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What is Turkey doing in northeast Syria?

What is Turkey doing in the northeast Syrian territory? What is the objective of the so-called ” Operation Peace Spring”? Why was the Turkish army obliged to enter this region? I would like to focus on these matters in this article.

First of all, I need to point out one important thing. Northeastern Syria was the region with the least security weakness on the Turkish-Syrian border. The most disturbing thing for Turkey in this region, where a country that was nearly destroyed by the civil war gained relative stability, the road infrastructure was partially repaired, and the people continue their lives in the most favorable conditions after their country was destroyed by the conditions of civil war, was the fact that the region has been under the control of a group of people who refused Islamism and are not Arabs. Because Ankara has mobilized everything possible for the break out of the Syrian civil war. Ankara’s aim was to overthrow the Assad regime and establish an Islamic-jihadist Sunni regime. The Kurdish presence was perceived as a problem that would be an obstacle against these goals as much as Assad.

When we look at the main argument of Ankara, which opposes the Assad regime, we can see clearly how the discourse and the actions contradict each other. Why Turkey was aiming to topple the Assad regime? According to the official discourse, Assad was an anti-democratic and a dictator who disregarded human rights. He suppressed the protests in Syria during the Arab Spring movement with anti-democratic methods. Thereupon, Ankara began to refer to all the anti-Assad forces in Syria as the “Syrian opposition”. At first, the Kurds were included in these groups. Salih Muslim, the leader of the Syrian Kurds, held official contacts in Ankara several times.

Ankara has met with Kurds many times. Didn’t the Iraqi Kurdistan troops assist the Syrian Kurds in Kobani with the special permission of Ankara? Moreover, didn’t these units enter Turkey through its borders, use the Turkish soil as a route only to reach to Syrian Kurdistan? So, the Turkish regime did not consider the Kurds in Syria as terrorists at that time. If it did, why did Turkey give permission to Kurdish soldiers from Iraqi Kurdistan to save those “terrorists” from ISIS? Wouldn’t they call this a grave contradiction? I basically want to identify this. Clearly, Ankara’s attitude towards the Kurdish presence in Syria has changed over time. At first, the Syrian Kurds, whom they had accepted as a collocutor, tacitly helped, tolerated even though they did not like them, started to be described as “PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane, Kurdistan Workers’ Party) extension terrorists” after a while! And then an incredible transformation in Turkey’s attitude has shown up. Why is that?

Let’s answer this question. What developments took place in order for Turkey to put the Syrian Kurds, which were perceived as a part of the Syrian opposition against Assad, into the category of enemies? The answer to this question is strikingly in parallel with the factors that played a role in the termination of the Settlement Process in domestic politics. As a matter of fact, the reason that terminated the Peace Process with Kurds domestically has basically caused the Syrian Kurds to be perceived as the extension of PKK externally. Countries have internal and external reasons for policy changes. Without identifying these reasons, it would be against the logic of social sciences to perceive policy changes as if they were meteorological or astronomical changes.

Because as in all social areas, the source of changes in politics is the human. We want to understand and explain the changes in the policies determined by people in a rational and logical sequence. And I would like to say this. Why did the decision-makers in Turkey change their perception of the Kurds in Syria? And without asking or attempting to answer this question, we cannot understand the objectives of Turkey in the region. Because of the changes in perception regarding the Kurds in Syria, there are correlations between the interests of the political elites of Turkey.

We could consider the following according to a scenario. Syrian Kurds have changed their attitude towards Turkey. Therefore, Turkey was forced to change its perception about the Kurds in Syria and it transformed its interests and reformulate them. In other words, it reacted to an action. It showed a forced reaction. Is that so? When we look at recent history, we see that there is no event supporting this scenario. The problem of the Syrian Kurds was the jihadist fanatics in Syria. Because all jihadist groups perceived secular and non-Arab Kurds as enemies.

Therefore, Syrian Kurds would not have been perceived as a threat since they would be busy dealing with the jihadist fanatic terrorists, Syrian Kurds would not be from dealing with terrorist fanatics were not already a threat for Turkey. Moreover, Turkey was at least a secure border for the Syrian Kurds where they could get by the short hairs. And even more important, as required by the rational mind, Syrian Kurds were to avoid provoking Turkey which has a very powerful military potential. In other words, the Kurds did not change their attitude towards Turkey. And for this reason, Turkey was not forced to choose to attack the Kurds as a reaction. There was no threat available against Turkey or the Turkish people. So, why did Turkey change its attitude towards the Syrian Kurds? We go back to the beginning again.

According to a second scenario, a change in the attitude of a third power might have persuaded Turkey to consider the Syrian Kurds as a threat. Let’s test this. This third power may be the US or Russia. There is also Iran and the Syrian regime in the field. But these last two are connected to Russia or at least they dance to Russia’s tune. So, when we say Russia, we can directly refer to the Assad regime and partly to Iran. Because it comes to the same thing. If we evaluate Russia in this context, we find that Russia has control in the west of Syria and no influence in the east. So, the Russians are not interested in the Kurds, at least for now.

Then there is only the US remains. Washington chose a policy that prioritized overthrowing the Assad regime when the Syrian civil war broke out. However, it also considered that the possible political power that would eventually take over the control as an alternative to Assad would be a jihadist fanatic Islamist Sunni group. Therefore, they revised their priority of overthrowing Assad in a realist way. Instead, the U.S switched to a policy that would maximize its own interests. According to this, it became important to neutralize ISIS and its derivative jihadist fanatic groups in Syria from the viewpoint of the US. There are two reasons for this. First, the terrorist regime of these groups triggered mass migration from Syria.

Second, it was feeding global jihadist fanaticism. For this reason, the US perceived ISIS and its derivative ideologies as enemies in Syria. It set up a coalition to fight against them. Turkey was in this coalition. As a NATO member, this is quite natural! However, Ankara never actually supported the goals of this coalition. In the struggle against ISIS, Turkey continued to procrastinate. It pretended to do something and provided all kinds of support to jihadist fanatics behind closed doors. After seeing this, the US started to look for other partners instead of Turkey. The US found secular Kurds, who were already fighting ISIS in the field, for this work. By organizing and supporting them, the U.S balanced ISIS. Turkey, because of its irrational Islamist and Sunnist policy, provided the U.S and Kurds a pool of interests.

Ankara shot itself in the foot. But it was already too late. The Kurds became consolidated both in administrative and military terms thanks to the support of the US. They became more nationalized after their military achievements in the region. This situation disturbed Ankara. It started looking for excuses to drive a wedge between the US and Kurds. The fact that the Syrian Kurds are ideologically close to the PKK and emotionally, though not organically, linked to the northern Kurdish movement, provided Ankara a very good excuse. Thus, Ankara began to address the issue that the Syrian Kurds are an extension of the PKK. It raised this issue in every meeting with the United States. But Washington was aware of the situation. It did not back down. It did not abandon its policy of supporting the Syrian Kurds.

After July 15th, the cadres in TSK (Turkish Armed Forces), who were in favor of the continuation of the cooperation with NATO, was largely purged. The soldiers, who were sent to prison because of the Ergenekon, Balyoz, and Sari Kiz trials, were hurriedly rehired to the empty offices. This military bureaucracy gradually started to designate the security policies of Turkey both domestically and externally throughout the period until July 15th after December 17th.

Erdogan and the AKP (Justice and Development Party) did not speak out in order to protect their power and to grant them immunity before the judiciary. Thus, Erdogan and the AKP adopted a nationalist and Eurasian discourse. They started doing what was necessary. The Solution Process was terminated. A hawkish policy that reflected the 1990s was introduced on the Kurds. The villages, towns and, neighborhoods inhabited by Kurds started to be bombed. Major crimes of humanity were committed. And Turkey gradually started to fall into the orbit of Moscow in foreign policies. Due to the frustration felt by the US and the choice of the Eurasianist elites, Turkey was gradually started to be seen as the satellite of Russia.

After July 15th, the discourse of “the US was behind the coup” was palmed off to the domestic public and the US was declared as the main enemy. In this context, a radical shifting towards adopting hawkish policies towards the Kurds domestically and changing the stance towards the Syrian Kurdish community externally were considered as a kind of reactionary requirement among Turkish people. When the opposition (CHP – Republican People’s Party and IYI Party – Good Party) adopted this discourse and policy, the foundations of today’s attack called “Operation Peace Spring” were started to be built.

So, let’s get to the question I have asked in the first place. What does Turkey want? Domestically, to consolidate the regime; to prepare a justification to explain the responsibility of the collapsed economy with “the evil ambitions of the external powers”; to trap the opposition; to prolong the life of the regime by saying “there is war, let’s unite!”. Externally, further departing from Western values and the defense-intelligence community to ensure internal authoritarianism. Because, as long as it is present in the Western club even it is like an oasis; human rights and democracy weaknesses will always be taunted against Turkey. They know that. Therefore, to join the Russian-Chinese-Iranian league altogether!

Of course, you will see that these are not the policy choices that would consider the medium term and long term if you pay close attention to what I have just listed. Moreover, they are not policies that would prioritize Turkey’s national interests but the political careers of the rulers. In other words, they are irrational choices that is capable of saving the day in the short term but seriously endanger the future of the country. Unfortunately, millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey allow immunity to this regime, at least for now, as a wild card in the hands of the regime.

The European Union and NATO are aware of this, and therefore they cannot show their determination to take a stance against Ankara which would bring Turkey into line. The very fact that the US and Russia rejected together the bill of condemning Turkey in the UN Security Council reveals that the US has still expectations for a “backdoor diplomacy”. Obviously, the United States is thinking of repairing the damage caused by Trump by spreading it over time. Moreover, since the US already foresees that Russia would veto, the US vetoes the bill and gives Ankara the message that they could still come to terms. It tries to avoid Turkey shifting completely under the control of Russia.

As a result, Erdogan and his regime seem to have saved the day, at least for now. If the US sanctions imposed by the Senate are realized, the U.S may openly start playing for a regime change in Turkey. Because it will be already too late for the US to lose anything. I think the E.U and the international community will also participate. Then it will be possible for the regime in Turkey to be consolidated even more.

This could be the beginning of the road leading to the removal of Turkey from NATO. If the regime does not change and continues the way it is now, I’m afraid normalization will not be through a transition but through a breakage. This means that Turkey would suffer a great deal of damage. The most negative possibility of this damage is the loss of territory. The best possibility is socioeconomic destruction and material and moral losses resulting from “starting from scratch”. A very wrong choice was made! Whatever the consequences are, it will be paid by the people of Turkey. I hope that this will be completed before the Kurds are subjected to further persecution. And what would happen at the end of the war? The Turkish people will understand that the war, radical nationalism, and Islamism are not the correct way.

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Dr. Mehmet Efe Caman is a Scholar of Politics at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). Dr. Caman’s main research focuses on Democracy, democratization and human rights, Turkish politics, the Middle East, Eurasian politics and post-Soviet regions, the European Union. He has published a monograph on Turkish foreign policy, numerous book chapters and scholarly articles in English, German and Turkish about topics related to his research areas.

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