Turkey’s Syria offensive deepens ethnic divide at home

The Turkish military offensive in northern Syria could deepen the ethnic divide in Turkey, with Kurds mostly objecting to the operation and Turks overwhelmingly supporting it.

Turkey aims to establish a 30-km deep safe zone in northern Syria to remove the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from territories along its border. It sees the SDF and as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey for more than three decades. Some 40,000 people, most of them Kurds, are thought to have been killed in the conflict.

The Turkish government’s backing of Islamist rebel factions in the Syrian civil war, which have fought the secular Syrian Kurdish forces as well as the Syrian government, has exacerbated divisions in Turkey.

Fatma Yavuz, a Kurdish woman living in Turkey’s biggest city, Istanbul, said Turkish troops should withdraw from Syria, adding that Kurds wanted peace, not war.

“What does this state want from the Kurds? Kurds haven’t done anything bad to you,” she said.

The Turkish government has warned other countries not to call the offensive a war or an invasion, saying Turkey was exercising its right to self-defence against what it calls a terrorist threat.

“If the whole world says that it is not terror and you are the only one calling it terror, then you might be the one having a problem,” said Yaşar Toker, a resident of Istanbul from the southeastern province of Siirt, a city of Kurds and Arabs.

Turkish opposition parties scored a rare victory by uniting to defeat President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in March local elections, helped by the main pro-Kurdish party, which did not put up candidates in many cities outside the southeast and urged its supporters to vote tactically.

Toker said he had supported the successful main opposition party candidate in the Istanbul mayoral election, but was now disappointed.

“Whenever they find themselves in trouble, they use the flag as a saviour. This is not patriotism. Patriotism understanding the situation of the people,” he said.

Others said Erdoğan was using the Syria operation to mask an economic downturn that was eroding the support for the ruling Islamist party.

For those living near Syria, the civil war has never been a distant conflict, but one that has directly affected family members living on the other side of the border.

“Those who went fighting are our soldiers, those they are killing are our relatives,” said Azmi Bakır, from the town of Ceylanpınar in Turkey’s Şanlıurfa province, one of the two places from where the Turkish military is pushing into Syria.

“I do not think we have any business there. We will become part of the domestic turmoil in Syria,” he said.

Police have arrested more than 100 people for social media posts critical of the offensive, but the overwhelming majority of Turks are firmly behind the operation.

Makbule Çiçekçi, a 35-year old woman, said: “As a woman, I will join the army if they call me, I will go to defend my country either on the west or the east of the Euphrates.”

The United States imposed sanctions on Turkey over the operation and European countries have limited arms sales. Turkey says its NATO allies are ignoring its security concerns.

“We have given the best answer to the United States by crossing the border,” said Merit Çakmak. “We had lost our essence for 80 years, we have returned to it in the last 15-16 years.”