By:expert on contemporary Turkish politics and foreign policy, Turkish-Israeli relations, and the Kurds.
On “Kurdophobia,” Refugees and Reviving the National Pact Borders.
To understand the driving forces behind the present Turkish assault on the Kurds (and their Christian and Yazidi allies) in northeast Syria, it is necessary to delve into fundamental aspects of Turkey’s national identity, as well as the implications of the refugee crisis. It is also important to consider Erdogan’s political imperatives. This analysis is vital towards any effort to limit the scope of the invasion, and to an assessment of how the invasion affects the vital interests of Israel and other powers.
Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic, the way in which the Turkish nation-state has been defined meant that Kurdish nationalism came to be seen as an adversary to its very existence. The Turkish identity provided no room for any form of Kurdish identity in the newly found republic, which has triggered numerous Kurdish uprisings against the Turkish state. Given the military superiority and the centralized decision making of the Kemalist state – as opposed to the weak and divided Kurds – the Turks were able, again and again, to crush these rebellions. Yet, the Kurdish revolts have affected the Turkish collective memory negatively. Over time, this triggered the emergence of what could be described as “Kurdophobia” as a central political element of the modern Turkish state tradition.
This “Kurdophobia” is not unique to Turkey. Iran and the neighboring Arab countries – Syria and Iraq – are also suffering from the same “malaise”. These countries are in constant fear that their own Kurds would go beyond the existing levels of political autonomy towards independence, which would amount to the country’s dismemberment. This anxiety is not limited to what happens within these countries’ national borders. The central governments in all four countries are not willing to see the Kurds of the neighboring countries gain such political and powers a domino effect.
Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, and even more so after 2015 – thanks to their decisive stand against the Islamic State – the Kurds of Syria managed to attract positive international attention and became a legitimate party in the Syrian conflict. Despite their symbiotic relations with the PKK, in order not to be categorized as a terrorist organization the Syrian Kurds refrained from using PKK’s name and chose to be organized under the name of PYD-YPG and later took the lead in forming the SDF (with others in the region which they call Rojava, the “sunset lands” in northern and eastern Syria which constitute the western part of the Kurdish realm. While this cosmetic change was seen positively in the West, Turkey rejected this distinction and saw no difference between these Kurdish entities.
Relying on this historical world view and the current geo-politics of the region, Turkey under Erdoğan sees Syrian Kurds as a serious national security problem. Therefore in 2016 and in 2018 respectively, Turkey had launched Operation Euphrates Shield (in the Jarabulus area) Operation Olive Branch (which led to full conquest and control of the Afrin canton). Finally, on October 9, 2019, announcing the Orwellian-named Operation “Peace Spring”, Turkey launched the last phase of its invasion of northern Syria.
For Turkey the existence of contiguous Kurdish autonomous regions extending from northern Iraq to the city of Manbij (which could later reach all the way to the Mediterranean Sea) was considered a casus belli. Turkey regarded these entities as a “united Kurdish wall” that sought to disconnect Turks from the Arabs. According to the conspiracy theory which informs this foreign policy outlook, Israel, United States and the Europeans were behind this “international project” which is also known in Turkey as the “terror corridor”. Thus, in order to eliminate this “international crusade” against Turkey, Ankara decided to form a “Peace corridor” with a depth of some 30 kilometers throughout its border with Syria. By doing so, Ankara seeks to achieve two important objectives: first, to eliminate the safe haven for the PKK in northern Syria; the second is to resettle the majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey – whose official number reached to 3.6 million – into this enclave. By realizing these two goals Turkey will turn all of northern Syria into its protectorate with a loyal Sunni Arab majority while systematically “de-Kurdifying” the region. Certainly, in Turkish eyes, the Arabized border zone will serve better Turkey’s national security.
For Erdoğan the refugee question is politically critical. Since he welcomed the Syrian refugees into Turkey the rising xenophobia against the Syrian refugees at home is a time bomb for him. His defeat in the 2019 municipal elections in Istanbul and Ankara can be seen as a clear indicator and warning for the Turkish president. Therefore, many Turks who want to get rid of the Syrian refugees see Operation Peace Spring as a light at the edge of the tunnel.
Erdoğan is also utilizing this operation as his “insurance policy” in the domestic political game. During the last month Erdoğan’s most important political partner the head of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli is suffering serious health problems. It seems that by launching this extra-territorial operation Mr. Erdoğan seeks to guarantee the Turkish nationalist block’s support in the aftermath of the Bahçeli era. It should be emphasized that for many Turkish nationalists including the secular Turks, northern Syria is not considered as a foreign territory. To the contrary, according to the Turkish historical perspective this portion of land is an inseparable part of the historic “National Pact” borders (Misak-ı Milli Sınırları) which was ratified by the Ottoman government in 1920 thanks to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s pressure. Thus, by relying on this historical decision and many official Ottoman land registry documents, the nationalist Turks would love to see northern Syria under Turkish control in “Northern Cyprus” style.
Certainly this “national struggle” in northern Syria also helps Erdogan’s AKP eliminate the remnant of the opposition. Apart from the Kurdish political party, the HDP, all other political parties have fallen consciously and willingly in line with Erdoğan’s “rallying around the flag” political maneuver. The traditional “Kurdophobia” once again erased all political differences among the political parties. In order to further strengthen national unity, the Turkish media is also highlighting the use of “Made in Turkey” national weaponry in this campaign. For many Turks, given the European and American disapproval of the operation, Turkey’s non dependence on these states in terms of weaponry is paramount. However, this was not enough for Erdoğan. In order to further deepen the sense of solidarity among the Turkish public, Erdoğan seized this opportunity and instructed his Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) to hold prayers in the mosques for the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) while reciting the “Surah Al-Fath” (The Chapter of Conquest, the 48th in the Qur’an) from the loudspeakers of the minarets. The YPG/PKK – who indeed uphold a firmly secularist and egalitarian world view – are depicted not only as enemies of the nation but also of Islam. Despite all these efforts, there are also critics of this military campaign both in the social media and in the streets. The Turkish police suppresses such open criticism.
While suffering from the existence of the Syrian refugees in domestic politics, ironically Erdoğan benefits from their existence when it comes to his foreign policy. In order to achieve his immediate interests in Syria such as getting foreign aid for taking care of the refugees, or receiving a green light for a military operation against the Kurds, Erdoğan does not hesitate to intimidate Europe by threatening to “open Turkey’s borders”. In other words, Erdoğan is trying to frighten Europe with a non-violent Muslim demographic time bomb which may change the face of Europe in the long run. The European values that were shaped in the aftermath of the Second World War are dictating EU’s indecisive immigration policy. Erdoğan sees this as Europe’s weakness and exploits it to achieve his interests in Syria.
On September 5 Erdoğan openly declared that Turkey may “open its borders” if the European Union will not cooperate with Turkey. He had threatened the EU using the same sentence for the first time in November 2016. Following his speech the Greek island of Lesbos suffered from increasing number of incoming refugees due to Turkish coast guards deliberate negligence: with a resulting unrest due to the deteriorating conditions in the refugee camps. With this move Erdoğan made it clear that he is not bluffing. Moreover, in order to achieve further diplomatic gains such as not being tagged as an occupying force in northern Syria by the Europeans, Erdoğan is again using the Syrian refugees as a trump card and again threatened Europeans with a refugee influx. Moreover, Erdoğan also pressuring the EU to sponsor the infrastructure of Turkey’s new peace corridor in northern Syria.
Similar to the tension with the European Union, Turkey’s bilateral relations with the United States are also suffering from an unprecedented deterioration. The first and foremost reason for this decline was United States’ prolonged commitment to act as the protector of the northern Syrian Kurds, who played a major role in defeating the Islamic State. Inevitably this open support poisoned Turkish-American bilateral relations, which also suffer from other crucial problems such as the status of Fethullah Gulen, American concerns about repression in Turkey, and Erdogan’s decision to uphold the S-400 purchase from Russia.
It seems that by giving Turkey the green light for the operation President Trump chose to cool down the tension in the bilateral relations. It should also be noted that despite all the world-view differences of the two leaders it seems that Trump’s and Erdoğan’s egocentric leadership style created an undeclared bond between these two leaders. Later, faced with the accusation that he turned himself into Turkey’s number one ally in Washington D.C – in the face of the US professional bureaucracy – he did add a stern warning to Turkey about some undefined “red lines”. The implications of this warning and of Washington’s overt expressions of opposition to Operation “Peace Spring” are yet to be fully worked out.
In conclusion, if the Turkish military campaign in Syria will be concluded in a decisive Turkish victory it seems that Erdoğan’s public approval at home will rise dramatically. Given the potential gains of the “national pact borders” Erdoğan will secure the Turkish nationalist circles’ loyalty to him also in the near future. Moreover, he may also have won new supporters thanks to his “strong stance” against the US and the EU pressures, by standing firm on Turkey’s national interests. Furthermore, apart from the military victory, if Erdoğan would manage to de-Kurdify the entire border zone this will be appreciated not only by Erdoğan supporters, but also by those who really hate him in Turkey. In such a case he will be crowned as the one who solved the refugee crisis in Turkey while still having the ability to blackmail EU by courtesy of having the Syrians “in his own” backyard. All this would make it more difficult – but not impossible – to try and impose effective limits on the operation, so as to avoid further escalation, the collapse of the anti-Islamic State coalition, and decisive gain for the Assad regime and Iran. This job will be left to diplomats.
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Published by The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security: https://jiss.org.il/en/yanarocak-understanding-the-dynamics-behind-turkeys-operation-peace-spring/