Operation to continue until terrorists are removed: Presidential communications director

Operation to continue until terrorists are removed: Presidential communications director

İpek Özbey-ANKARA
Operation to continue until terrorists are removed: Presidential communications director

Turkey’s cross-border counterterrorism operation with the Syrian National Army (SNA) in northern Syria will conclude when the public order on the two sides of the border is secured, a senior Turkish official has said.“Operation Peace Spring will continue until the Republic of Turkey is convinced that it has ensured the safety of its citizens and deems its accomplishments satisfactory,” said Fahrettin Altun, the communications director of the Turkish presidency.

Why has the operation become so necessary; can you talk about the importance of the timing?

Operation Peace Spring did not become necessary just now. It has been necessary since the day that the Obama administration decided to arm the terrorist organization PKK. As a matter of fact, we had been saying since that day that we would prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border. The implementation of our plan was delayed until the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. As you know, some of the terrorists in uniform, who were part of the coup plot, were in charge of the Syrian theater. Until July 15, they misled and misinformed the Turkish authorities, causing the loss of precious time. With the Turkish Armed Forces no longer suffering from the FETÖ virus, we could take necessary steps swiftly. Thus Operation Euphrates Shield started just a few weeks after the 2016 coup attempt. At that time, Turkey established that it would do whatever it takes to stop the terror corridor. Operation Olive Branch, in turn, demolished the terror corridor’s gateway to the Mediterranean. And now we are clearing the remaining area.

What are the political and military targets of the operation?

The operation’s primary objectives are to ensure the safety of our citizens by removing terrorists from our borders and to reunite Syrian refugees, who are afraid to return to their country due to terrorist threats, with their native lands. To accomplish those goals, we need to establish a 30-kilometer-deep safe zone between the Euphrates river and the Syria-Iraq border. The president unveiled the details of Turkey’s plan at the United Nations General Assembly. We will continue to take necessary steps to implement that plan.

In the Operation Peace Spring, local weapons are being used. How did these increase our power military-wise and psychologically?

We make active use of our armored vehicles, armed and unarmed drones, ‘Fırtına’ howitzers, reconnaissance satellites, sniper rifles and laser-guided missiles. The involvement of those weapons adds to our military’s strength and improves morale. At the same time, ASELSAN’s Koral Electronic Warfare System plays an important role in Operation Peace Spring. A domestic and native system, Koral prevents radar detection and cuts communications. Turkey’s defense and aviation sectors set a new record with a 37,7-percent year-on-year increase in exports. Our visionary steps to build a domestic defense industry enabled the Turkish Armed Forces to get a head start.

It has been said during the Operation Euphrates Operation and Afrin Operation that the Turkish army should enter the east of Euphrates River and it did enter. Is there a political difficulty running operation here?

I do not believe that there are any conditions under which the Turkish Armed Forces cannot operate. The Turkish military dates back 2000 years, during which it earned the entire world’s respect, and became the apple of our nation’s eye. In this sense, we are confident in the capabilities of our armed forces. When it comes to Operation Peace Spring, there is a certain sensitivity rather than a challenge. We planned this operation to ensure that there would be zero civilian casualties. At the same time, we made an extraordinary effort to protect historic artefacts, cultural and religious sites, and the civilian infrastructure. As you know, the terrorists have been carrying out attacks in civilian clothes and from residential areas in an attempt to exploit this consideration. Therefore, we end up having to distinguish between actual civilians and terrorists in civilian clothes on the ground. Yet our military has the power to overcome this challenge.

The PKK/YPG have bee receiving training and arms assistance from the U.S., with whom they have been cooperating for years. In this sense, is it possible to talk about military difficulties?

To compare NATO’s second largest standing army to a terrorist group would be a fool’s errand. The terrorist organization PKK/YPG’s power has been severely overestimated in recent years. Some people were particularly receptive to the Pentagon’s propaganda efforts. There were foreign journalists claiming that Afrin would be “Turkey’s Vietnam” and terrorist commanders pledging to teach us a lesson. You know what happened in the end. The same propaganda led the world to believe that the PKK/YPG terrorists were the most effective ground force against the terrorist group Daesh. A closer look, however, would reveal that there was a huge gap between U.S. support for the Free Syrian Army and the Obama administration’s assistance to PKK/YPG terrorists. The United States effectively stopped the moderate rebels from obtaining weapons and equipment that could tilt the balance of the Syrian civil war. U.S. officials, who held relevant positions at the time, support this view. By contrast, Washington supported counter-Daesh operations with extraordinary airpower, bombing places like Raqqa. To cut a long story short: We will remove the terrorists from our borders as quickly as possible without harming the civilian population or placing the lives of our military heroes at unnecessary risk.

Why are 30 kilometers important to us? What we cannot prevent if it is 15 kilometers instead of 30?

The liberation of Al-Bab, a former Daesh stronghold, was one of the most challenging parts of Operation Euphrates Shield. The city is located at the intersection of the M4 highway, which starts in Latakia on the Mediterranean coast and leads to the Iraqi border with stops in Idlib, Aleppo and Manbij, and a major north-south route. At the same time, Al-Bab is on a major road to Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. It is crucial that we do not think about Operation Peace Spring independently of Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch. They are like chapters of a single book. The president said that up to three million Syrian refugees from Turkey, Europe and elsewhere can return home if the safe zone’s southern border reaches Raqqa-Deir ez Zor line. As such, a depth of 30 kilometers enables Turkey to control the M4 highway and possibly access Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.

Will the YPG terrorist organization use the military presence of Western states in the region as a shield?

Turkey is doing everything in our power to prevent harm to the military personnel of our friends and allies. We said the same thing in our contacts with the United States. We told them to either support our efforts or step aside. They opted for the latter. We call on all other countries, whose military and other personnel are operating on the ground, to do the same. Obviously, the choice is theirs alone. In the end, we will do what our national interest dictates.

Does the operation have a timespan?

Operation Peace Spring will continue until the Republic of Turkey is convinced that it has ensured the safety of its citizens and deems its accomplishments satisfactory.

Will Syrian asylum seekers be settled in the to-be established safe zone?

The cross-border operation will remove terrorists from the border region. A significant part of the Syrian refugees in Turkey had to flee the same area. Among them are many Kurds whom PKK terrorists exiled because those Kurds did not share the group’s twisted ideology. They want to go home and live in peace. The safe zone will enable them to reunite with their ancestral lands. Obviously, there are steps that we need to take to encourage people to return to Syria. Here’s why: We all have families. Would you take your kids to a place with no schools or hospitals? Can you build a life there if there is inadequate housing? When we talk about a safe zone, we are really talking about a comprehensive plan – a reconstruction effort. We have seen Syrian refugees relocating to other areas, which we liberated, once the situation there became tenable. Clearly, Turkey cannot be expected to do everything alone. The international community must support our efforts financially, and by encouraging Syrian refugees to return.

What do you think about criticisms on how some domestic political affairs have made the operation into the east of Euphrates an urgent one?

The Americans have a saying dating back to the Cold War: “Politics stops at the water’s edge.” In other words, political calculations are left aside when it comes to protecting national interests. The same goes for Turkey. The leaders of almost all political parties announced their support for the counter-PKK operation. Likewise, we have been receiving messages from private citizens, which show that Turkey is united. Some groups might want, for a range of reasons, to stop the resolution of certain issues and feed off a perpetuation of problems. Some people, whose interests are hurt by the operation, might make such claims. But they are irrelevant.

 The view that only way out from Syria is meeting with Assad is also quite prevalent… Why Turkey is not approaching this?

I do not believe that there is room for romantic visions in foreign policy. Unfortunately, some people keep looking for an easy way out of the Syrian civil war, in which the entire world is now involved. They argue that Turkey should talk to Damascus, let bygones be bygones, and bring peace to Syria. I find that view somewhat romantic and detached from the realities on the ground. The key to peace and stability in Syria is to put in place a political structure that represents the entire population. For this purpose, we launched the Astana process together with Russia and Syria and negotiations are underway to draft a new constitution. We deeply care about this process, which brings together the various Syrian stakeholders. Turkey’s top priority is to ensure that the Syrian people are governed as they please, and that Syria’s territorial integrity and political unity remain intact.

The president has said ‘We are there on grounds of the Adana agreement’. It was interpreted as a step taken towards Damascus. Is this correct?

No, that would be an inaccurate interpretation.

What kind of incident at the field would trouble Turkey in the diplomatic sense. The image that civilians are being killed have been created since the first day of the operation. In the meantime, the terrorist organization targeted civilians. Why the world is staying silent to this?

Everybody knows how much attention we pay to protecting civilians. If we did not, we would have bombed Al-Bab rather than clear every single building individually – as was done in Mosul and Raqqa. In other words, the liberation of Al-Bab alone attests to Turkey’s position on this matter. By contrast, the terrorists have been deliberately targeting Turkish civilians and, more recently, reporters. We will keep telling the world about that.

Actually, Turkey has been left alone in the operation? Did we envisage this?

When one reaches a critical juncture of history, one has no choice but to do take certain necessary steps – whatever the cost. Let us think back to Cyprus. Had Turkey shaped its policy, thinking who would say what, there would be no Turkish presence left on the island today. Like Cyprus, the proposed terror corridor in northern Syria is a clearly marked red line. We will take all necessary steps there until we accomplish our mission and deem our accomplishments satisfactory. Of course, I must acknowledge our friends and allies, including Qatar, Pakistan and Azerbaijan, that stood in solidarity with Turkey in difficult times.

What do you think about Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s maneuver?

American politics is a combination of interests. Many players define and redefine their positions according to changes in the balance of power. In a 2015 hearing at the U.S. Congress, Senator Graham said the complete opposite of where he stands today. He told the Obama administration that PKK and PYD were one and the same – that he agreed with Turkey’s objections. More recently, it became clear that two Russian nationals had recently pranked Sen. Graham into thinking that he was speaking to the Turkish minister of defense. In that call, Graham refers to Turkey as an important ally and offers to find a win-win solution. Clearly, Sen. Graham’s inconsistency and unpredictability would only tarnish his own reputation. If you sit in South Carolina and try to give Turkey a piece of your mind, you might find yourself disappointed in the end.

What do you think about Russia’s approach?

The Russian permanent representative to the United Nations made his country’s position perfectly clear. He stressed that ethnic cleansing and demographic engineering efforts on the ground had paved the way to Operation Peace Spring. We are working closely with Russia within the Astana framework to find a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict. Turkey cares about Syria’s territorial integrity and political unity – as do the Russians.

Russian Foreign Minister offered to mediate between the Syrian regime and PYD? Will the PYD turn its face to the Assad regime?

PYD has repeatedly cozied up to the regime in the past. You might recall that they effectively begged the regime to interfere in Afrin. The terrorist organization, however, no longer serves anyone’s interests. They have nothing left to offer. Turkey has shut the door on the times when stakeholders relied on terrorist groups to accomplish their goals in Syria.

What about Saudi Arabia or Egypt’s stance?

Some countries are frustrated with the president’s commitment to telling the truth and Turkey’s commitment to a principled foreign policy. Had Turkey kept silent when a bloody coup took place in Egypt and the coup plotters massacred innocent people in public squares – or agreed to cover up Jamal Khashoggi’s murder when Saudi Arabia dispatched a death squad to its consulate in Istanbul, or ignored the bombing of civilians in Yemen— they may have acted differently today. Turkey cannot and does not set its course according to worthless condemnations and statements by illegitimate regimes.

It is known how the world’s propaganda tools work for the benefit of YPG. Do you have a plan against this, as the communications director?

It would be wrong to unveil our game plan at this time. We developed our strategy a while back and kept it in a safe for some time. We made multi-dimensional, comprehensive preparations. Our military heroes do the heavy lifting in this operation. We take action to ensure that we support them in any way we can. My office is taking necessary steps to combat disinformation and reach out to foreign contacts among others. In recent years, the terrorist group has been systematically portrayed in a certain way to international audiences. Consequently, there has been some confusion even in Turkey, which has been fighting terrorists for four decades. Some politicians could dare to tell the people that they placed their trust in the terrorist organization. We need to be patient and remember that it will take time to show the group’s true face to the world. By the time we are done, however, everyone that supports the terrorists today will be utterly embarrassed.

Why can’t we convince the world of the truth that YPG is PKK’s extension in Syria? What do they not understand?

Let’s make one thing clear: There is nothing about PKK/YPG terrorists that Turkey could not clarify or the world does not understand. There is a difference between understanding and denial. Official websites of the United States Government described YPG as the terrorist organization PKK’s Syrian branch. When the Obama administration decided to arm this group, all that content was deleted overnight. Likewise, people like Lindsey Graham, who accuse Turkey of invasion and ethnic cleansing, and threaten us with sanctions today, could tell everything as it is in a prank call with Russians identifying themselves as a Turkish minister. Do you think that Americans or European do not accept those facts behind closed doors? In this sense, there is nothing that Turkey has done inadequately and some people are not just incapable of understanding. From the U.S. perspective, there are certain American interests. It is a question whether the truth helps them or hurts them. The reality on the ground is perfectly clesar. Once we remove this organization from our borders, they will have to revise their calculus.

Will Turkey assume the maintenance of imprisoned ISIL terrorists in Syria’s northeast?

Let me make one thing clear: Nobody is dumping those terrorists on Turkey. The scope of our cross-border operation is clear. We stated that we will initially go 30 kilometers deep into Syrian territory. The hyped prisons and detention centers are located outside this zone. Meanwhile, thousands of Daesh terrorists are behind bars within Turkey’s borders and in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas. There are also deradicalization centers there. If there are Daesh terrorists where we are operating currently, it’s not like we will let them walk. We will treat them the same way as we will treat all other terrorists. What happens to terrorists outside the safe zone, however, is not a question that we need to deal with today.

Do we have the capacity to fight against ISIL alone and control their camps?

Since the Syrian civil war started, Turkey has been ahead of the international community in terms of counter-terror efforts. We made an extraordinary effort to stem the flow of foreign terrorist fighters to the conflict zone. Turkey had to identify and deport terrorists, who arrived from the same European countries that criticized our efforts today. I don’t want to name names, but we have seen foreign fighters from certain countries coming back with new passports upon being deportation. If we shared everything that happened at the time, many European officials would have difficulty showing their faces in public. Likewise, you might recall that Turkey identified the perpetrators of several terror attacks in Europe and warned European officials, who took no precautions whatsoever. In this new chapter, which began with Operation Euphrates Shield, we continued those efforts and deployed combat forces to the Syrian theater. I find it laughable that the capabilities and intentions of Turkey, a country that did the heavy lifting throughout this episode, is even questioned.

Do you find an ISIL resurgence possible after the U.S. withdrawal decision?

For several years, the terrorist organization Daesh has served as a convenient excuse for many sides. If a given country wanted to tilt the balance of power in a certain way, they immediately played the Daesh card. In recent days, the PKK/YPG terrorists have been threatening to release Daesh terrorists from prison. Clearly, there will be a security problem if terrorists, who are behind bars, are simply allowed to leave. Yet it is impossible to uproot Daesh and similar groups with military action alone. We must address the social root causes of radicalization. The proposed safe zone serves that purpose exactly.

The EU has harshly objected this. Erdoğan said ‘we will open the gates and send the refugees’ to the EU. What will happen if we open our borders?

The European Union has a tendency to dislike everything and feel constantly concerned. Nobody in Europe acknowledges that Turkey has hosted millions of Syrian refugees for eight years. They do not say that Europe even failed to pay the 6 billion Euros that it pledges, whereas Turkey delivered $40 billion worth of goods and services to refugees. The president told the world, at the United Nations General Assembly, what exactly we hope to do to reunite refugees with their native lands. No other country has proposed anything concrete. Moreover, Turkey volunteered to launch a cross-border operation to set up the proposed safe zone. Instead of thanking us, the Europeans complain about Turkey’s out of sheer ideological blindness. The president thus responded to the Europeans in the only language they understand. He urged Europe to share with Turkey if they have a better idea – like admitting all refugees who are currently in Turkey. Otherwise, he said, do not stand in our way.