Toeing the Line Between Turkey and Syria

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Written by Daniel Metz

The founder of the modern Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk famously crafted his foreign policy doctrine in 1931, eight years after he founded the Turkish state. “Peace at Home, Peace in the World,” he announced, implying more than just his anti-war stance but the objective of retaining good relations with neighboring countries and encouraging the same principles elsewhere.

This policy of internal and regional peace has started to show its cracks with the Turkish government’s recent foray into Syria, an effort to stamp out militant Kurdish groups operating to an effect it sees as a threat to national security. And military operations into Syrian’s Afrin and then Manbij seem not just to be exceptions to this doctrine but the new norm of a more aggressive Turkey.

Contrary to the war-filled centuries of the Ottoman Empire before it, modern Turkey has engaged in few conflicts since it was founded 95 years ago. It stayed out of WWII, sent a few troops to the Korean War alongside the Americans, joined peacekeeping missions in Somalia and the Balkans, and accompanied Western powers to Afghanistan in 2001. But while its list of foreign excursions is relatively short, its list of domestic battles and rebellions is quite long, most notably the ongoing, 35-year conflict with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), designated a terrorist group by the United States. It is this group that Turkey has forcefully forayed beyond its southern border to stamp out.

The war in Syria is notoriously riddled with countless internal factions and international actors swooping in to escalate the violence. Turkey, sharing a 500-mile stretch of border with Syria, took a hard stance against the Bashar al-Assad regime at the start of the war and provided support to opposition groups, both in the form of arms and training soldiers. But as the war progressed and factions morphed, Turkey’s objectives took on a whole new perspective with the sudden rise and seizure of land, not by the Islamic State that initiated European and Western nations’ dramatic entrance, but by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish political organization.

It’s the PYD that sent Turkey’s trajectory in the Syrian Civil War flying off in a whole new direction, that jammed a wedge in between U.S.-Turkish relations, and that led to Turkey’s aggressive cross-border operations. The PYD and PKK share a common ideology, originating from the founder of the PKK in the late 1970s. They are Kurdish organizations seeking autonomy by militant means. The groups also both belong to a broader umbrella organization that includes Kurdish groups throughout the region and allegedly share logistical support to a degree.

Some Syrian locals have reported that Kurdish fighters are coming over from Turkey and that the PYD entertains policies that don’t fit the idea of a democratic oasis the group claims to support. But the PKK has been fighting its own re-escalating war with the Turkish state since 2015, and although cooperation between the groups may very well grow in the future, the PKK isn’t currently able to fully engage both in Syria and in Turkey.

The “fighting terrorists” narrative certainly rings well among Turkish nationalists, but what Turkey is most afraid of is the PYD successfully establishing an autonomous or independent Kurdish state along its southern border. Whether the PYD and PKK are in cahoots is irrelevant. Turkey fears an emboldened domestic Kurdish population eager to follow suit and escalate an already violent separatist conflict. The eradication of any neighboring, militant Kurdish group was Turkey’s goal when it crossed the border on January 20, 2018 and initiated an aggressive push into Afrin, one of the three enclaves of Kurds in northern Syria.

Ironically named “Operation Olive Branch,” the Turkish military bombarded the town with support from Syrian opposition groups. Russia withdrew its own forces from the region, and despite condemnations from the Syrian government and calls for restraint from the U.S. Department of Defense, Turkey succeeded in seizing control of the city within two months, on March 18. The Turkish government claimed to have killed more than 1,500 militants, and as many as 500 civilians were killed as well, according to local Kurdish news sources. Locals fled the violence, and Turkish troops looted the city, including private homes and businesses.

Many of the more gruesome images of the battle, including the deaths of fleeing civilians trying to cross the border, never made their way into Turkey. A media blackout was ordered by the Turkish government, and fear of criticism of military policies is widespread. Back in 2015 when violence flared up in Turkey’s southeast, over a thousand academics signed a letter pleading for an end to the chaos, to which the government responded by firing professors and bringing charges of supporting terrorist groups. The narrative of Turkey freeing the citizens of Afrin from the oppression of the Kurds was broadcasted on television channels and printed in newspapers, and at least 845 people were detained or charged with protesting the Afrin policy since January, according to Turkey Purge, a website that tracks the suppression of dissent in Turkey.

Less than a week after the Afrin operation began, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was already foreshadowing action in other Kurdish strongholds in Syria, namely Manbij to the east. On June 18, Turkey began patrolling Manbij on the pretense of a common understanding with the United States. The militant wing of the PYD announced a day later that it had withdrawn its troops from the city, and on July 2, the Turkish government conducted its eighth round of patrols of the city. Turkish officials have also indicated that if operations in Manbij go as planned, this kind of sweep will continue wherever else they perceive such threats.

While Turkey has long considered the Syrian Kurds a threat to its national security, the timing of these operations calls motives into question. Operation Olive Branch began just a few months before snap elections were announced, and the pivot towards Manbij started just a few days before the elections were held. To speculate whether the operations were started purely to garner support would be unwise, but the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) allied with Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) received a significantly higher share of the vote than expected, perhaps empowered with the support of nationalist Turks favorable towards these aggressive policies.

Rumors have been floating around about how Erdoğan’s AKP and the MHP will form a government with their newly claimed electoral victory. Some claim the MHP looks to control both the Ministries of Defense and Internal Affairs. If this is the case, the operations across the border will, at the very least, continue in the same fashion they are now. At most, they will grow in both size and scope, moving deeper and more aggressively into “enemy” territory, pushing on into an endless mission of complete and total eradication.

Photo source: Kurdish refugees from Kobane, Syria in refugee camp on the border at Suruc, Turkey.