GeoInsight: Understanding Turkish occupation in northern Syria and Cyprus

In this GeoInsight, we set out to examine how Turkish military occupations and expansions have complemented Turkish grand strategy through a comparative lens in understanding the ongoing role of Turkish military presence in Syria and Cyprus.

turkish occupation forces
In green: The spread of Turkish occupation forces in Cyprus and Syria

Following the 1974 military invasion and subsequent occupation of the northern part of Cyprus, Turkish foreign policy objectives seemed to be clear: the state and the military sought to increase their sphere of influence in the Mediterranean. Fast forward to 2016, Turkey militarily intervened and occupied areas in Northern Syria. The rules of the game have not substantially changed for Turkey, though the way the state and its apparatus have evolved is noteworthy.

Turkish foreign policy (FP) and grand strategy objectives have undergone phenomenal transformation since the turn of the 21st century. Such transformations were funneled through three pillars: (a) the Justice and Development Party or AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi); (b) exploiting the geopolitical conditions in the region (e.g.  the rise of new actors such as the Islamic State); and (c) individual ambitions to drive the state (namely President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s actions). These prerequisites set forth the simultaneous use of the available structures to the Turkish state (i.e. the military capability, the state resources and finance, and security concerns) and the use of agency (individual charisma, ideology and the ability to drive policy at leadership level). As one author puts it, “Turkey’s foreign policy is affected by both external geopolitical imperatives and domestic politics”[1].

Turkish Politics: An Arena of Contestation

The Republic of Turkey has suffered from a series of military coups. These were typically shaped by the domestic situation within the country, following clashes between and within political parties, street violence, economic events, or even ‘soft’ pressure that prompted the government to resign in 1997. This section provides a short overview of why these incidents are important and how they contributed to the rise of Erdoğan and the AKP.

Following the 1960 putsch that unseated the government and purged thousands of military officers, Turkey was working on boosting its economic strength. Under the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) in 1964, Turkey sought to promote healthy socio-economic development in a tripartite agreement with Iran and Pakistan. The failures of the RCD and the recession that followed led to coups in 1971 and 1980, before the three countries set up the more successful Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) in 1985.

In the 1990s, Turkey threatened to go to war with neighbouring Greece, Syria, and Armenia. At the turn of the 21st century, however, and following the 1997 governmental dissolution, Turkey originally sought a détente with its neighbours. For that, it required stronger central leadership. The rise of the AKP in the early 2000s is a product of forced secularisation throughout Turkey, which took place throughout contemporary Turkish history. As reflected in the ousting of governments between 1960 and 1997, stronger central leadership has been supported by the military, who have traditionally pushed for a Kemalist identity in the country.

Erdoğan’s rise also coincides with the remnants of the 2001 slump, whereby citizens felt the need to opt for more stable, single-party governance instead of coalitions, in order to secure a better economic future. This is again shown in how voters decided to vote decisively in the 2017 referendum scrapping the Prime Ministerial post and giving more powers to the presidency. Same goes for the 2018 elections, where Erdoğan got re-elected as president.

The core elements of the AKP, on the other hand, focus on traditional Ottoman Islamic values. Despite the secular identity of the army, the ambitions for a stronger presence in the Middle East are reminiscent of Ottoman conquest[2]. Modernising Turkish FP was a leading objective, pioneered by key players such as former Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Ahmet Davutoğlu and President Erdoğan.

Turkish Occupation of Northern Syria

Turkish “Operation Olive Branch” unravelling in January-March 2018. Image licenced by Wikimedia Commons.

Turkish involvement in the Syrian conflict predates the occupation. Relations withered down in 2011, following the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ events, and exacerbated further with the killings of civilians by the Syrian Armed Forces. Following UN condemnation and NATO-led attacks, Turkey eventually joined the proxies generated during the civil war in 2014, by passing a motion to send troops into Syria.

Factions in Syria (ca 2016-2017). In blue: Turkish Army; In black: Islamic State/ISIL Forces; In red: Syrian Government; In Yellow: SDF/YPG (Kurdish); In Green: Anti-Government opposition forces (collective).

The first Turkish troops moving in to occupy North Syria were part of “Operation Euphrates Shield”. The Euphrates river has been used by the Turkish military throughout its operations in Syria, and is still considered a vital strategic point against Kurdish forces. At this point, the Islamic State still retained a strong presence in Syria, occupying large chunks of land throughout the country, whilst setting up its own administrative zones in areas near Aleppo, such as Maskanah and Raqqa. One of the triggers pushing for direct confrontation between ISIL and Turkish combatants was the 2016 Istanbul bombing. This led Turkey launching attacks against ISIL in Syria and Iraq.

Originally concentrated in towns like Afrin, al-Bab and Sheikh al-Hadid, the Turkish occupation forces were primarily concerned with fighting off the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and Women’s Defence Units (YPG/YPJ), who have been labelled by the Turkish Foreign Ministry as terrorist entities that have been “set up under the control of PKK” (the Kurdistan  Workers’ Party; Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê).

turkish forces now
Factions in Syria (present). In blue: Turkish Army; In light green: Anti-government opposition and Turkish-backed jihadists; In yellow: SDF/YPG; In orange: Syrian Arab Army and SDF; In red: Syrian Government.

Operation Olive Branch in January-March 2018 transformed the occupation by expanding westwards. Present-day Syria reflects this transformation. We can thus observe how the Operation has affected other factions too. Although ISIL has been kept at bay, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has found an opportunity to grow in light of this power vacuum. The more central and darker green areas on the map represent areas like Idlib that will be under the direct control of HTS, following a ceasefire agreement signed with rival factions on 10th January 2019.

The Cyprus Conflict: 60 years and counting


The embedded socio-political division within the Cypriot communities predates the Turkish invasion. With over 60 years in dispute, the conflict itself manifested during the 1963 and 1967 intercommunal clashes, following the declaration of independence and the birth of the Republic of Cyprus.

The 1974 coup and subsequent invasion gave Turkey a stronghold in Cyprus. Turkey’s official stance is that Cyprus is “an extension of the Anatolian peninsula”, with additional claims that a Cypriot nation never really existed, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of the Republic of Turkey. The language here is strong and provocative: on the one hand, Turkey deliberately downgrades the legitimate status of the Republic of Cyprus. On the other hand, it attempts to justify its presence on the island, since it is supposedly part of the Anatolian peninsula in the Middle East. The MFA has also deliberately mentioned all successive rulers and civilisations passing through the island, whilst neglecting the Greek influences.

The perils of a formal annexation of the northern part of Cyprus was still a discussion item, as claimed by Turkey’s former Deputy Prime Minister Recep Akdağ. The discovery of hydrocarbons in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) has also prompted Turkey to conduct its own research, constantly violating the Republic of Cyprus’ EEZ. This showcases of how little significance the self-proclaimed and illegitimate “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC) self-rule really is to Turkey, while also undermining the Republic of Cyprus itself is clearly part of Turkish FP.

The above also highlight Turkish ambitions for a prolonged stay in the island. Specifically, conflicting reports have arisen regarding the future of the Turkish Armed Forces in Cyprus. On the one hand, Cypriot media have reported that Turkey plans to set up a sovereign base in the northern part of the island. Turkish Hürriyet Daily, on the other hand, published a piece saying that as of September 2018, President Erdoğan rejected claims pertaining to setting up a base, but Turkey does intend to increase its military presence in Cyprus.

Understanding Current Affairs

This brief comparison between Cyprus and Syria showcases the general attitude of Turkish foreign policy. Firstly, it establishes the concentration of power in leadership, which has enabled the AKP and Erdoğan to coercively and effectively push for military conquest and preservation of Turkish influence in the region. This is reflected in the strategy played out in Cyprus, but also in Syria. Secondly, the unravelling geopolitical situation, inclusive of the Syrian conflict and the hydrocarbon discovery in Cyprus add to the growing persistence of Turkey’s attempt to further militarise the occupied areas.

Finally, the structure in place within the Turkish political realm has helped the state justify its actions to the international community. As of now, demilitarisation in the occupied zones seems unlikely, especially because of the ongoing plans for further militarisation in Cyprus, as well as the ongoing Syrian civil war. Turkish interests, the state’s grand strategy and expansionist agenda all seem clear and consistent, even with the transformations taken place in the early 2000s.


[1] Tziarras, Zenonas (2018) “Turkish Foreign Policy and Security in Cyprus: Greek-Cypriot Security Perception”, PRIO Cyprus Centre Report, 6. Nicosia: PRIO Cyprus Centre, p.5.

[2] Aras, Bülent (2018) State Capacity, Foreign/Security Policy and Political Crisis in Turkey: The Promise of Administrative Reform. Istanbul: Istanbul Policy Centre, p. 5.

By Petros Petrikkos

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