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Turkey Fights a Losing PR Battle Over Syria

Sinan Ciddi
Board of Contributors
7 MINS READOct 16, 2019 | 09:30 GMT
Turkish-backed proxies search for members of the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in Tal Abyad, Syria, on Oct. 15, 2019.

Turkish-backed proxies search for members of the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in Tal Abyad, Syria, on Oct. 15, 2019. Turkey has struggled to satisfy the international community as to why it has attacked northern Syria.

(OMER ALVEN/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
  • Turkey has begun combat operations in northern Syria to wipe out the mainly Kurdish People's Protection Units.
  • Turkey's allies, however, are worried the move will destabilize Syria and reinvigorate the Islamic State.
  • Turkey's unilateral action could isolate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government amid widespread global condemnation.

On Oct. 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally confirmed speculation that had been swirling for months: Turkey was beginning major combat operations in northern Syria with the goal of creating a safe zone to eradicate the presence of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and the Islamic State. The issue is complicated, however, by Washington's tactical partnership with the YPG (which rebranded itself as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF) as a joint means of terminating the Islamic State. Turkey has criticized the partnership since it began in 2014, viewing it as a betrayal on the grounds that the YPG is tied to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an organization that Ankara, Brussels and Washington recognize as a terrorist group.

The flawed, yet effective U.S. motivation to collaborate with the YPG/SDF stemmed from two related developments: From 2012 to 2014, the fight to eliminate the Islamic State was only a distant second priority for most countries in the region — in contrast to the United States. Second, Turkey had directed its energies to toppling Syrian President Bashar al Assad, making it clear that it would not commit military assets to fight the Islamic State in Syria or Iraq. Given the lay of the land, the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama hit upon what it deemed an effective and acceptable approach, committing a limited number of U.S. special forces and airpower and relying on the YPG to conduct the bulk of combat operations against the Islamic State. But even if Turkey's contempt for the YPG was always evident, why has it chosen to act unilaterally against the Syrian Kurds now? Ultimately, the answer is simple: There isn't one — at least a palatable one from Turkey.

A Case for War?

Turkey's move is motivated more by Erdogan's domestic political concerns than any imminent threat posed by the YPG. To be fair, Turkey does have a legitimate concern with the emergence of a large Kurdish political entity along its southern border, especially if it is organized by a political entity that presents a threat to Turkey's sovereignty and security. Such concern, however, is not tantamount to an imminent and dangerous threat. Turkey, in its near-century history as a republic, has faced such imminent threats and responded accordingly. During World War II, the specter of either a Nazi or Soviet invasion was ever-present, testing the resolve of Turkey's leaders between 1939 and 1945. But even amid the danger of the Nazis at the gates, Turkey's government avoided war as an option. In 1974, when insurrectionists toppled Cyprus' government with an eye to uniting the island with Greece, Turkey's government took the immediate step of deploying the military to stall such an eventuality. (Later, it breached its mandate by carving out a de facto Turkish state that remains to this day.)

What concerns did the U.S.-Turkish joint patrols in northeastern Syria not address that required Turkey's military incursion?

No similarly dramatic incident or reason for immediacy precipitated last week's Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria, dubbed Operation Peace Spring. In fact, there were no conditions for hot pursuit, which explains the overwhelming international concern and condemnation. Indeed, it leads to the question: What concerns did the U.S.-Turkish joint patrols not address that required a military incursion? As it is, the incursion began only after an abrupt telephone conversation between U.S. President Donald Trump and Erdogan, in which Trump reportedly gave a green light to the initiative and declared that Turkey, henceforth, would be in charge of keeping Syria — and possibly the region — free of the Islamic State.

In the immediate term, Erdogan looks set to reap the awards of his brazen behavior. For the past 12 months, the Erdogan government has found itself in a corner due to a severely weakened economy and a loss of voter confidence — all of which culminated in widespread losses for the president and the governing Justice and Development Party in local elections on March 31. Erdogan, however, has successively swept debate on such topics to the side, refocusing the nation's attention on the Syria operation. Indeed, a campaign to wipe out the PKK and the YPG is proving popular with the public, as it rallies behind a strong leader who is determined to pursue Turkey's security concerns and defy Western criticism and restrictions. Beyond taking the sting out of domestic criticism of Turkey's perilous economy and the skyrocketing cost of living, the move also silences dissent in general, compelling opposition parties to lend their support due to the popular appeal. Predictably, authorities have already rounded up scores of critics, especially members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democracy Party — the only major party to oppose Turkey's cross-border operation. In such an atmosphere, Erdogan might even be tempted to call for a fresh round of elections to take advantage of the short-term euphoria over the offensive.

Turkey's Viewpoint Finds Few Takers

That said, Turkey might just be opening up Pandora's box with its incursion. First, journalists in the affected areas are reporting numerous civilian casualties and a humanitarian catastrophe in the making as tens of thousands flee the fighting. How will Turkey uphold humanitarian standards, given that it is now responsible for the plight of the new refugees? Syrian sovereignty, meanwhile, is also at stake. At the outset, Turkey announced that it was launching the operation in full recognition of Syria's independence and sovereignty. That's a nice platitude, but once the military operations are done and dusted, how long and under whose authority will Turkish troops remain?

Erdogan has also intimated that his "liberated" area of about 450 by 30 kilometers (roughly 280 by 19 miles) will become home to the Syrian refugees presently living in Turkey. Where does Turkey's government obtain the authority to resettle the refugees? Will this not infringe upon the area's existing demographics? Turkish authorities have yet to give — and are unlikely to do so in the future — satisfying answers to these questions. And as Turkish artillery pound pre-selected targets, reports are emerging that hundreds of Islamic State detainees are breaking out of camps because the Kurds guarding them are having to flee themselves. If the Islamic State launches a whole new wave of attacks, or even enjoys a political resurgence, how will Turkey address the resulting security concerns from countries the world over?

The YPG has garnered an international reputation for defeating the Islamic State; Turkey, in contrast, has garnered a reputation for striving to destroy the Islamic State's conquerors — if not aid the jihadist group itself.

So far, international condemnation has been swift. The U.S. Congress has initiated the process of promulgating direct sanctions on Turkey; support for bipartisan legislation might be so strong that Trump won't have the means to veto it. The European Union and individual member states have also condemned Ankara's actions and imposed bans on arms sales to Turkey. Others have even called for the suspension of Turkey's NATO membership.

Turkey, which seems to have been surprised by the backlash, has responded with hostility and ill-considered comments that parallel Erdogan's vitriol at global actors. For one, Erdogan has threatened to open Turkey's borders and send Syrian refugees to Europe unless the Europeans begin applauding his actions and lend their support. At this juncture, Erdogan believes the problem rests in not having the right people and mechanisms to help explain Turkey's perspective. The problem, however, is more that Turkey has decisively lost the international public relations campaign, even if it has grabbed the initiative on the military front. The YPG has garnered an international reputation for defeating the Islamic State; Turkey, in contrast, has garnered a reputation for striving to destroy the Islamic State's conquerors — if not aid the jihadist group itself. It appears that Turkish authorities have yet to understand that insisting on their position is not going to change the world's opinion.

In the end, Erdogan has acted with impunity at home for over a decade, subjecting Turkey's population to his brash and unbridled demeanor. He's now trying the same thing on the world stage and expecting the rest of the globe to fall in line. That isn't going to happen, and the longer Turkey continues its military operation, the more it will find itself relegated to the position of an international pariah.

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