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Military occupation of Syria by Turkey

Conflict type: Military occupation

Turkey is occupying parts of northern Syria following its armed incursion in August 2016.

Following the launch of Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016, Turkey and Turkish backed Free Syrian Army (also called Syria National army, TBFSA) seized control over the Turkish-Syrian border region in northern Syria. T. Hume and C. Narayan, 'Turkey Says ISIS Cleared From Turkish-Syrian Border', CNN, 5 September 2016.  In January 2018, Turkey and allied Syrian rebel groups initiated an offensive against Afrin, an enclave controlled by Kurdish militia. K. Shaheen, 'Turkey Starts Ground Incursion into Kurdish-Controlled Afrin in Syria', The Guardian, 21 January 2018; 'Turkey Deploys Thousands of FSA Rebels at Syria Border', Al Jazeera, 20 January 2018.

For a territory to be considered occupied, it must be 'under the authority of the hostile army'. Article 42, 1907 Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its Annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs on Land. For an occupation to exist, hostile foreign forces must exercise effective control. Three cumulative elements must be fulfilled for effective control to exist.

  • First, the armed forces of a foreign state are physically present in the territory and the territorial state did not consent to their presence.
  • Second, the presence of the foreign forces prevent the effective local government in place at the time of invasion from exercising its powers.
  • Third, the foreign forces impose their own authority.

In many instances, the  precise territorial extent of an occupation is difficult to establish. For further information on the criteria for occupation, see 'military occupation' in our classification section.

In August 2016, Turkey initiated a ground operation in northern Syria, known as operation Euphrates Shield. The operation pursued the dual objective of supporting Syrian armed groups in their offenses against the Islamic State group in the border area and to contain the expansion of the Kurdish People's Protection Units YPG in the same area in order to prevent them from creating a contiguous Kurdish-held territory between Afrin and Kobane. T. Arango, A. Barnard, and C. Yeginsu, ‘Turkey’s Military Plunges Into Syria, Enabling Rebels to Capture ISIS Stronghold’, The New York Times, 25 August 2016, ’ C.Mills, ISIS/Daesh: The Military Response in Iraq and Syria, Commons Briefing Papers SN06995, 9 November 2016, p 17. In its letter to the Security Council, Turkey justified its 'military operation against Deash' on the basis of its individual rights to self-defence and more generally its obligations in the fight against terrorism pursuant to Security Council resolutions 1373 (2001) and 2178 (2014), see Letter Dated 24 August 2016 from the Permanent Representative of Turkey to the United Nations Address to the President of the Security Council, UN doc S/2016/739, 25 August 2016.  Turkey considers the offensive against the YPG in Syria linked to the renwed non-international armed conflict against the Kurdistan Worker Party (PKK) in Turkey (which is not classified by Turkey as an armed conflict).

On 5 September 2016, Turkey announced that the area between Jarablus and Aziz had been seized from the Islamic State group and 'was totally under the control of the TBFSA (Turkish Backed Free Syrian Army)’ backed by coalition forces.' T. Hume and C. Narayan, 'Turkey Says ISIS Cleared From Turkish-Syrian Border', CNN, 5 September 2016. Although Turkey argued that the TBFSA was in control, Turkish forces did not withdraw and arguably started to occupy at least part of northern Syria. In this sense, see S. Reeves and D. Wallace, 'Has Turkey Occupied Northern Syria?', Lawfare Blog, 22 September 2016; R. Goodman, 'Turkey's US-Backed Operation in Syria Has Created an International Armed Conflict', Just Security Blog, 17 October 2016.

In March 2017, Turkey announced the successful completion of operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria.  'Turkey Ends "Shield" Military Operation in Syria, PM Says', Reuters, 30 March 2017; 'Turkey "Ends" Euphrates Shield Campaign in Syria', BBC, 30 March 2017. However, its ground troops appear to have remained in the territory seized during operation Euphrates Shield and continue to provide security. For a map showing the territory controlled by Syrian rebel groups allied with Turkey, see S. Asrar,  'Syria: Who Controls What?', Al Jazeera, 20 November 2017.  Reportedly, Turkish forces train local rebel groups and police forces, exercise influence over local Syrian administrative councils and exercise oversight over the delivery of humanitarian aid. See H. Haid, Post-ISIS Governance in Jarablus: A Turkish-led Strategy, Research Paper, Chatham House, 26 September 2017; A. Stein, H. Abouzahr, R. Komar, 'How Turkey Is Governing in Northern Aleppo', Syria Deeply, 20 July 2017.

In addition to its military occupation, during late 2017 and early 2018, Turkey deepened its involvement in the international and non-international armed conflicts in Syria. First, in October 2017, Turkey deployed troops in the northern Syrian province of Idlib as part of the de-escalation zone agreed upon with Russia and Iran. J. Dettmer, 'Turkey Deploys More Forces in Northern Syria', VOA, 3 November 2017; W. Frangieh, 'Hostility Toward Militants Grows in Idlib as Turkey Deploys Troops', Syria Deeply, 23 October 2017; S. Al-Khalidi, 'Turkish Army Expands Deployment in Syria's Northwest: Rebels', Reuters, 15 October 2017. Second, backed by Syrian rebel groups,namely, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Turkey initiated a new air and ground campaign against the Kurdish militia in Afrin in January 2018. K. Shaheen, 'Turkey Starts Ground Incursion into Kurdish-Controlled Afrin in Syria', The Guardian, 21 January 2018; E. Cunningham and L. Loveluck, 'Turkey Says Its Troops Have Entered Syria in Fight Against Kurdish Militias', The Washington Post, 21 January 2018; 'Turkey Deploys Thousands of FSA Rebels at Syria Border', Al Jazeera, 20 January 2018 .

In 2017, Turkey supported the creation of an umbrella armed group named United National Army (UNA). ‘Turkey-backed opposition to form new army in northern Syria’, TRTWorld, 30 May 2017. Turkey has been in control of the Turkish-Syrian border towns in northern Syria. Furthermore, it opened a health centre in Afrin, and set up a police force to maintain security in the occupied areas called “Syria Task Force”. Turkey’s support to the militias in northwest of the country went beyond armed support to rebuilding schools and hospitals. ‘Turkish Forces Launch Operation against crime group in Syria’s Afrin’, Daily News, 19 November 2018; ‘Turkey open new health centre in Syria’s Afrin’, Daily News, 06 December 2018; ‘Syrian rebels build an army with Turkish help, face challenges’, Reuters, 12 August 2018. In March 2018, Turkish Armed Forces and the Turkish backed-Free Syrian Army, recognized by Turkey as the Syrian National Army, captured the city of Afrin in northern Syria. Turkey’s president announced that “Turkey’s aim is to give Afrin back to its rightful owners” referring to Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey. ‘Turkey claims to have encircled Afrin, besieging up to 200,000’, The Guardian, 16 March 2018; ‘Civil War in Syria’, Global Conflict Tracker, 27 November 2018.

The law of military occupation is set forth in the 1907 Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its Annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs on Land, the 1949 Geneva Convention (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilian Person in Time of War, and the 1977 Additional Protocl I applicable to international armed conflicts. Both Turkey and Syria are a party to the 1949 Convention, but only Syria has ratified the 1977 Additional Protocol I. Customary international humanitarian law also applies. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law. In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict.

Last updated: Tuesday 14th May 2019