by Arinze Chijioke
by Arinze Chijioke
Syrian Non-State Actors and the Turkish National Security
In today’s world, non-state actors, which do not fall into the formal agenda of global politics and international relations, create not only regional effects but also significant impacts on a global scale. These actors threaten national security and drag states into difficult situations in economic, social, political, and cultural fields. Non-state actors, the number of which have increased since the 1980s, began to differ by dividing into various subtypes such as terrorists, warlords, or rebeldom especially after the end of the Cold War. They are not only increased in numbers but have also experienced a qualitatively significant transformation. These actors, which were only organized locally, have become stronger in the post-1990s with the increase in the impacts of globalization. In fact, as we have seen in some cases, these actors receive aid such as ammunition, heavy weapons, and financial support from other states and can receive support in the international arena as well.
Regardless of their ideology, these actors are structured to ignore the sovereignty and authority of states. They strive to create their own sovereignty and legitimacy. Therefore, this situation puts the national security monopolized by states in danger. Since the emergence of non-state actors, policies, and tools to ensure national security have also evolved. These policies are sometimes resolved through diplomacy with the participation of other actors.
The Arab Spring has negatively affected regional security in the Middle East and North Africa. It also tragically led to the rise of non-state armed actors throughout the region. This status has brought a significant change in the national security strategies and understandings of the states in the international system. As a part of the greater Middle East, Turkey has also experienced a sharp change in its national security strategy due to non-state actors that emerged as the aftermath of the Syrian crisis. Although Turkey has a history of confronting non-state actors such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for many years, this struggle has become more complicated in the Syrian case. Facing the impacts of the civil war in Syria deeply and intensely, Turkey struggles with these groups while trying to establish its security by cooperating with opposition actors in order to ensure its national security.
As time passes, Turkey, which could not avoid being a party to the conflict, is among the countries most affected by the civil war in Syria due to its border with Syria. Dealing with non-state actors such as People’s Protection Units (YPG)/Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Nusra Front played an important role in shaping Turkey’s strategies in the region. The extension of conflicts to the Turkish borders, the rise of terrorist activities, Syria’s uncertain territorial integrity, and the autonomous and offensive attitudes of ISIS and YPG -both listed as terrorist organizations in Turkey- had to push Ankara to intervene in time.
However, the diversity of the actors in the region and the direct/indirect affiliations of these non-state actors with other regional states have opened a new chapter for proxy wars in the region. While non-state actors fight each other in the field, the political clashes among their supporting neighbouring countries have turned the Syrian geography into a chessboard. In this context, in 2014 ISIS declared its caliphate from Raqqa to Mosul, forcing the United States to take the side of the YPG, a local actor in the field identified as a terrorist organization by Turkey. In addition to the U.S., countries including Russia, Iran, and Arab states took sides of their own proxy non-state actors in Syria. This made the situation even more complicated for Turkey.
In the early stages of the Syrian crisis, the Free Syrian Army became the main ally of the U.S., the Western powers, and Turkey to fight radical jihadi organizations including ISIS. However, due to its internal disputes, FSA could not achieve the expected objectives, and the support given to it was cut after a while. The failure of FSA forced the U.S. to turn to other Syrian groups namely the PYD/YPG. The decision was not welcomed by Ankara as the group was already on Turkey’s list of terrorist organizations. This eventually further increased the political disputes between Ankara and Washington.
In the early stages of the crisis in Syria in 2011, Ankara made efforts to encourage the government of President Bashar al-Assad to reform and to stop the violence against peaceful protests. However, the traditional influence of Iran in Syria convinced Damascus of Tehran’s full military support to take a harder stance against the protests. This in turn pushed Turkey to re-examine its policies and to turn to Syrian groups to fulfill its security and strategic objectives. As groups such as ISIS and PYD/YPG were approaching its southern borders, Turkey adopted a more offensive attitude by designing new strategies to protect its national security. By carrying out the cross-border military operation of the Euphrates Shield in 2016, Ankara warned Syrian groups and their supporting states that it would not tolerate any military activities along its southern borders and Ankara used direct military intervention to secure its borders. Turkey’s military interventions were not limited to only Operation Euphrates Shield. Operation Olive Branch (2018), Operation Peace Spring (2019), and Operation Spring Shield (2020) were also carried out by Turkish armed forces.
While performing military operations, Turkey started to establish close relations with the Free Syrian Army -an important opposition group in Syria. In fact, Turkey’s relations with the Syrian opposition forces date back to the first years of the crisis. On March 26, 2012, Turkey closed down its embassy in Damascus, and on April 1 it hosted the second meeting of the “Friends of Syria,” the coalition of Arab and Western countries set up to provide some support for the Syrian opposition to ease Assad out of power.
In addition to supporting the political wings of the opposition forces, military commanders from all over Syria were gathered in the Turkish resort of Antalya in December 2012 to establish the Supreme Military Council. The participants agreed to come under a united command in a bid to integrate diverse fighting groups and streamline the route for arms essential to their struggle against Assad.
Despite these developments, the turning point in cooperation between Turkey and Syrian groups was Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016. The operation was executed by the Turkish armed forces and Free Syrian Army components. The FSA constituents were formed by Ahrar al-Sham, the Sultan Murad Division, Jays al-Tahrir, Al-Mutasim Brigade, the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement, the Salahaddin Brigade, and the Hamza Division. A total of about 7,000 FSA soldiers directly participated in the operation. This marked the first direct military collaboration between Turkey and the Syrian armed groups.
Turkey constantly faces security challenges from its southern neighbours. By collaborating with the FSA, Ankara hopes to control the mass migration of the Syrians into its soil, to prevent the re-establishment of the ISIS caliphate along its borders, and to destroy the buffer zone intended to be established by PYD/YPG in the southern borders of Turkey. Ankara aims on utilizing FSA forces in a collaborative manner with the Turkish armed forces units during and after operations to keep its borders safe and to maintain its field influence in Syria. This partnership in the field has also enabled the FSA to recover, become more organized, and improve its fighting abilities in the field.
In addition to its field presence, Turkey also continues to make diplomatic contacts in the international arena with the involving actors including Russia, Iran, and the United States to end the war in Syria and to ensure border security.
İbrahim Hamza Meşe holds a degree in Political Science from Üsküdar University, Istanbul. His main areas of research and expertise include Turkish foreign policy, terrorism, regional and international migration, security, regional and international conflict, Turkish political life, global politics and economy. Directing his career goals to areas such as security studies and migration, Meşe continues to working on aforementioned topics.
Hamoon Khelghat Doost
Dr. Hamoon Khelghat Doost is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Üsküdar University. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the National University of Singapore (NUS). His main fields of interest include gender, media, forced migration, political violence, international security, terrorism, and sustainable development with a special focus on the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia. He is the author of 'The Strategic Logic of Women in Jihadi Organizations: From Operation to State Building'. Khelghat-Doost is also a Next Generation Leader on Gender, Peace, and Security (GPS) at Women In International Security (WIIS), Washington D.C., as well as a member of the Board of Academia at the Academy of Security, Intelligence and Risk Studies in Singapore.