Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to deploy joint Russian-Turkish patrols in the so-called security zone Erdogan has ordered Syrian Kurds to evacuate.
- Since its emergence as a republic after World War I, Turkey has largely considered it futile to intervene in the former lands of the Ottoman Empire. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s involvement in Syria reverses that outlook.
- Erdogan’s decision to expand Turkey’s military occupation in Syria has prompted international outrage, but the action is widely popular in Turkey.
- Turkey has much to gain if its incursion into Syria succeeds, but it also has much to lose. Turkish history provides a warning: Offensives that start well can end badly.
“The Turks have always pursued an unhappy policy in regard to native populations,” wrote German Gen. Erich Ludendorff of his World War I Ottoman allies. “They have gone on the principle of taking everything and giving nothing. Now they had to reckon with these people (Kurds, Armenians and Arab tribes) as their enemies.” The Turkish army, driven out of Syria after four centuries in 1918 by the British and “native populations,” is back. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s involvement in Syria reverses the policy of the republic’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, that kept Turkey out of the Arab world. Ataturk looked westward and saw the futility of returning to lands that had rejected Turkish rule.
That arrangement worked for Turkey until 2011, when the uprising in Syria opened the way to foreign interference. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were backing assorted militias in their effort to depose Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Erdogan would not be left out. His border with Syria offered the most extensive terrain for infiltrating fighters and war materiel. Moreover, his Justice and Development Party had a long friendship with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose attempt to depose al Assad’s father, Hafez al Assad, in 1982 ended with the infamous massacre in Hama. Erdogan looked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots to play a leading role in the resistance to the younger al Assad. In 2012, a Syrian former Cabinet minister told me that Erdogan had asked al Assad to put Muslim Brothers into his Cabinet. When al Assad refused, the former minister said, Erdogan made clear that he would back all efforts to remove the president and replace him with Islamists.
Step by Step Into Syria
One of the stated reasons for excluding the Muslim Brothers, in addition to their history of violent opposition to the regime, was that Syria had not legalized religiously based political parties. The divisive effects of sectarian parties had played out badly in Lebanon after 1975 and had done little to benefit Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Al Assad countered Erdogan’s support for his opponents by allowing Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to threaten Erdogan from Syria. The PKK was instrumental in the formation of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that fought with the United States against the Islamic State without joining the U.S.-backed opposition to al Assad.
Erdogan went step by step into Syria, opening the border to jihadists, facilitating weapons deliveries and, when needed, backing the rebels with firepower — as when Turkish artillery shelled the Armenian Syrian village of Kassab before the Islamists conquered it in March 2014. Barely one year later, Erdogan sent Turkish troops over the border on an innocuous mission, code-named Operation Shah Euphrates, to rescue the remains of Suleyman Shah, an ancestor of the first Ottoman sultan. Erdogan’s next venture into Syria was an all-out invasion, Operation Euphrates Shield, ostensibly to combat Islamic State militants but effectively to force the YPG to retreat from the border zone in the northwest.
George Orwell would have appreciated Turkey’s operational code names in Syria.
Then came Operation Olive Branch from January to March 2018 in the largely Kurdish province around Afrin. In that onslaught into a hitherto peaceful corner of northwestern Syria, Turkey relied on about 25,000 Free Syrian Army and other rebel fighters to occupy towns and villages. “Instead of protecting vulnerable civilians’ rights, these fighters are perpetuating a cycle of abuse,” Human Rights Watch declared. The United States refrained from assisting its Kurdish allies, a precedent for its behavior when, following his now-famous telephone conversation with President Donald Trump, Erdogan ordered his army and its allied Islamist militia to advance into northeastern Syria on Oct. 9. Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring followed the Operation Olive Branch game plan (George Orwell would have appreciated these operational names) that expels Kurds, civilians and fighters, from the northeast, executes Kurdish politicians and gives Turkey control of a 20-mile-wide belt from the Mediterranean to the Iraqi border.
Despite international outrage and sanctions, Erdogan’s decision to expand his military occupation of northwest Syria to the northeast and destroy the YPG is popular among all factions in Turkey. The new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, who won office on promises to resist Erdogan’s Islamist and anti-Kurdish policies in Turkey’s most cosmopolitan city, backs the military operation. On Twitter, he called the YPG a “treacherous terror group,” betraying the Kurds who helped elect him. A leading opposition daily, Sozcu, headlined its front page, “Americans, Europeans, Chinese, Arabs — all united against Turkey. Bring it on.” The pro-war fever infecting Turkey replicates the parades, flag-waving and oaths of allegiance that accompanied the country’s entry into World War I in 1914. When the Ottoman fleet attacked Russia’s forts along the Black Sea, Turkish political parties and media outdid each other to demonstrate support for an offensive that started well and ended badly. Turkey lost its empire, and the European Allies occupied Istanbul.
Much to Gain, Lots to Lose
Turkey has much to gain if its Syria gamble succeeds — control of a large area it abandoned in 1918, removal of thousands of Syrian refugees from Turkey to parts of Syria they do not know, containment of the YPG and PKK to areas south of its so-called safe zone and a voice in Syria’s future. It also has much to lose — the lives of its soldiers, perpetual warfare along its border and the undying animosity of Kurds in both Syria and Turkey.
Erdogan’s new collaboration with Russian President Vladimir Putin — with whom he agreed at Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 22 to deploy joint Russian-Turkish patrols in the 20-mile security zone that he has ordered the Kurds to evacuate — dilutes his control in northeastern Syria. It also permits al Assad’s Syrian army to return to an area where Syria has a greater claim to sovereignty than has Turkey. The obstacle to ending the eight-year Syrian civil war remains Turkey’s sole control of the northwestern Syrian provinces of Idlib and Aleppo and the estimated 60,000 rebels, most of them jihadists, it controls there and has used as its mercenaries against the Kurds. The politician most likely to decide the fate of that area is, as with the Kurdish northeast, neither Trump nor Erdogan, but Putin. Watch that space.
The politician most likely to decide the fate of northwestern Syria is, as with the Kurdish northeast, neither Trump nor Erdogan, but Putin.
Trump permitted the Turkish invasion, then decided it was not such a good idea and, while not sending the Turkish army back into Turkey, imposed selective economic sanctions, which he lifted Oct. 23. Many Americans support Trump’s stated desire to end the “endless wars” in the belief that taxpayers’ money is better spent on education, health and infrastructure at home than on military operations abroad. Trump, however, has not brought troops home. About 200 American soldiers are to remain at al-Tanf military base, part of a 55-square-kilometer (21-square-mile) area of oil-rich desert where the borders of Syria, Iraq and Jordan meet. He redeployed 1,000 special operations forces from Syria to western Iraq. He is sending 1,800 soldiers to Saudi Arabia. He is threatening Iran with war following his abrogation of the 2015 nuclear deal. He supplies weapons, intelligence and logistical support to Saudi Arabia’s relentless war in Yemen.
Ending the endless wars is not unlike decolonization, which Europeans undertook following the bankruptcy of their economies during World War II. Most of the colonial withdrawals were as disastrous for the countries involved as the colonial conquests had been. Think of the massacres that followed the partition of India in 1947, the war in Palestine when the British withdrew in 1948, the French wars in Algeria and Vietnam, and Belgium’s criminal actions in the Congo. Among the most irresponsible colonial retreats was Portugal’s from lands it had occupied for four centuries: Angola, Mozambique and East Timor. The first two suffered protracted civil wars, while Indonesian troops invaded East Timor in December 1975 with American approval and massacred a third of its population by the time they were forced to leave in 1999. Now the United States, after arming and earning the trust of Syria’s Kurds, is leaving them to face the Turkish onslaught.
When President Barack Obama considered the covert operation to train and equip Syrian rebels in 2013, code-named Operation Timber Sycamore, he said to his aides, “Tell me how this ends.” As Turkey is discovering, it doesn’t.
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