Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters react as they hold their weapons near the city of Afrin, Syria February 19, 2018..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Two days before ceding the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany in Munich in September 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain dismissed the issue as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” Pretty much the same can be said of the attitude of the West towards Turkey’s attack on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria, and indeed of the bombing of eastern Ghouta.
A fortnight after Turkish troops and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) auxiliaries launched “Operation Olive Branch,” Turkey’s leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gave a speech to the parliamentary group of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that was reminscent of the Munich conference.
Likewise, Erdogan stressed that Turkey was a patient nation, but vast swaths of its land had been seized through diplomatic treachery. A sleeping giant had been awakened, he said, and the Turkish nation was advancing toward a completely new era. He spoke of being responsible for building a greater Turkey, as proved by its economy, diplomacy, and its fight against terrorism in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations. Now no country or organization could question Turkey’s strength.
Finally, Erdogan declared it was Turkey’s intention to remain in Syria as long as it took to return Afrin and Manbij to their rightful owner. He mentioned that 135,000 Syrian refugees had already returned after Operation Euphrates Shield, which from August 2016 until March 2017 cleared Islamic State from between the two Kurdish cantons east of the Euphrates, and Afrin. Manbij, west of the Euphrates, which was captured by mainly Kurdish but US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in August 2016, is the sticking point between Turkey and the US. However, Erdogan has declared it is Turkey’s intention to continue right up to the Iraq border until all terrorists (that is, Kurdish forces) are eliminated.
Erdogan’s wife, Emine, has stated that Turkey will resettle 500,000 Syrians in Afrin, and her husband intends to provide lebensraum for Turkey’s three million Syrian refugees in the Kurdish areas. The day after the operation started, Erdogan said it would be completed in a very short time. Later, he declared Turkey was getting closer to victory and after 32 days he promised Turkish forces would soon lay siege to Afrin city. However, they have made only limited gains against deeply entrenched Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) fighters despite artillery and air support.
There is no doubt that Turkey under Erdogan is flexing its geopolitical muscle, and a few months after the failed coup in July 2016 Erdogan referred to the Misak-i Milli, the National Pact, passed by the Turkish parliament in 1920, which laid claim to areas of Greece, Syria and Iraq. Although Turkey’s present borders were fixed by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, Erdogan has talked of revising this treaty, notably on his visit to Greece in December.
Whatever the outcome, Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch has already had the desired effect. In an opinion poll, nearly 90% of the Turks polled supported the offensive, which increases the likelihood of Erdogan calling for a parliamentary and presidential election later this year instead of in 2019. Adding to the likelihood is the fact that Turkey’s economy is in dire straits, with a massive current account deficit and an outflow of foreign capital. As Abdüllatif Sener, a former AKP deputy and co-founder of the party, said four years ago, Erdogan would even be prepared to drag Turkey into a civil war to hold on to power.
This is in effect what he did after the success of the Kurdish-based HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) at the elections in June 2015. Erdogan turned his back on the peace process and instead brutally suppressed the subsequent uprising in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast. As veteran Turkish journalist Cengiz Aktar has warned, the Afrin battle could pave the way for a feud between Turks and Kurds that would last for generations. It is also worth noting that more than half of Turkey’s population under 30 will be ethnic Kurds by the mid- 2040s.
Turkey has invoked Article 51 of the UN Charter and the right to self-defense to justify its attack on Afrin. According to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg Turkey has legitimate security concerns, but these should be addressed in a proportionate and measured way. Holland finds Turkey’s grounds “sufficient” but the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini has expressed grave concern about the humanitarian and political consequences.
Facing a standoff with Turkey because of its support for Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria, the US response has been muddled. Echoing the Pentagon, US Defense Secretary James Mattis finds Turkey’s Afrin offensive “a distraction” and despite a budget of $550 million for the SDF and a border security force, talks of choosing “bad alternatives.” He has also suggested it is possible to get Kurdish forces in Syria to turn on their compatriots in Turkey.
There is a Turkish saying: tell the rabbit to run and tell the greyhound to catch him. This is precisely what Russia has done. On the one hand, it has supported the Syrian Kurds in their struggle for autonomy and on the other it has supported Turkey’s two incursions against the Syrian Kurds. In his speech at the Sportpalast Adolf Hitler mentioned his great friend, Benito Mussolini, but in this case the roles are reversed. As the frequent phone calls between Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan witness, it is Putin who is “abi” (Turkish for big brother) and Russia that calls the shots.
The author is a commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.