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Oct 11 2019

Turkey’s lose-lose operation

At just after 4 p.m local time (GMT+3) on Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the launch of Peace Spring, the military operation in northeast Syria, where he said Turkey would battle Kurdish fighters and the Islamic State and create a “safe zone” to resettle refugees.

The motion authorising the state to launch the operation was approved by the main opposition Republican People’s Party and nationalist Good Party, which make up the opposition Nation Alliance, and was opposed only by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

The operation is of “vital importance to (Turkey’s) national security” and is the country’s right by international law, the motion said, while Turkey’s leaders have stressed it is being carried out to bring peace to the region. Those who oppose it prefer to call it an attack or an invasion.

Indeed, the inclusion of the word “peace” is not nearly enough sweep debate over the operation’s shaky legal basis under the rug.

There is nothing in Erdoğan’s statement or the parliamentary motion with the force to persuade the wider world of the operation’s legitimacy. To enter another country’s territory in the name of national security without that country’s permissions is precisely an invasion.

Moreover, the authority and responsibility to protect Syria’s territorial integrity rests directly with the Syrian government. Turkey’s drive to create a “safe zone” within the country and use it to build new settlements to rehouse refugees is a unilateral action unpermitted by international law.

Turkey has been dragged into an open-ended adventure with no end in sight by Erdoğan, by those lobbying for war in Ankara who encouraged him and by the opposition that supported his decision.

The military and political goals of the operation are still unclear – will it lead to a permanent Turkish military presence in Syrian territory? Erdoğan says the aim is to fight ISIS as well as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but many of Turkey’s Syrian auxiliaries that have been loosed on the SDF are close ideological relatives of the extremist jihadist group.

There is still a chance it will be cancelled, but if Erdoğan’s Washington meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump goes ahead on Nov. 13, it is clear the Turkish president will use any military gains made in the operation as leverage in negotiations.

Erdoğan is a a political gambler who frequently raises the stakes and bluffs prodigiously, and who employs a strategy of provoking crises to serve his own interests and perpetuate his rule. With this operation he has raised the stakes by an order of magnitude, aiming to hit several birds with one stone.

First is Turkey’s relations with the United States, Russia and the European Union. In Washington, he has taken his biggest risk by attempting to play Trump against Congress and U.S. institutions. His goal is to have the latter back down, eliciting confirmation of Turkey as an indispensable ally to the United States. Doing so would be a massive boost to Erdoğan’s prestige.

But unless Turkey withdraws quickly from Syria, there is bipartisan support in Congress for tough sanctions. With Trump facing massive pressure in Washington, where he faces impeachment, the chance that the U.S. president can continue shielding Turkey is slim.

Russia and the EU are simpler prospects. Though Moscow may not be at ease with the operation, it does not negatively impact its own strategy in Syria.

In fact, Moscow believes the offensive could force the SDF to deal with its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, which would boost the Syrian government’s legitimacy. The Russians are aware that anti-Kurdish circles in Ankara that have pushed for the operation are encouraging Erdoğan, too, to deal with Assad.

And, though Erdoğan’s plan to transfer more than 2 million Syrian refugees to new settlements in the safe zone may breach international law, it is doubtless an attractive prospect for the EU.

The strategic priority for Brussels is to keep the number of refugees entering its territory as low as possible while keeping trade relations with Ankara ticking along.

The real problem for Erdoğan when it comes to the EU will be their concern over what happens to ISIS members held in Kurdish-controlled prisons, who number as many as 30,000 and many of whom come from European countries.

The Turkish president may believe this can be resolved in negotiations with the EU. If the military advance goes smoothly and Turkey takes over supervision of the captives, it will give him another source of leverage over Europe besides the refugees.

But of primary concern for Erdoğan’s game plan is Turkey’s domestic political scene.

The president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been weakened by losses of major cities including Istanbul and Ankara in this year’s local elections and by dissent from former heavyweights in the party. At the same time, Turkey’s economic woes since a currency crisis hit in August 2018 have hit Erdoğan hard. He has chosen to respond with the military operation.

An important factor in this decision is the knowledge that it will drive a wedge between opposition factions, which have been struggling to balance their commitment to the Kurdish voters who supported them in the local elections with the strong vein of Turkish nationalism running through their parties.

In this respect it seems Erdoğan’s plan has paid off: the opposition, as predicted, has supported the operation, confirming the president’s authority. In the case of a deep crisis in Turkey, this lays the foundations for a four or five-party “national unity government” with Erdoğan still at the helm.

The case could well be made that Erdoğan has pursued one-man rule through a series of civil coups since his government faced nationwide anti-government protests in 2013.

Since then, Erdoğan has overcome corruption investigations into top cabinet ministers in December 2013 by bringing the judiciary and media to heel, won election to the presidency in 2014 amid controversy over the election conditions, unilaterally ended a peace process with Kurdish militants in 2015, used the state of emergency after the July 2016 coup attempt to disable parliament and subdue the opposition, and secured vastly enhanced powers in a constitutional referendum held under repressive emergency rule in 2017.

No matter how tough the circumstances are, Erdoğan plays his riskiest political hand, choosing to fight.

What comes next is a cause for deep concern. The operation bears great military and diplomatic risks. Unfortunately, the small section of Turkey’s media that had long maintained the appearance of opposition to the government has been pushed by the delirium of nationalism to take its place alongside Erdoğan in this military adventure. 

As the state of war continues, it appears certain that this nationalist hysteria will continue to spread, leading to renewed pressure on the Kurdish movement.

By voting for the military operation, the Nation Alliance has aided and abetted the demonisation of the HDP and Kurds more generally. At the next stage, Erdoğan could move to consolidate his own power by lifting parliamentary immunity from HDP lawmakers and having them arrested. This will render the opposition helpless once again, and more than this will bring them firmly into Erdoğan’s orbit.

The Syrian operation may be named Peace Spring, but it will not be the source of any gains for Turkey. The future can only be bleak from the moment a leader monopolises power, when his country’s interests are supplanted by his own.