Umut Özkırımlı
Jan 23 2018

Turkey's Afrin offensive an instrument of domestic politics

The year was 1982. The military junta, which had been in power in Argentina since 1976, was struggling to govern the nation in the midst of an economic crisis. Annual consumer inflation was above 100 percent and increasing unemployment was hitting the lower and middle classes. The military junta, headed by General Leopoldo Galtieri, resorted to more violence and oppression to quell the public outcry. The number of people killed or who disappeared is estimated to be between 7,000 and 15,000, according to different sources.

Just like every dictator who ends up depleting all domestic policy options, Galtieri gambled on a foreign adventure and sent troops to occupy the Malvinas/Falklands islands, which had been governed by Britain since 1833. The date was April 2nd. During its planning stage, the invasion was called "Operación Azul" (Blue Operation), inspired by the sea, the sky and the colour of the dress of the Virgin Mary, believed to be the patron saint of Argentinian troops.

The few British troops on the islands were not prepared for such aggression and did not put up much resistance. Argentina swiftly took control. The Argentinian public reaction, at least at first, was precisely what Galtieri had expected. Argentinians, for historical and geographical reasons, perceived the islands to be part of Argentina and gathered in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires to support the military action.

However, the British prime minister at the time was the "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher, and the British public, which had yet to come in terms with the loss of empire, saw the incursion as a matter of "national pride". Britain took back the islands on June 14th. The war lasted 74 days; 650 Argentinian and 255 British military servicemen were killed. The military junta suffered a significant loss of reputation and had to leave office in 1983, and Argentina returned to civilian government.

The year is 2018. Turkey, governed by the same party since 2002, has turned into an autocracy ruled under a state of emergency since July 2016. Although economic indicators are not very encouraging, there is not a financial crisis like in Argentina in 1982. Turkish society is not reacting to the de facto suspension of the rule of law and restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms. The tiny minority who dare to put up some resistance is suppressed by military junta-like methods. It is almost certain that the current government, even if it suffers some loss of support, will again win elections if and when they are held.

On the other hand, Turkey's international reputation is at its lowest point. Foreign direct investment is dropping; even credit rating agencies have closed their offices. Turkey, according to some international organisations, has suffered the biggest 10-year decline in freedoms in the world. Yet the country leads the world in the number of journalists arrested and censored internet sites. Turkey’s bid to join the European Union has all-but ended, and its future is largely indexed to the whims of the superpowers.

It may be far-fetched to claim that the Turkish government has depleted all its domestic and international policy options, but the administration is fast losing credibility. Hence it has decided to take a gamble on a foreign adventure and invaded a neighbouring territory. The date is January 20th.

The administration, perhaps because "hostility towards the Kurds" is the one thing that unifies the Turkish public, has received wide support. Even newspapers not under the direct control of the government have joined in: "Iron Fist to the Terrorists, an Olive Branch to the Civilians" (Haberturk); "All of Turkey is a Single Fist" (Hurriyet); "The Turkish Nation is Behind You" (Posta); "We Shot the Traitors" (Sozcu).

The leader of the main opposition declared: "We have full confidence in our army, and we are wholeheartedly supporting the military operation." While the head of the leading business association said: "Our hearts are with the Turkish Armed Forces in this righteous war against terrorism."

However, there is a bloody civil war in the territory the Turkish Army is trying to invade. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government is against the operation. Assad is supported by Iran and Russia. It is unclear how the United States regards the incursion. If the United States and Russia green-lighted the action, and it looks like it, it is probably for their own benefit, in return for some concessions.

More importantly, the region has been under the de facto control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) since 2012. Even though the Turkish government considers the PYD a terrorist organisation, Western countries have supported the group. Afrin became part of the self-declared autonomous Kurdish region of Rojava on January 29th, 2014. Of course, Rojava's future is uncertain. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the PYD trained and armed by the United States, is battle-hardened from fighting ISIS, so it should not be assumed it will present Afrin to Turkey on a golden tray.

Turkish Kurds are a lot closer to the Syrian Kurds than those of Iraq and Iran, hence their reaction to this attack could very well be more direct and intense, as we have seen during the 2014 ISIS siege of Kobani.

Most probably, the facts on the ground and lost lives will soon show its supporters what a crazy idea this war was in the first place. Under these conditions, the only thing we could hope for is a quick change of heart that could be precipitated by a closer look at recent history.