Mar 26 2018

Turkey’s Erdoğan turns criticism of Syria operations to his advantage

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is turning Western criticism of Turkey’s military adventures in Syria to his own political advantage, wrote Thomas Seibert writes in The Arab Weekly.

The seeming success of Turkey’s military occupation of Syria’s northeastern Afrin region, which began in January and culminated in the speedy and relatively bloodless capture of capture of the town of Afrin on March 18, surprised many who had predicted a protracted fight. It also faced strong criticism from Western governments.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel characterised the operation as “unacceptable” over concerns for civilians caught up in the fighting, whilst experts working for Germany’s parliament concluded there was no legal justification for the Afrin occupations, said Seibert. A BBC fact check also contradicted Ankara’s claim that Afrin had been used as a base for more than 700 attacks on Turkish territory, finding evidence of only 26 such incidents.

Washington also took a dim view of the Afrin operation, as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that Ankara’s Afrin operation targeted, has been instrumental in the struggle against Islamic State (ISIS).

Besides Afrin, Turkey has controlled an adjoining area of Syria since 2016, leading some analysts to suppose it may intend to establish a protectorate in northern Syria. Turkish officials have also made consistent threats to expand the scope of Turkey’s military interventions in Syria further east, to additional areas controlled by the YPG and other Kurdish groups, which Turkey views as terrorist organisations. Doing so would risk direct clashes with U.S. troops stationed on the ground there.

“Ankara has two immediate goals in Syria: a cordon sanitaire enforced by Arab proxies to keep the YPG away from the Turkish border, and to prevent a contiguous and autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Syria,” wrote Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker and senior fellow at the Washington think-tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). “The Afrin operation has provided Erdoğan with the golden opportunity to claim that he will resettle Turkey’s Syrian refugees in these regions, as part of an attempt to appeal to the anti-refugee sentiment among his voters.”

Erdoğan can also turn Western criticism to his own political advantage with elections looming, Erdemir believes. “The criticism of the Afrin operation voiced by Turkey’s NATO allies will present Erdoğan opportunities to fuel conspiracy theories, as he continues to portray developments in northern Syria as yet another proof of the West’s sinister plans to divide and weaken Turkey,”