Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters are seen near the city of Afrin, Syria.
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, must be turning in his grave like a whirling dervish. “Peace at home, peace in the world,” was his motto. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his successor and current Turkish head of state, has transformed this into “war at home, war in the world.” This secular republic was established in 1923 by Ataturk to align with the West. Today, it is allied to fundamentalist Muslim groups in a war unleashed against the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
Present-day Turkey is separating itself from Western values and is now in open conflict with its Western partners on multiple hot topics. Erdogan’s Turkey has supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, supports the Hamas movement in Gaza, and has for years allowed aspiring European jihadists to transit through Turkey to Syria. He continues to arm and finance Syrian Salafist armed groups from the Muslim Brotherhood. Western intelligence services and think tanks are perfectly aware of the structural reasons that, if this evolution continues, will see us accelerating toward an inevitable divorce between Turkey and the West.
This Turkish Islamist shift is torpedoing Western plans in the current phase to end Islamic State (ISIS) terrorism, the cause of the deadly attacks on the streets of European capitals. The latest military intervention in Syria clearly prevents the stabilization of areas which required cost of heavy fighting and thousands of deaths to liberate.
The Kurdish enclave of Afrin borders Idlib province, largely controlled by local groups affiliated with al-Qaida. The fall of the enclave would consequently reinforce these groups and other Salafist movements linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, all of which are part of the Turkish-led military intervention.
Not one bullet had been fired from Afrin at Turkey. The enclave had been, until now, preserved from the war. Its peace and security offered refuge to tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing both the regime and jihadist groups.
The only possible justification for the Turkish military intervention is to halt the establishment of a Kurdish zone in northern Syria. A zone that is already creating its own administrative structures and local elections.
Turkey is fearful of the consequences regarding its own Kurdish population, whose legally elected representatives to the Turkish Parliament are either being prosecuted or are already in prison. With 15 to 20 million Kurds living in its territory and 40 years of failed military interventions, shouldn’t Turkey be convinced that such an option is not exportable and will only lead to the same failure in neighboring Syria? On top of which, the local Syrian Kurdish population is hostile and, given the military complexity on the ground, the Western powers involved in the Syrian conflict are not in any position to offer support.
The Kurds, as part of a secular, multi-faith society, have proven to be the most reliable allies and the only option on the ground able to fight ISIS alongside the international alliance. Today, they are paying the price for this alliance, attacked by Turkey and Sunni Salafist groups within Syria. This is a replay of the attack by Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia on Kurdish territory following the recent Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence.
In an Arab-Muslim world devoid of leadership, especially in its Sunni version, and still struggling with modernity, the all-out populism of the Turkish president, who dreams of himself as a new caliph, acts as a performance enhancer for the mass of the disinherited. His dubious alliances with Islamist networks in countries across the region as well as his vocal position on the status of Jerusalem, outsmarting any Arab leader on this issue, provides a Trojan horse in his strategy of regional domination.
When Erdogan and his Islamic AKP party came to power, many in the West hoped that he would form the “Christian Democrats of the East.” Unfortunately, those who placed their bets on the “Islam Democrats” have been roundly disappointed. When, in 1998, Erdogan was tried and jailed for reciting a jihadist poem, “the minarets are our bayonets, the domes are our helmets, the mosques are our barracks,” the army was still guardian of Turkish secularism. After silencing the moderates from his own party, such as former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former president Abdullah Gul, the 2016 coup d’etat then gave him the opportunity to purge both the army and judicial apparatus.
Thousands of academics, teachers and journalists have also been fired, and many arrested. Erdogan’s hands now free to ally with jihadist groups, he launched the current military operation with a public recitation in mosques across the country of the “Victory” verse from the Koran, banned demonstrations hostile to the war and imprisoned opponents of it.
This Turkish intervention will fail. Encouraged behind the scenes by Russia and Iran to distance Turkey from the West, these two countries will never allow Turkey to become a serious player on the Syrian chessboard. As veterans, they consider it their private hunting ground and retain exclusive leverage, with Turkey being the novice in this demonic alliance.
Faced with the massive challenge that political Islam poses now and for some time to come, let us not forget that its victims are overwhelmingly Muslims themselves. We must not waiver from the values and ethics that are the foundations of Western democracies. These values remain the best weapons to fight the international jihadist. Abandoning the Kurds to slaughter would be a major moral defeat for the West.
Furthermore, the fall of Afrin would be a defeat of Western strategy in its fight against terrorism, reinforcing the jihadists and forcing us back to square one.The author is a researcher and former director of the representation of the Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan in Paris.