Turkey’s Syria operation comes at cost of global goodwill

Turkey’s military incursion into northeastern Syria was never going to be popular. It aims to address a problem that only Turkey experiences and which, it seems, concerns only Turkey.

Nonetheless, the international reaction to Operation Peace Spring, as Turkey calls it, has taken Turkish officials by surprise. They expected disapproval, but the vehemence with which Turkey has been condemned is something new.

Foreign politicians have demanded that Turkey face sanctions; foreign officials have used their positions to brief in favour of Turkey’s enemy; and the foreign media has been near-universal in its condemnation.

Ömer Özkızılcık, who works at the SETA think tank, which is close to the Turkish government, said: “I think Operation Peace Spring had to deal on many fronts with the international media. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), with its affiliates and sympathisers in the West, has established a great and effective network to influence public opinion … Many mainstream media have lost all kinds of journalistic basics. I wish we would have seen a bit of this when real massacres were done in Syria by the Assad regime.”

For Turkey, all this was not expected. Operation Peace Spring has done great damage to Turkey's international stock, so much so that it is likely to reverse how skilfully Turkey handled another crisis – the murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate last year.

“The main difference in the Khashoggi affair was the way the media reacted to information from Turkey. While they trusted the Turkish sources then, in the current operation most are viewing everything from Turkey as untrue per se. The narrative dominates the discourse,” Özkızılcık said.

In the West, both in general and in the specific case of the Syrian Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), Kurds are thought of as plucky underdogs, beset on all sides, savagely victimised, and perhaps, in the European and American mind, “most like us”.

All this has intensified since both the Iraq war and the 2014 campaign against Islamic State in which Kurds in northern Iraq and Syria’s northeast were used by the global coalition as ground forces against Islamic State (ISIS).

Because many foreign fighters who joined ISIS travelled through Turkey, and Turkey did not fire upon ISIS when it was fighting the YPG in northern Syria, Turkey has never escaped innuendo that it supports ISIS, perhaps even created ISIS, and does not seriously want ISIS defeated.

Turkey prioritises, as it has always prioritised, defeating the YPG, which it sees as part of the PKK, despite of global opinion. It does this despite the vehemence and bipartisan condemnation Turkey has received in continental Europe, Britain and the United States. This criticism has become stronger and more aggressive.

Much of this has come from the U.S. and European press.

“The last two weeks, ostensible reporters for reputable outlets have printed uncritically every claim from the PKK, first against Turkey and the Peace Spring operation and later about the SDF role in killing the caliph,” said Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst, referring to the formerly U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which is made up of the YPG and other allied groups.

“The PKK's ability to set the agenda in the Western media is truly remarkable, a case study any aspiring insurgent or terrorist force should pay serious attention to,” he said.

U.S. soldiers expressing regret about their Syrian withdrawal have received wide coverage in U.S. media and the U.S. House of Representatives passed a sanctions bill against Turkey. 

“Turkey expected a harsh reaction, but nothing in this scale. Turkey hadn’t thought that those who were silent when almost one million were killed in Syria would go crazy,” Özkızılcık said.

All this was insufficient to alter Turkey's objectives in Syria.

In Europe, a negative view of Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is easier to sustain than a positive view – the European sense that Turkey supported ISIS still has great traction. Turkey’s actions in Syria in the past year, and especially the past month, have entrenched anti-Turkish feelings, and will have serious consequences.

“For Turkey the situation in northeast Syria is essential and a national security threat which may even harm its territorial integrity. Therefore, no sanctions would deter Turkey,” Özkızılcık said.

But all of these perceptions, including the shock and outrage expressed by European and U.S. politicians and the public, could snowball. International outrage could deny Turkey of sympathy and support as it finds itself continuing to navigate difficult waters in Syria, and trying hard to forge new working relationships with Russia and the Syrian government in order to reform the country after Turkey concludes its campaign against the YPG.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.