Opposition to Turkey’s Syria operation crushed at home as it multiplies abroad

Turkey’s military operation into northeast Syria kicked off on Wednesday with a round of air strikes and artillery bombardment on positions held by Kurdish-led militias and an intensive campaign on domestic and international media.

Operation Peace Spring was launched days after U.S. President Donald Trump effectively gave Turkey the green light during a phone conversation with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sept. 6.

Trump is a soft touch as far as Erdoğan is concerned – the self-professed master dealmaker has come out of nearly every interaction with the Turkish president assuring him that he will do his best to give him exactly what he asks for.

In this case, besides agreeing to the dismay of U.S. lawmakers to pull troops back and pave the way for Turkey’s operation, the American president began repeating Turkish talking points after the phone call.

By Wednesday night, he had told reporters in the White House that the United States had worked with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – “a rough group,” Trump said, but also one designated as a terrorist organisation by both Ankara and Washington.

It is the PKK’s links to the Kurdish-led groups across the border, including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Peoples’ Protection Units, that Ankara says justifies its offensive.

In Turkey, the logic behind this is intractable. The PKK is already widely viewed as a mortal threat, and this extends for many to the Syrian Kurdish groups across the border.

Since dissenting opinions have been virtually criminalised in Turkey in recent years, there is little scope for an alternative, even a more nuanced view to widely take root.

Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish political actor, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is frequently targeted with legal action. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has been accused of terror links for its informal alliance with the HDP.

And, after the Turkish military announced the beginning of its operation on Wednesday, Turkish police began legal proceedings against 78 people for social media posts criticising the move. The authorities say their dissenting posts were “black propaganda” made for a terrorist organisation.

On Friday, the Interior Ministry announced that nearly 500 social media accounts had been investigated and 121 people detained for what the government calls terrorist propaganda.

These infractions have passed with little protest, and it is not only because the government has made such crackdowns on dissent into a routine occurrence over the last six years. Large parts of the opposition are also fully in agreement with the operation.

So, Sözcü’s front page on Friday was almost indistinguishable from those of pro-government dailies, giving prominent space to a quote from Erdoğan and leading, like pro-AKP newspaper Akşam, with a story condemning the killing of a baby in the SDF’s mortar attacks on Turkish towns the day before. “Baby killer” is a label frequently used by Turkish politicians referring to the PKK, which has been responsible for the deaths of children in attacks spanning back decades.

This take by Sözcü – the highest circulation opposition-aligned newspaper – is representative of the many politicians, media figures and ordinary citizens who have put their enmity aside and got behind the military operation. Vocal support for this and other recent operations has flooded in from celebrities, while those who remain silent can face flack. The 121 people detained for their social media posts have been accused of “insulting Operation Peace Spring.”

The CHP, too, voted to authorise the offensive. The party’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu expressed reservations as he did so, but would not brave the turbulence that opposing the attack was bound to bring.

This leaves the HDP isolated, and a repeat of the makeshift alliance that won the opposition five of Turkey’s largest provinces in the local elections unlikely. Protests against the operation by the pro-Kurdish party and others will be equated by the government with support for terrorism.

Yet as much as this government conflates Kurdish opposition with the PKK at home, it has vehemently denied targeting Kurds in northern Syria, where it makes every effort to draw a line between the SDF and locals in areas it controls.

That the international media has almost entirely portrayed the conflict as one of “Turks vs Kurds” is one sign of Turkey’s failure to communicate its own views on the global stage.

This is despite a large-scale and sophisticated PR campaign by AKP figures. The president’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, is at the heart of the operation, which he kicked off with a Washington Post op-ed on Wednesday.

Elsewhere, Erdoğan’s senior adviser Gülnur Aybet held her own in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in which she forcefully conveyed Turkey’s rationale for the operation and addressed concerns that it could lead to an ISIS resurgence.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu used an op-ed in the New York Times on Saturday to “set the record straight” about Operation Peace Spring, which he said was neither an attack on Kurds nor a sign that his country was drifting from NATO.

None of this has been enough to win over an international audience that has been to a large extent convinced of the virtues of the SDF’s project. The beginning of the operation on Wednesday brought almost blanket condemnation of Trump’s “betrayal” of the Kurdish fighters described by a U.S. soldier quoted in a Foreign Policy piece as “some of the most noble people I’d ever met.”

U.S. veterans have said the operation could lead to “wholesale slaughter”, while news outlets like NPR, euronews and Democracy Now have published reports discussing the risk of genocide.

Many observers in Turkey view this rhetoric as hysterical, and it is bound to reinforce the view that Turkey’s security concerns are being ignored by its allies and the wider world.

In that sense, the defeat in the global PR battle is no big loss for Erdoğan, who anyway has made a habit of riling up his neighbours. But any sign that the fears around the Syrian operation are coming to pass will greatly strengthen the move by the U.S. Congress to impose devastating sanctions on Erdoğan and Turkey over the operation.