Turkey and its Borders: Darkness at Noon

Faithful to its policy of “zero problems”, Turkey is set on becoming a regional power capable of capturing markets close at hand—as in Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet Ankara is still waging a low-intensity war against the Syrian Kurds and the PKK, justified by a nostalgic vision of a mythicised past.

October 11, 2019. — Checkpoint abandoned by the FDS at Ras El-Ain bombed by Turkish forces
A. Lourie/VOA

Turkey has won the day in Northern Syria. Through separate deals with the United States and Russia it has obtained a protective “belt”130 kilometres long and 30 deep between the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras El-Ain. For the Turkish government, it was imperative to keep the Kurds away from its border.

And yet the reasons which prompted the various Turkish interventions in Syria are more complex than the battle against the Syrian Kurds. To understand them, we must rehearse Turkey’s trans-border policies and its attitude on the Kurdish question, but also the history of its borders.

The border debate at the fall of the Empire

Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks won their war of independence (1919-1919) against Greece and obliged the Allies—French, British and Italian—to withdraw, thus preventing the implementation of the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), which had provided for the creation of a greater Armenia and a Kurdistan to the East, as well as the extension of Greece to the West, decisions which would have reduced Turkish territory in proportion. As for the country’s Southern border, it had been defined by the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) which had divided up the Near and Middle East between France and Britain.

In 1923, following its victories on the field of battle, the Turkish nationalist government headed by Mustafa Kemal signed the Treaty of Lausanne which laid down the borders of a new Turkey and organised population displacements in order to constitute ethnically homogeneous territories. Yet it was not until the Anglo-Iraqi-Turkish Treaty of 1926 that Turkey recognized Iraq and gave up its claims over the Mosul vilayet (an administrative subdivision of the Ottoman Empire). The treaty’s Article 10 provided for a “zone 75 km wide on either side of the border in which the two States must abstain from any hostile acts aimed at its neighbour.” Turkey has used this treaty as grounds for several military incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan, especially in the area controlled by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (PDK) where the Turkish army behaved like a force of occupation.

Turkish authorities also declared that in the event that Iraq were broken up, it would consider the Treaty nul and void.

By virtue of this principle, in 1990, when Iraq invaded Koweit, Ankara is said to have seriously considered annexing the region of Mosul and Kirkuk. A few years later, going one up on the dominant nationalist credo, President Süleyman Demirel spoke of his wish to see “our border follow the foot-line of the mountains” which would in fact have made Mosul part of Turkey.

In 2004, taking advantage of the US army’s invasion of Iraq, Ankara laid claim to the Mosul vilayet. It failed to get it, but three years later it did manage to obtain the right to carry out military operations in northern Iraq.

Upsetting the status quo ante

Turkish borders were not definitely settled until 1939 when France gave up the Alexandrette sandjak (an administrative division) which was part of Syria, under French Protectorate at the time. For many years, Turkey sought to retain a non-interventionist policy—with the notable exception of its military intervention on Cyprus in 1974. This martial restraint was due in part to the status quo imposed by the Cold War. Indeed, as a member of NATO, Turkey could no longer intervene in neighbouring Syria or Iraq, both allies of the Soviet Union, nor in Armenia which was now a Soviet Republic.

The first Gulf war put paid to this position. The scholar Yohanan Benhaim sees “a certain continuity between the 2018 Operation Euphrates Shield and Ankara’s policies towards the region since the 1990 Gulf war (...). Indeed the first US invasion of Iraq represented a decisive step which overcame the ideological and diplomatic obstacle constituted by the tradition of non-interference.”1.That was when security criteria started to determine Ankara’s foreign policy and caused it to jettison the logic of non-intervention in Syria and Northern Iraq. However, Turkish interventions in Syria and Iraq are mainly dictated by a recurrent domestic problem: the “Kurdish question”.

The Turkish State regards the Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK) as its chief ennemy, as its chief ennemy, views it, in the words of Hamit Bozarslan, as an “organic threat”.

Early in the nineties, convinced as it was that the PKK’s guerilla activities constituted the “twenty-ninth Kurdish revolt” in their country, the military staff officially adoped a strategy of “low-intensity warfare”. This army doctrine, approved by the government, consisted in refusing to treat the Kurdish question as a political issue or even a cultural one, but as a matter of “separatist terrorism”. Nor was this definition restricted to the PKK; every expression of Kurdishness was identified as the “chief strategic threat” against Turkey.2.

Strategic approach to the “zero problems” policy

Quite in line with its security obsession, Turkey deployed troops on the Syrian border in 1998, bringing pressure to bear on Damascus which had been sheltering the PKK for many years. Hafez Al-Assad was duly intimidated and expelled the PKK and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan. In his desperate search for a country where he could find refuge, he was captured in Kenya by the Millî Istihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT), the Turkish secret service—aided and abetted by he CIA and the Israeli Mossad. This Turkish policy of putting pressure on the “near abroad” was soon to coexist with the new vision adopted by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), that of “zero problem with its neighbours.”

In this spirit, Turkey resumed talks with the Russians and Iranians but also with Iraq and Syria. The major mutations which these two countries have undergone, with the two Iraqi wars, the fall of Saddam Hussein and Bachar Al-Assad’s rise to power in Syria, favoured these rapprochements.

Relations were to improve even further when the AKP came to power in 2002 with the practical implementation of the “zero problem” doctrine by Ahmet Davutoğlu. An academic and a statesman, this conservative nationalist was both Prime Minister and chairman of the AKP from August 2014 to May 2016. In his view, Turkey had to abandon the policy of alignment with the West adopted during the Cold War. He wanted to initiate a new policy, better suited to his country’s regional environment.

Henceforth, Turkey had to reconfigure its geographical position in broader terms, no longer in terms of the two blocks but with regard to its eleven neighbours (eight of them adjacent, three others with common shorelines on the Black Sea and Cyprus). It had also to position itself with respect to the maritime basins, Black Sea, Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, but also, indirectly, the Caspian Sea since Turkey now provided an outlet for its energy production. In fact the country has a direct relationship with three continents, Asia, Europe but also Africa, via the intermediary spaces of both the Arab peninsula and the Caucasus.3.

It was on this basis that two conceptions were to emerge. The first stems from a national security vision largely shared by the nationalist parties and by an army having to cope with the PKK. The second is that of the AKP, tending to favour integration and refering to a common destiny shared by Turkey with the other regional players. It perceives the “near abroad” as potential markets for the Turkish economy and its territories as areas where Turkey has interests at stake. This vision of exterior zones where Turkey should be playing a major role is justified by their having once belonged to the Ottoman Empire and by the presence of Turkish-speaking populations.

Nostalgia for Ottoman imperialism

It is important to realise that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s instrumental use of the past is merely the pursuance of a tradition of Turkish or Ottoman imperialism which has never disappeared. During the first Gulf War (1990), if memories of the lost Mosul vilayet resurfaced, it was with reference to the National Oath (or National Pact) voted in 1920 by the last Ottoman parliament. This was a text which set forth the territorial and national claims of the Turkish people. In it, the Ottoman MPs accepted the dismantling of the Empire but refused to give up Armenia and Mesopotamia (i.e., modern-day Iraq).

Consequently it was not until 1926 that Turkey recognised Iraq—but it was not until 1991 that it again expressed openly its claims over Iraq. According to historian Edhem Eldem, the invocation and manipulation of the past has implications which go beyond political strategy, for Turkey has always been “cliomanic”,4 obsessed with the idea of ascribing to history the source of an ideological and political mission aimed at formatting the nation.

The AKP’s rise to power and the resumption of the conflict with the PKK in 2015 was to accentuate this irrational approach to a mythicised past. On the occasion of a public homage to the memory of Atatürk in 2018, President Erdoğan gave a speech which provides an excellent example of this:

“Be aware that Turkey is larger than Turkey. We cannot remain cloistered in our 780,000 km2. because our physical borders are one thing but the borders of our heart (gönül sinimiz) are quite another. Our brothers in Mosul, Kirkuk, Hasakah, Aleppo, Homs, Misrata, Skopje, Crimea, and the Caucasus may be outside our physical borders but they are all inside the borders of our heart.”

In this speech, his references to Turkish-speaking minorities are meant to emphasise their ethnic and historical proximity with the Turks. Ankara was trying to make instrumental use of them in order to increase its influence in Iraq and especially at Kirkuk.

However, in the absence of any significant results, Turkey has opted for a different strategy. Having attempted in vain to assert its influence on the other side of the border, Ankara turned to the autonomous government of Iraqi Kurdistan.

New markets for public works companies

After 2008, Turkey established a partnership with the Kurdish entity and particularly with Massoud Barzani’s PDK. The main objective was to neutralise the rearguard bases of the PKK guerilla on Iraqi territory, in the Qandil mountains, at the heart of an especially inaccessible region of the Zagros range. For the PDK, this rapprochement with Turkey was a way of loosening the grip of the federal government in Bagdad. It also enabled it to gather strength against its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), backed by Iran.

The “zero problem” doctrine advocated by the AKP was going to enable it to add an economic dimension to this security partnership.

The removal of ideological barriers and the economic recession in Europe, together with the US financial crisis, has prompted Turkish businessmen to invest in the building and public works sector in Iraqi Kurdistan, which also offers a salutary commercial outlet for their exports .

This has reinvigorated cross-border commerce. Customs revenues provide significant resources for the Kurdistan Regional Government (RGK) which controls the Iraqi-Turk frontier. Today there are thought to be some 40,000 Turks in Iraqi Kurdistan. As time goes by, economic ties are developing and Iraq has become Turkey’s second-largest commercial partner with exchanges amounting to 12 billion dollars (9.1 billion pounds) per annum - 70% of which comes from trade with the RGK. The construction in 2013 of a pipeline between Kirkuk and the Turkish port of Ceyhan has further enhanced the strategic nature of the partnership between Ankara and Erbil, capital of the RGK.

At the same time, Iran has been developing its links with the Iraqi central government. The bilateral relations between Erbil and Ankara, on the one hand, and Tehran and Baghdad on the other, have been strengthened to counter the growing clout of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the acceleration of Kurdish territorial expansion.

On 4 August 2014, in a surprise move, ISIS launched a major offensive against Iraqi Kurdistan. The People’s Defence Forces (the armed wing of the PKK) were the first to fight the jihadis and to evacuate the civilian population of Makhmur and the Sinjar District. The military forces of the RGK, the Peshmergas, withdrew to a line between Erbil and Kirkuk, abandoning the Yezidis to their fate. The PKK was able to take advantage of this situation. The Peshmerga withdrawal allowed them to extend their zone of influence. In 2013, the Turkish government had begun negotiations with the PKK with an eye to finding a political solution to he Kurdish question in Turkey, nurturing the hypothesis of peaceful relations such as those established with Iraqi Kurdistan. At first this strategy seemed to be working. The head of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) was invited twice to Turkey and his party was about to open an office in Ankara. But the negotiations failed.

In Syria, the Kurds and the Turkish-backed opposition also failed to reach an understanding. On the military front, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) tackled the Jihadis of the Al-Nosra Front (al-Qaida in Syria), also backed by Turkey. Moreover, the relations between Syrian and Iraqi Kurds were not good. Barzani was moving closer to Erdoğan. And while in Iraq, Turkey was allying itself with the PDK, in Syria it was backing elements of the jihadi movement which it deemed capable of preventing the ongoing move towards autonomy by the Syrian Kurds, fearing since the start of the crisis that Damascus would use them against its interests. Besides which it considered that the autonomous entity would simply be an off-shoot of the PKK.

Its partnership with the PDK would allow Ankara to control the other side of the border with Iraq and also to counter politically the PKK in Turkey. In 2015, strengthened by the Kurdish victory at Kobanî and by the West’s support of the YPG/YPJ, the PKK thought it could win a military victory in Turkey itself violent combats broke out in major urban centres of Bakûr, the Turkish Kurdistan. This was the urban warfare phase but it proved disastrous for the PKK, unable to overcome the army.

A two-fold strategy

Ankara’s strategy on the Kurdish issue is two-fold. On the one hand, it has concluded an alliance with Barzani’s PDK and on the other it is at war with the PKK. Thus the Turkish State is trying to promote Masud Barzani as a Kurdish political figure of regional stature. So it is not by chance that various political movements claiming to follow in his footsteps have received a new lease on life in Turkey.

Originally, in order to combat the Kurds in Syria, Turkey backed the local jihadi forces and took a stand with regard to ISIS which was more than accommodating. Then, in order to counter the PYD, it took military action, three times in succession. The first time was in 2016 with the operation dubbed “Euphrates Shield”, blocking the advance of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which hoped to reach Afrin on the other bank of the river. The second time was in 2018 with operation “Olive Branch” when they seized the province of Afrin. And the third time was this year, with the operation euphemistically dubbed “Source of Peace” which struck a severe blow to the Kurdish project of a self-governing society at Rojava.

Having lost the backing of the US, the SDF had no choice but to appeal to the Syrian regime. This rapprochement endangers the plans for an autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, since Damascus is keen on restoring a strong centralised power structure. At the same time, Ankara has stepped up its bombings in Northern Iraq, hoping to bring about the fall of the PKK’s Qandil stronghold.

1Yohanan Benhaim, La ligne Alep-Mossoul, nouvel étranger proche de la Turquie, Mouvements n° 90, 2017.

2Hamit Bozarslan, Histoire de la Turquie contemporaine, La Découverte, Paris, 2010.

4EDITOR’S NOTE: The obsession with history: Clio, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne (goddess of memory) is the Muse of History.