Turkey’s Syria offensive is a nationalist political campaign

Domestic political concerns are driving Turkey’s offensive in northeast Syria, and the nationalist fervour whipped up by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and pro-government media has silenced nearly all dissent and put Kurds in the crosshairs. 

Launched on Oct. 9, Turkey’s military operation in Syria has killed at least 250 people, mostly Kurds, and displaced some 300,000 people, leading to concerns of ethnic cleansing by prominent observers, including former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. 

Turkish officials have laid out two main objectives for the incursion, clearing the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its affiliate the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from its border and resettling up to two million refugees in a planned safe zone. 

Merve Tahiroğlu, Turkey programme coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy, views both of these objectives as politically driven. 

“This military incursion accomplished major political motivations in Turkey,” she told Ahval in a podcast. “Domestic politics are really driving it.” 

Most observers agree that growing frustration with the presence of Syrian refugees and the economic strains they have put on Turkey played a key role in local election losses that Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered in Istanbul and other major cities this year. 

This could explain Ankara’s plan to resettle most of the refugees in Syria, according to Tahiroğlu. She sees returning millions of refugees to Syria as unlikely, mainly because Turkey has only gained control of a small strip of land in northeast Syria, and believes Erdoğan will suffer politically as a result. 

Secondly, key to Ekrem Imamoğlu’s victory in the Istanbul mayoral election earlier this year, said Tahiroğlu, was the support of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which decided not to run a candidate in Istanbul and other cities in order to improve the chances of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). 

When Erdoğan’s AKP suffered its first major political setback and failed to win an outright majority in June 2015 general elections, the ruling party blamed the HDP, which had managed to pass the 10-percent threshold needed to take up seats in parliament. 

A month later, the government renewed its conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led an insurgency in Turkey since 1984 and is labelled a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, as well as Turkey. 

“The ‘Kurdish question’ has always been a practical tool in the hands of the ruling political elites in Turkey to maintain their political power and to ease political turbulence by reunifying right-wing nationalist civil society and political organisations under the flag of Turkish chauvinism,” Celal Cahit Agar, a lecturer at St. Andrews University, wrote this week for The Canary. 

Turkey’s ongoing offensive in northeast Syria has effectively ended the emerging partnership between the CHP and the HDP, which, if solidified, could have posed a real threat to the AKP, according to Tahiroğlu.

Turkey, which sees the YPG as an extension of the PKK, has been presenting its Syria operation as a counter-terrorism offensive - a description Tahiroğlu questions. “Turkey saw the SDF statelet as a strategic threat, but it’s hard to say a military threat ever existed,” she said. “The YPG never attacked Turkey.”

She said Turkey’s real concern had been that U.S. support for the YPG in its fight against Islamic State (ISIS) was strengthening the group and boosting its international reputation. 

“The more the YPG in Syria grew popular on the international stage because of its fight against ISIS, the more negatively that affected Turkey’s peace process with the PKK,” said Tahiroğlu. 

Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Turkey’s Kurdish problem had always been a domestic issue linked to the PKK, and that a sensible policy would be to restart the peace talks that ended abruptly in 2015. 

“But there’s really no goodwill on either side so negotiations would be difficult and fraught, and they’re internationalised now,” he said. “It’s much more difficult to solve the PKK issue now than it was from 2012 to 2015 because of the Syrian crisis.” 

Tahiroğlu extended the absence of goodwill to Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, who represent about 18 percent of the population. 

“Even if the PKK in the short to medium-term makes a strategic calculation to relaunch talks, Turkey’s Syria policy will continue to impact its broader reconciliation with its Kurdish population,” she said. 

This is in part because Turkish officials and pro-government media have been fanning the flames of nationalism. Despite the absence of any apparent national security threat, Erdoğan said in a video message marking Turkey’s Republic Day on Tuesday that his country was waging a war similar to its War of Independence. 

“He also said this is the second War of Independence after the failed coup attempt in July 2016 when he was pushing through massive purges under a state of emergency,” said Tahiroğlu. “We have a heightened militarism inside Turkey. Ultra-nationalist feelings are boosted, there are all sorts of militant spectacles, and this helps crystallise anti-Kurdish sentiment.” 

A few days into Turkey’s offensive, a video posted on social media appeared to show Turkey-backed rebels pulling Syrian Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf out of her car and killing her. Days later it was revealed that her body had been mutilated after she was beaten with heavy objects and dragged around by her hair.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper described her killing as a possible war crime, while Turkish pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak saw it as a triumph. “The terror group received a huge blow,” it said. “Khalef was neutralised in a successful operation.”

On Wednesday, responding to U.S. special forces’ killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Erdoğan suggested Turkey could similarly target SDF commander Mazlum Kobani, a U.S. ally until a few weeks ago.  

“Some countries eliminate terrorists whom they consider as a threat to their national security, wherever they are,” he said. “Therefore this means those countries accept that Turkey has the same right. This includes the terrorists they shake hands with and praised.”

This tough talk, combined with the offensive, may be boosting Erdoğan’s political support. Within Turkey, a recent poll put public approval for the Syria operation at nearly 80 percent. 

But Tahiroğlu doubts the accuracy of that number, pointing out that nearly 200 people have been detained for social media posts criticising the war.

“I would wager that there are enough in-built organic forces that could critique this incursion, but they are currently being silenced,” she said, mentioning the many academics who have been detained for denouncing Turkish military aggressions against Kurds.

“The HDP is very critical of the Syria operation, but they’re not allowed to speak,” said Tahiroğlu. “The current co-chairs are indicted, the previous co-chairs are in jail, multiple members have been in jail under dubious terrorism links.”