Umut Özkırımlı
Jan 31 2018

Dying for your homeland

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." It is sweet and honourable to die for one's country. This old poem by Horace has inspired many anti-war poems, films, songs over the years. Wilfred Owen's famous poem Dulce et Decorum Est was one of them.

Owen, who died on the frontlines a week before the end of World War One, wrote about agony and despair during a gas attack:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

It is a well-established fact that nationalism or patriotism temporarily unites even the most polarised societies in times of crisis. We also know that politicians who exhaust all possible domestic options tend to seek international ventures to consolidate their public support. Recent history is full of examples of these. I wrote about the Falklands/Las Malvinas War in my previous article. Another example is the 1996 Imia/Kardak Crisis provoked by Greek nationalists that brought Turkey and Greece to the brink of war.

However, public support for Turkey’s Afrin offensive in northern Syria, withheld during a myriad of interventions against the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) or during Turkey’s previous incursion into Syria that began in 2016, is overwhelmingly high. Moreover, this support is given at a time when the reputation of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party is at its lowest, both domestically and internationally.

Turkey is not a part of an international coalition this time. The group they are targeting is not considered a terrorist group by the international community. It is hard to foresee how powers such as the United States, Russia and Iran will react to a long campaign with ever-increasing civilian casualties.

It is also not clear what groups make up Turkey's Syrian allies, the Free Syrian Army. There are already reports that some jihadists, blacklisted by the United States, are among the FSA fighters.

So what is the basis for this "my country right or wrong" coalition? Let us take a closer look at some of the arguments advanced to explain this.

The first argument is very straightforward: one needs to support this operation merely for the sake of patriotism (if not nationalism).

According to an international relations expert who tweeted, "may Allah protect the lives of those who put their lives in danger for their homeland", the rootless "citizens of the world" who worry about losing their intellectual status by any display of patriotism cannot comprehend this.

On the other hand, the same expert also refers to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's views to explain why war is necessary in some cases: "I am not in favour of dragging the nation into war for this or that reason,” sAtaturk said. “War must be essential and vital ... We can go to war against those who are determined to kill us, not to get killed. However, unless a nation's survival is in peril, war is murder."

So let's ask: does Afrin pose a vital threat to Turkey? Did the Syrian Kurdish YPG attack Turkish territory? Do we have any intelligence reports that they were planning to do so?

If yes, why is this information not shared with the Turkish public? Haven't YPG forces been trained and armed by the United States? Aren't they fighting against Islamic State (ISIS) with U.S. support? Most importantly, does the YPG pose a more significant threat to Turkey than ISIS that controlled the southern border of Turkey for quite some time? Unlike YPG, didn't ISIS organise terrorist attacks within Turkey? Didn't many Turkey citizens of Kurdish origin lose their lives in these attacks?

A similar argument was made by another international relations expert who is a regular columnist for a pro-government newspaper. Referring to international law and academic literature, this expert notes that the operation was defended by reference to the UN Charter's Article 51 that cites self-defence and a country's right to fight terrorism. However, the decision he refers to gives a green light to such action when there is an organised attack against a state, and even under those conditions, it stipulates that interference must be "proportionate" to the offense.

As I mentioned earlier, so far as we know, Turkey has not been attacked from Afrin. Even if it were, Turkey has been bombing Afrin and its surroundings for some time now. It is quite debatable how an attempt to invade a region of another country, in violation of the territorial integrity of that state, constitutes a proportionate response.

Another document that this expert refers to – UN Security Council decisions regarding the struggle against terrorism - has a list of such organisations. The YPG is not on that list. In fact. the YPG is fighting some of the terrorist groups on that list. Furthermore, some elements within the Free Syrian Army, like al-Nusra, are on that list. I guess this fact alone shows how questionable the legitimacy of the operation is.

It could be said that the "just war theory" the same expert refers to is not valid in the case of Afrin. Turkish military air strikes against Iraq’s Qandil mountains where the PKK is based, can be considered “just”, in line with jus ad bellum. However, attacking a militia that never struck Turkey, merely on the basis of their affiliation with the PKK, could not be interpreted as a just cause. If that were the case, the same theory would justify Turkey attacking countries like Syria and Iran that had supported the PKK in the past (and even Italy and Greece that briefly hosted the PKK leader Öcalan when he was forced to leave Syria in the late 1990s). Since Turkey has not attacked these countries for supporting the PKK, it is quite apparent that the goal is different for this operation.

The other part of the just war theory, the rightful conduct of war (jus in bello) is also open to debate. Yes, Turkey has stated that the campaign will not target the civilians. But the figures that the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – even if we discard the claims of the YPG – point to a different story.

If Syrian elements fighting on behalf of Turkey include wanted jihadist terrorists, what guarantees are there that there will not be any massacres on the field? If this is indeed a just war, why is there a tremendous amount of pressure on the media? Why was the syriancivilwarmap.com, a website which displays satellite images of the war in Syria banned? Why is anyone who dares to speak of peace arrested?

And more importantly, why aren't international relations experts discussing these issues at all?

They do not discuss these issues as they implicitly acknowledge that this operation is for "the sake of the homeland". Yet this is the very question that needs to be addressed. In the words of Ataturk, is this war "essential and vital"? Are we fighting against those who want to kill us, to defend ourselves? Or is it because the political will that rules the country under a state of emergency has decided so? Are we doing anything other than praying for those who have to fight while we are sleeping safely in our beds? Do we, for example, contemplate whether or not they needed to put their lives in harm's way? If this war is just, as the experts claim, and if it is a war for our homeland, why aren't they donning their military uniforms and join the fighting in Afrin?