Grey Wolves in Syria Pan-Turkism on the march in the Levant

By Giles Longley-Cook

People have been predicting the imminent end of the Syrian Civil war almost since it started, sometimes rashly, sometimes sensibly until an unexpected development renders their prediction obsolete. 

Nonetheless, all but the most deluded Neocons must surely now concede that Syria’s civil war is, if not over, then at least entering a comatose state, waiting to either peter out in exhaustion over the coming years or be decided via some compromise involving outside powers.  Neither option is satisfactory for those involved, but years of slaughter have left both sides’ military muscles too damaged to deliver a knockout blow unaided. 

The Arab Gulf states have already taken their fingers off the switch, either simply leaving the rebels to their fate or actively ingratiating themselves to the Assad regime with the kind of shamelessness that only billions worth of petrodollars can buy. The Americans are sticking around for the usual reasons: a stubborn refusal to admit defeat and to pull as much copper wiring as possible out of the building before they go. In a losing game, in which the stakes aren’t high enough to justify sticking around, those who can afford to have by and large muttered their excuses and left via the back door. 

The one power that has not done so, and has instead upped the ante late in the game, is of course Turkey. Ankara has been backing rebel factions against the Assad government since the time when there was a greater chance of regime change, or at least partition, that would bring a friendly Sunni party to power in Damascus. Over the years, Turkey has openly supported ‘moderate’ opposition factions, whilst also dabbling heavily in Jihadism, lending near-open support for ISIS at numerous occasions. Turkish citizens appeared time and again embedded in ethnic Turkmen rebel groups [1]. 

Even as the chance of total victory slipped away, and more and more refugees flooded into Turkey, Ankara has not let up in its interference, and has in fact taken the opportunity to assume greater control over the increasingly desperate rebel forces. Thus, Turkey has utilized its proxies in Syria to attack the major threat to Turkish power, the Kurdish YPG in Northern Syria. Syrian rebel fighters, waving Turkish flags and backed by Turkish armour, stormed YPG-held Afrin in March 2018, and in 2019, even as The Syrian army menaced rebel-held Idlib, local rebel forces were bussed out to take part in Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish-held North-Eastern Syria. In both provinces, reports of ongoing abuses and ethnic cleansing of the local populations are emerging to this day [2]. 

The focus on smashing Kurdish nationalism, mostly using Islamist proxies, has largely led to the interpretation of Turkey’s strategy as either limited security-based, or as Islamist in nature. Certainly, Erdogan’s continued assault on Turkey’s secular constitution, and the ongoing internal Kurdish conflict inside Turkey gives good reason for many to see things this way [3]. 

However, the trend of interpreting Turkey’s actions solely through Erdogan’s Islamism, or anti-terrorism, ignores the deeper, long-standing ambitions of the Turkish state and a darker side to Turkey’s modern secular democracy than some would like to consider. 

Since the Turkish Republic was founded on the principle of Turkish nationalism, two ghosts have haunted it. The first is that of the ethnic minorities who had to be done away with, the Kurds through oppression and forced assimilation, the Armenians and Pontic Greeks through genocide. 

The other was the specter of Pan-Turkism, the ideology that Turkey should not just be a Turkish state, but the base from which a super-state, encompassing all Turkic peoples from Cyprus to Siberia would be built. Though spurned by more sober nationalists, Pan-Turkism grew as a unifying concept throughout the Post-war period, and its primary torch-bearers, a paramilitary movement known as the Grey Wolves, became powerful agents of anti-minority bigotry within Turkey, as well as of Pan-Turkist activities in Europe and Central Asia. Turkish Grey Wolves fought alongside Azerbaijanis against Armenia in the 1990s, as well as in Chechnya. Integral to their success was a covert alliance with the CIA, who saw their virulent nationalism in Turkey and in Turkic Soviet Republics as a useful ally against communism [4]. 

Though the threat of Communism is gone, the idea of Turkey being a defender of Turkic people everywhere, and entitled to reclaim Turkish lands from its neighbors, has infused Turkey’s political economy sufficiently to become a primary driver of it’s Syrian policy. 

Turkey has given preferential backing to Turkmen militants in areas along the Turkish-Syrian border, especially in Latakia and Idlib province. Thus furnished with a mandate to protect a beleaguered minority, Turkey has become positioned to formalize a slow-moving annexation of Turkmen majority areas, in a continuation of its annexation of Hatay province from Syria in 1939. Then, as now, Turkish control was cemented by driving out other ethnic groups and replacing them with Turks. In the case of Northern Syria, Turkey has been accused of deliberately moving foreign jihadis from Central Asian Turkic backgrounds, into towns once inhabited by local Arabs and Kurds. The end result of such a policy would be to ‘Turkify’ the remaining rebel areas of Northern Syria, under the protection of Turkish ‘peace-keeping’ forces, making an eventual absorption into Turkey-proper inevitable [5].  

The precedent of allowing Turkey to carry out hybrid warfare and undeclared annexation in Northern Syria is a remarkably dangerous one. In a regional sense it is encouraging Turkey’s aggressive, ethno-nationalist foreign policy, which could lead it to replicate this strategy in other contested theaters, such as Northern Iraq, the Aegean and Armenia [6]. On a wider scale, playing up Turkic nationalism could act as a major destabilizing weapon in Central Asia, particularly in Western China, where Pan-Turkists have made the repression of Uighurs their cause-celebre, something that would almost certainly be factored into a growing Western confrontation with China. More generally, it legitimizes a growing tendency for ethno-nationalism around the world, and an understanding that powerful countries have a right to redefine borders to include ethnic kin when it is materially advantageous to them. 


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[4] – Top-hat, the Grey Wolf and the Crescent: Turkish Nationalism and the Turkish Republic by Hugh Poulton
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Turkish and FSA flag – source:

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