Ertuğrul Günay
Feb 01 2018

Lasting peace requires a new direction

Calling Turkey’s military operation into northwest Syria “Olive Branch”, a name with overtones of peace, was a clever piece of work. But in Anatolia, we have a saying along the lines of, “You can’t get honey just by shouting about it.” You need to be able to produce it!

Though one might expect that after six years, the dangers posed by Syria’s civil war would have decreased, in fact, because of a series of missteps, it continues to create new problems.

On Jan. 20, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) began a direct military operation on Syrian territory, on the basis that the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers a terrorist organisation, had settled immediately across Turkey’s southern border and presented a threat.

The United States, Russia and European governments responded to operation with sober warnings, rather than harsh criticism.

The ongoing operation bears one fundamental difference to Turkey’s prior foray into Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield, which took place from 2016-17. The stated aim of Euphrates Shield was to wipe the Islamic State from the region, after the terrorist organisation had sprung up from the Syrian civil war, and the mistakes in Iraq.

Framed in this way, the operation had the world’s clear and distinct support.

This time the world’s support for Turkey’s operation is not so clear. It is as though, despite condoning Turkey’s reasons for the operation, everybody is waiting for the operation to become bogged down in an impassable quagmire.

The field of operations this time is more difficult and dangerous than the last. Euphrates Shield was conducted on smoother terrain, but still went on for seven months, and resulted in large numbers of casualties. Moreover, the weather conditions were more suitable than now.

The TSK Command are aware of this, which is why it has prioritised artillery and air strikes. The performance of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Syrian opposition forces affiliated to Turkey who have advanced as a vanguard force in the operation, have been far below expectations.

The character of this force, some of them said to be former Islamist fighters, has been questioned and it has yet to secure any military success worth noting.

More than any of this, it is of the greatest concern that the operation will soon have to extend to settlements, where it will become difficult to tell armed insurgents from civilians.

The main danger for Turkey comes from propaganda that presents casualties in densely populated areas as ordinary civilians who did not pose a threat to Turkey, particularly if this perception takes root around the world.

The fact that the operation was named “Olive Branch” shows that Turkey’s leadership has foreseen this danger. It is clear they sought a name that carries the notion of peace for the new operation, whereas Euphrates Shield carried clear military connotations.

The region’s inhabitants, predominantly Arab and Kurdish, are not just neighbours of Turkey, but our citizens’ relatives, our kin. Certainly not enemies!

The intervention to rehabilitate the region will cause these people to suffer injustices, and this will hurt our own citizens, too.

So, the name “Olive Branch” is one that has been chosen with this danger in mind, to convey that Turkey aims not to threaten the people of the region, but to bring them peace.

Bringing peace, though, is not as easy as choosing a peaceful name for a military operation.

Achieving peace in the region is a difficult task, and one that will take arduous and responsible moves that require long-term planning and experienced minds.

The former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, James Jeffrey, and foreign policy specialist David Pollock have written an important article on this subject.

The writers state that the first condition for a resumption of dialogue between Turkey and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political wing of Turkey’s opponents in Operation Olive Branch, is that the PYD distances itself from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) a terrorist-designated organisation that has a long history of violent insurgency in Turkey. The United States can mediate the formation of this dialogue.

The PKK, with its use of violent means since its establishment, has provided pretexts for authoritarians, strengthening their hands for the last quarter of a century.

It has generally had a negative effect on Turkey’s democratisation, and in particular on the efforts to reconcile Kurdish and Turkish politics, hindering any attempts in this direction.

It is also classified around the world, (except in Russia, I believe), as a terrorist organisation.

If the PYD were to distance itself from the PKK, and define itself as an organisation to advocate Kurdish rights according to universal laws and only in the framework of a reconstructed Syria, this would be a creative and disruptive move that would lead to new developments in the region and open new doors for dialogue.

The region must set aside conflicts and find a new path. The way to lasting peace is not the path it has been following until now. None of the Middle East’s problems have been solved through war.

Is it possible for the PYD to distance itself from the PKK, as Jeffrey suggests? In this case, would Turkey rethink its opposition to the PYD’s goal of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, and have the strategic nous to support and safeguard it?