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Military occupation of Syria by Turkey

Conflict type: Military occupation

Turkey has been occupying parts of northern Syria since 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. In October 2019, following the withdrawal of US forces from the Syrian side of the border, Turkey launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters. U. Uras, ‘Turkey's Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria: One month on’, Al-Jazeera, 8 November 2019.

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, it 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. Second, in October 2017 it 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. Furthermore, in January 2018 Turkey initiated a new air and ground campaign against the Kurdish militia in Afrin, backed by Syrian rebel groups, in particular the Free Syrian Army (FSA). 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.

Turkey has been in control of the Turkish-Syrian border towns in northern Syria. Furthermore, it opened a health center 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.

At the beginning of October 2019, US troops began withdrawing from northern Syria. As Kurdish forces have been a key ally of the US in the fight against the Islamic State, this decision paved the way for a Turkish military operation against the Kurds. ‘Turkey-Syria border: Kurds bitter as US troops withdraw’, BBC, 7 October 2019. Accordingly, on 9 October 2019 Turkey lunched Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria, aimed at removing Kurdish forces and creating a ‘safe zone’ in Syria close to the border with Turkey. The operation resulted in the occupation of a significant portion of the territory in the central area of Syria's border with Turkey, notably to create a 30km ‘safe zone’ along the Syrian-Turkish border, on Syrian territory. Furthermore, a number of Kurdish fighters and civilians have been killed and more that 150,000 civilians were displaced. U. Uras, ‘Turkey's Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria: One month on’, Al-Jazeera, 8 November 2019; ‘Turkey Syria offensive: Heavy fighting on second day of assault’, BBC, 10 October 2019; ‘Turkey’s Syria offensive explained in four maps’, BBC, 14 October 2019. The Free Syrian Army also took part in the operation, backing Turkish armed forces. O. Koparan, B. Karacaoglu, L. Tok and A. Kako, ‘Syrian National Army backs Turkish op in northern Syria’, AA, 10 October 2019; ‘The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched Operation Peace Spring’, Presidency of the Republic of Turkey, 9 October 2019.

On 17 October 2019, the United States and Turkey concluded a ceasefire agreement, which granted five days to Kurdish forces present in US-controlled areas in order to leave and ‘to withdraw from the so-called "safe-zone" Ankara wants to establish inside Syria.’ The commander of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) welcomed the conclusion of the agreement and announced that his forces intended to observe it. ‘Turkey's military operation in Syria: All the latest updates’, Al-Jazeera, 23 October 2019. Overall, the cease-fire was largely respected and Kurdish fighters withdrew in 5 days, as agreed.

On 22 October 2019, in Sochi, Turkey and Russia concluded an agreement, whereby Turkey could keep its armed forces in the 120km-long stretch of the frontier from Ras al-Ain to Tal Abyad, while Russian and Syrian troops could take control of the rest of the border between Syria and Turkey. Furthermore, they would make sure that YPG fighters would keep at 30km distance from the border. ‘Turkey v Syria's Kurds: The short, medium and long story’, BBC, 23 October 2019; ‘Russia and Turkey agree to share control of northeastern Syria’, France 24, 23 October 2019. In spite of the coronavirus emergency, and the cease-fire called by the UN during the pandemic, Turkish armed attacks against Kurdish fighters based in Syria is still ongoing. ‘Betrayed Again’, New Internationalist, 22 June 2020.

The conclusion of the Sochi agreement between Erdogan and Putin rises crucial questions with regard to Syrian consent to the presence of Turkey. As aforementioned, for an occupation to exist, the lack of consent by the occupied State to the presence of occupying forces is necessary. It is not clear whether Syria has consented to Turkish presence on its territory. Indeed, on the one hand it has been reported that ‘Moscow has persuaded Damascus to cede it control over more territory in the north-east, breaking up Kurdish control.’ B. McKernan and J. Borger, ‘Turkey and Russia agree on deal over buffer zone in northern Syria’, The Guardian, 22 October 2019. On the other hand, ‘Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has raised concern about foreign interference in Syria.’ ‘Turkey Syria offensive: Erdogan and Putin strike deal over Kurds’, BBC, 23 October 2019. Furthermore, Article 1 of the Sochi agreement reiterates Turkish ‘commitment to the preservation of the political unity and territorial integrity of Syria.’ ‘Full text of Turkey, Russia agreement on northeast Syria’, Al-Jazeera, 22 October 2019. Accordingly, based on the information at our disposal, it does not seem possible to reach a decisive conclusion as to the existence of Syrian consent. In any case, it should be noted that consent to an occupation should be explicitly and clearly expressed, all the more so in this case where hostilities between Turkish and Syrian armed forces occur elsewhere. Notably, a number of armed confrontations have been taking place in Idlib at the beginning of 2020. ‘Syria war: Alarm after 33 Turkish soldiers killed in attack in Idlib’, BBC, 28 February 2020; ‘Deadly Clashes in Syria’s Idlib Show Limits of Turkey’s Options’, International Crisis Group, 29 February 2020. Therefore, lacking a clear declaration in this regard, it seems possible to conclude that Turkey is occupying part of Syria.

Reportedly, Turkey plans to move Syrian refugees from its country back into the Syrian territory and to place them in the abovementioned safe zone, by constructing 140 villages and 10 towns in the region. ‘Turkey’s occupation of northern Syria includes population transfers’, Al Monitor, 7 May 2020.

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: Wednesday 15th July 2020