Turkey ratcheting up tensions with West over Syria incursions

Critics said Erdogan was trying to ride his way on jingoism in Turkey to shore up nationalist support for his re-election campaign.
Sunday 25/03/2018
Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters hold a Turkish national flag (R) and a Free Syrian Army flag at a checkpoint in Azaz on a road leading to Afrin, on February. (AFP)
Long-term plans. Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters hold a Turkish national flag (R) and a Free Syrian Army flag at a checkpoint in Azaz on a road leading to Afrin. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Turkey pledged to extend its cross-border interventions in Syria after taking the north-western Syrian city of Afrin but its actions are stoking tensions with key Western allies.

Following a 2-month campaign, Turkish troops and pro-Turkish forces of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) entered Afrin on March 18, driving out fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia seen as a terrorist group by Ankara. The United Nations said more than 100,000 civilians were uprooted by the fighting, which was followed by looting of shops and houses in Afrin.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hailed the Afrin intervention as a great success that would bring peace to that part of Syria and secure the Turkish border. He announced that Turkey’s military was ready to enter the northern Iraqi region in Sinjar to cut YPG supply lines to strongholds of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an anti-Turkish rebel group whose leadership has sheltered in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq.

“If the central Iraqi government doesn’t clean out the PKK, we will clean Sinjar ourselves,” Erdogan said in a speech March 21. His statement came after a high-ranking PKK commander, Duran Kalkan, threatened to attack the Turkish city of Semdinli, just over the Iraqi border.

Critics said Erdogan was trying to ride his way on jingoism in Turkey to shore up nationalist support for his re-election campaign next year.

Turkey says it has every right to combat the YPG in Syria because the group is a PKK subsidiary that threatens its national security. That, however, has been challenged internationally.

Experts working for Germany’s parliament concluded there was no legitimate reason for Turkey’s Afrin incursion under international law. The BBC reported a check on Ankara’s assertion that there had been more than 700 attacks on Turkish territory from Syrian regions controlled by the YPG last year, saying it had found only 26 such incidents.

Some analysts said Turkey was aiming to establish long-term protectorates on Syrian soil. Following an incursion into the Syrian border town of Jarabulus in 2016, the area has been connected to the Turkish power grid and a Turkish post office has opened there. Approximately 140,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey have returned to the Jarabulus area, Ankara said. Erdogan has said the Afrin operation would allow more of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to return to their country.

“Ankara has two immediate goals in Syria: a cordon sanitaire enforced by Arab proxies to keep the YPG away from the Turkish border, and to prevent a contiguous and autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Syria,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker who is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think-tank.

“The Afrin operation has provided Erdogan with the golden opportunity to claim that he will resettle Turkey’s Syrian refugees in these regions, as part of an attempt to appeal to the anti-refugee sentiment among his voters,” Erdemir wrote via e-mail.

Turkey’s forays into Syria are provoking growing criticism in the West. The United States, for whom the YPG has been the most important Syrian ally in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), said the Afrin operation weakened the campaign against the jihadists because YPG fighters left their positions in south-eastern Syria to confront the Turks in the north. Erdogan responded by threatening to give the United States an “Ottoman slap” if it moved against Turkish interests in Syria.

Washington has publicly denied that it has reached an agreement with Turkey on the fate of the city of Manbij, 100km to the east of Afrin. Ankara demanded that the United States pressure the YPG to withdraw from Manbij to the east of the Euphrates River. Talks between the two sides continue.

Turkey is facing an increasingly hostile atmosphere in the US Congress as well. US Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accused Turkey of putting “our hard-fought gains against ISIS at risk by drawing our local partners away from that fight.” Corker called on the administration of US President Donald Trump to “compel Turkey to stop its offensive against our partners and clearly state that no further interference in the campaign against ISIS will be tolerated.”

Germany, Turkey’s most important trading partner and an EU heavyweight, has also stepped up its rhetoric. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told parliament on March 21 that Turkey’s legitimate security interests notwithstanding, events in Afrin were “unacceptable” because “thousands and thousands of civilians are being persecuted, dying or forced to flee.”

Merkel’s criticism came shortly before EU leaders were to meet with Erdogan in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort of Varna. The summit was designed to bring Turkish-European relations back on track after years of differences but Erdogan’s belligerent policies prompted some EU officials to wonder whether the meeting should be called off.

Erdemir said Erdogan was trying to turn the push-back from the West into an asset domestically.

“The criticism of the Afrin operation voiced by Turkey’s NATO allies will present Erdogan opportunities to fuel conspiracy theories, as he continues to portray developments in northern Syria as yet another proof of the West’s sinister plans to divide and weaken Turkey,” he wrote.