What do new Turkish university campuses have to do with Trump’s Syria decision?

7 October 2019, 1344 EDT

So by this point we all know the big news on Syria. Overnight, Trump announced that–after consulting with Turkish President Erdogan–the US would be pulling troops out of north Syria, giving Turkey freedom to operate. This would likely involve military actions against Kurdish forces there, which Turkey fears are coordinating with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. This is concerning for two reasons. First, the United States had worked with these Kurdish forces to fight ISIS, so we’re basically abandoning them. Second, this will basically leave ISIS detention camps unguarded, possibly letting this terrorist organization regroup.

A lot has been said on Twitter and elsewhere. This will hurt US credibility. We shouldn’t have open-ended commitments in the Middle East, but this isn’t the way to stop them. This is no way to treat our allies. I encourage you to read others’ takes, and I’m not going to pretend these insights are original to me (but you could read my thread if you want).

But I did start thinking about what Turkey is hoping to accomplish. They’re framing this as a security issue; they want to uproot forces supporting insurgents in their territory. That is understandable, even if we don’t like abandoning Syria’s Kurds. But there are indications this is part of a broader push to increase Turkey’s regional influence.

The announcement reminded me of a news story I read last week, which went unnoticed as I was on a research trip in DC, doing interviews for my new book (blog post forthcoming). Turkey’s Gaziantep University will be opening new schools in northern Syria: an Islamic studies program, an education program, and an “economics and administrative” program. This follows a vocational program that has already been opened due to “increasing demand.”

Sounds pretty boring, but I found a parallel story in Daily Sabah, a pro-government paper. Its coverage was a bit more interesting:

As Turkey continues its reconstruction efforts in the liberated areas of northern Syria, it is using education as one of the main pillars to bring life back to the region that has suffered from the civil-war for years…Ankara has initiated numerous projects with its own resources and sometimes in cooperation with international organizations for refugees that took shelter in Turkey, while it also spearheads for opportunities to give Syrians a chance of education in their home country.

Daily Sabah

The new schools are thus part of a broader push to influence the region. This fits with a trip I took to Gaziantep in 2009 (ancient history by now, I know) meant to show off the great work the AKP was doing in that part of Turkey; locals officials I met with were very proud of their ties to Syria, and specifically mentioned their “Ottoman legacy.”

And as I discussed in a Monkeycage post last year, the deal Turkey and Russia made on Idlib–one of the last Syrian rebel holdouts–was reminiscent of old-fashioned “great power management.” The regional great powers, such as Turkey, were deciding the affairs of weaker states for them.

So what does this have to do with Trump’s annoucement? One word for the Daily Sabah article stuck out: “liberated.” The new Turkish schools opened in areas previously held by Kurdish forces, as other coverage noted. So Turkey is not just pushing out Kurdish forces, it’s replacing them with Turkish institutions.

I hate to make predictions, but, assuming a Turkish invasion is coming, expect to see more announcements like this from Turkey. Turkey is setting itself up as the dominant state in Syria, and possibly the Middle East. This may be ok with some (I’m generally pro-Turkey, although I’m not a fan of Erdogan) but America should know what we’re in for as we withdraw our troops from Syria.