Turkish military operation a global PR disaster

Turkey’s military operation in Syria has been a public relations disaster on a global scale. It has brought accusations against the Turkish government of genocide, ethnic cleansing, pillaging and support for terrorism from all corners and elicited a level of condemnation rarely levelled against even the worst human rights abusers.

The response from Turkish officials has done nothing to change these perceptions abroad, and at home media outlets are simply ticking off a well-worn list of grievances with the West in retaliation.

Meanwhile, the risk that belligerent statements from government officials could raise ill will toward Turkey even higher is ever present.

The word doing the rounds on social media since Ankara launched Operation Peace Sprung on Oct. 9 has been “genocide.” This was very much the word used by Turkey’s Kurdish-led foes to gather support against the operation, and it worked.

Headlines on major news outlets raised fears of a genocide in northern Syria since the day the operation was launched, and a U.S. senator took up the case in Congress using the same term.

This is too much for Turkish officials, who have consistently stressed that their operation is against an armed group they consider terrorists, and not the Kurdish inhabitants of the region. Moreover, it was the United States that propped up the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) despite Turkey’s objections for years, and whose contradictory policies, Lara Seligman wrote in Foreign Policy this week, led to today’s chaos.

Yet the end result is that it is Turkey that is now associated around the world with genocide. The point was further pressed home on Tuesday, when the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in support of a non-binding resolution recognising the mass killings of Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire as genocide. Turkey had lobbied for decades to prevent such a vote. Operation Peace Spring has foiled years of effort in a single month.

The response to this resolution in Turkey has been relatively muted, with Erdoğan devoting only a few minutes in a speech on Wednesday to reject the resolution and insist that his country had nothing to learn from the perpetrators of a genocide on Native Americans. Newspapers avoided the issue on their front pages on Wednesday, and on Thursday one daily, Ortadoğu, printed an infamous image of a torture victim at the U.S.-run Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib to ask “who is the real perpetrator of genocide.”

These responses are so well-worn at home that they come across like repetitions of a litany, and they will not convince many internationally.

In a decade when Syrian President Bashar Assad has spent years bombing civilians out of his own cities, when China is pursuing a policy that appears aimed to erase the culture of millions of Uighur Muslims, and when all signs say the Saudi government organised the murder and dismemberment of a journalist in their own consulate, Turkey’s Syria operation has provoked a remarkable and concerted pushback from Western media outlets.

This in part appears to be driven by statements, some given anonymously, from current and former U.S. national security officials like Brett McGurk, the former envoy heading the coalition against ISIS, who have seen the strategy they built around the SDF brought to ruin.

McGurk has vocally condemned the operation, and the U.S. troop withdrawal that spurred it, and on the day Turkish troops moved across the border the former envoy published a twitter thread suggesting that Turkey had at least tacitly supported ISIS.

This has become another common charge against Turkey this month, particularly after ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. operation just 5 km across Turkey’s border with Syria.

U.S. officials are now investigating whether links exist between Turkish intelligence and ISIS, columnist Eli Lake wrote for Bloomberg.

Whether or not they find any concrete links may be immaterial: A consensus seems to be forming that Erdoğan’s Turkey has funded and collaborated with ISIS, mostly based on testimony from jihadist captives and circumstantial evidence related to Turkey’s border policies throughout the Syrian conflict.

This is the line that has long been taken by Kurdish activists, by Turkish officials purged for their alleged links to the outlawed Gülen movement, by Turkey’s enemies in Egypt and the Gulf and by pro-Assad anti-imperialist leftists.

It has been helped along by the profusion of violent images and video footage shot by Turkey’s auxiliaries in the Syrian National Army (formerly the Free Syrian Army), which have been presented as proof that Turkey has been backing radical jihadists.

It is now openly espoused by figures like U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a leftfield Democrat hopeful to run in next year’s presidential election, but it has also gained enough traction to be discussed in established liberal publication the New Republic.

Even Al Jazeera, the news network owned by Turkey’s strongest regional allies in Qatar, angered Ankara with its negative coverage of the military operation. This provoked a riposte from Turkey’s state-run TRT World, which accused the Qatari network of presenting a false narrative “that Turkey is looking to occupy land for the sake of expansionism, and that Turkey’s objectives are in line with those of extremists.”

Turkish officials will surely continue complaining about the unfair treatment they are receiving from everyone outside their own borders, and this may reinforce the siege mentality that Erdoğan has cultivated in recent years, but most of the rest of the world has already made its mind up on the military operation.

The impact of this is already becoming clear: on Tuesday, the U.S. House also voted overwhelmingly in favour of a bill to impose sanctions on Turkey, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has expressed misgivings about imposing sanctions, will be feeling the pressure once the vote comes to the Senate.

If the sanctions bills do pass, it could mean severe and long-term damage to Turkey’s economy, as well as measures personally targeting Erdoğan and cabinet ministers.

The widespread disgust at Turkey’s offensive will also surely make it far more difficult for the Turkish president to secure the international funding he seeks for his plan to build new settlements for Syrian refugees in the “safe zone” carved out during Operation Peace Spring.

This is saying nothing of the long-term moral and diplomatic impact that countless international news headlines associating Turkey with genocide, jihad and terrorism will have.


© Ahval English

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

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