacceptable" violation of Syrian sovereignty. France – Macron assured the SDF of France's support for the stabilization of the security zone in the north-east of Syria, within the framework of an inclusive and balanced governance, to prevent any resurgence of Islamic State. Turkey – Turkey has started preparations to clear northern Syria's Ayn al-Arab, Ras al-Ain, Tell Abyad and Al-Hasakah regions from militants up to the Iraqi border, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday March 30, 2018, adding that it would also clear militants from Iraq.
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