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ALEPPO – Turkish officials announced in late July that they were planning to establish, with help from the United States, an IS-free safe zone in northern Syria. Increasing evidence suggests that once undertaken, the operation would eventually end up as something similar to the 1974 Turkish Invasion of Cyprus.
In 1974, after a coup d’état with the aim of annexation of Cyprus to Greece was carried out, Turkish army invaded Cyprus with the aim of protecting Turkish Cypriots and guaranteeing the independence of Cyprus. Turkey occupied about 40% of the island of Cyprus at the end of the invasion. The coup was reversed and democracy restored. Turkey, on the other hand, did not reverse the occupation. In 1983, eventually, the occupied north declared independence from Cyprus. Turkey remains the only country in the world recognizing the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Turkey has a reputation for annexation and making puppet states. Northern Cyprus, Hatay province, and now, it seems, Aleppo governorate, in which the safe zone is due to be created. This dark side of Turkey has its reasons rooted in the outcome of World War I.
During the first World War, the Turkish Ottoman Empire sided with the losing countries; and, as a consequence, lost most of its lands. The Republic of Turkey, which consisted of whatever lands was left to the Empire, never got over the lands the Ottomans lost after the first World War. Aleppo happens to be one such land.
Aleppo is host to the largest Turkmen enclave in Syria, and yet, there aren’t many Turkmen in Aleppo. This is because there are hardly any Turkmen in Syria. Independent estimates put the number of Turkmen in Syria at 100,000. That’s less than half a percent of Syria’s overall population before the Civil War. This is in line with the U.S. Library of Congress estimate that 90 percent of Syrian are Arabs and 9 percent are Kurds, leaving one percent for Armenians, Assyrians, and Turkmen. But Turkey seems to be preparing Turkmen, who are ethnic cousins to Turks from Turkey, to take control of the safe zone once it has been established.
Turkey has long used the Turkmen card in Syria to justify its policies regarding the Syrian Civil War. In one incident, for example, a video went viral showing truckloads of arms being transferred by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization into Syria. The opposition parties alleged the arms are being delivered to the Islamic State. Turkish Prime Minister, however, claimed they were meant for the Turkmen in Syria. Turkey, as evidence suggests, is about to use that card once more.
Syrian Turkmen National Bloc, a party that was established in Istanbul with help from Turkey in 2012, has recently announced that they are recruiting policemen for the safe zone. The selected personnel, who are only accepted if they are Turkmen, will be trained inside of Turkey for two months. This begs the question: Is the safe zone going to be administrated solely by Turkmen?
There is more evidence suggesting that Turkey has been preparing for an autonomous zone under its direct influence to be formed in Aleppo governorate. In recent months there has been heated debate about switching Syrian Pound with Turkish Lira by the people of Aleppo. Some activists claim the Turkish ruling party is covertly trying to push the move.
To add to all this, The Syrian Turkmen National Bloc has announced the number of Turkmen in Syria to be 3.5 million, about 3.4 million more than estimates by unbiased sources. The claims by Turkish nationalist outlets about “West Turkmenistan” is also worrisome for Syrians. All in all, it’s safe to say, there is cause for concern.
There has been much debate over Turkey’s motives for the establishment of the safe zone, chief among which, the prevention of Rojavan cantons of Afrin and Kobani to be connected through land. There is no way to be certain about why Turkey is so intent on going forward with this plan. Maybe it is genuinely aimed at the protection of Syrian civilians and refugees as Turkey claims. Maybe it is to curb the growing power and influence of the Kurds in Syria. But it is also possible, as this article has argued, that the safe zone is just a prelude to a Turkmen autonomous area adjacent to the Turkish border. What Turkey’s motives actually are, only time will tell.