East of Euphrates
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signaled a new operation against the PKK in Syria at the Turkish Defense Industry Summit in Ankara on Dec. 12. “We stated that we will start our new military operation against the separatist terrorist organization to liberate the east of Euphrates within a few days. Our target is not American soldiers, it is the terrorists who are active in the region,” he said.
The next day, Turkish fighter jets bombed PKK targets in northern Iraq, near Sinjar, empowering Erdoğan’s words.
Is this just a show of force of the Turkish political leadership or does Turkey have real security concerns? Is this the war of one man or a nation? I think this question needs to be answered especially in the Western capitals.
For a moment, forget about domestic political concerns and election campaigns in Turkey and try to see the situation from a different angle.
If we look at the steps that Turkey took during the last two years it can be seen that Turkey is determined to end Iraq and Syria’s position as bases of attacks for groups which breach Turkey’s border security. Many tunnels, bunkers, digging machines and military equipment were found during Turkey’s operation in Afrin early this year, proving Turkey’s concerns were not in vain.
Although Turkey has been fighting with these terrorist organizations for the last 40 years the year of 2016 was shocking and awakening for the leadership and the public. Turkey faced the worst wave of attacks of her near history. In big cities like Ankara, Istanbul, Diyarbakır and Kayseri, Turkey suffered more than 20 big terrorist attacks in which hundreds of civilians were killed after a football game, during a political demonstration or while on vacation at an airport. Barricades were raised and ditches were dug in southeastern cities. Missiles hit Turkey’s southern cities like Şanlıurfa and Kilis, killing innocent civilians. A shocking military coup attempt took place as Turkey’s allies watched silently.
The feeling since then is that Turkey’s very existence and survival is at stake and no one, but Turkey, can help herself solve this grave problem. Turkey is in a struggle of survival, there is no doubt about it. Since 2016, while restructuring the state apparatus, she has been trying to secure her borders, too, building a wall along the border, setting up electronic guardian systems, and patrolling roads. And from time to time, U.S. activities are forcing Turkey to act, militarily.
Remember, on Dec. 22, 2017, when CENTCOM Commander Joseph Votel said they would form a border guard consisting of YPG militants. It caused great anger in Turkey. When the coalition confirmed the reports and named the “new” army the Syrian Border Security Force (BSF), Turkey sped up its efforts to stop a terrorist entity next to her borders and launched the Olive Branch operation.
What triggered Turkey this time is the statements of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford. He said to “provide stability” in Syria, the U.S. needs to train and equip around 40,000 local fighters, but is only 20 percent into that number right now. Turkey is alarmed after that and now is trying to take action to stop it.
The general idea among the Turkish public is that the U.S. is trying to establish a “garrison statelet” in Syria. Thousands of trucks have been carrying weapons, ammunition and construction material to the east of the Euphrates. Turkey has intelligence reports about the construction of tunnels into Turkey, and since the cities are divided just by a railway at the border, this is a great security concern.
Obviously, Turkey’s security concerns are real and cannot be ignored. This is not the war of a man but a nation. This fact should not be ignored when analyzing Turkey’s attitudes. Turkey has proved herself that she is capable of conducting such risky and difficult operations.
Turkey is also open to dialogue if it can find a partner. It can find a middle ground with the U.S. as it did with Russia early this year. And Turkey can deliver once agreed.
Turkey is a crucial country for the U.S.’s global strategy, although some decision-makers in Washington insist on not to admit it. Without Turkey, NATO’s southern flank will collapse and Russian Euroasianist will win in the eastern Mediterranean. Without Turkey, the U.S. and NATO would have little impact in the Black Sea, Caucasia and the Middle East. The U.S. cannot tolerate an ideological, short-sighted perspective about Turkey.
Furthermore, the basis of U.S. policy of building a PKK-YPG statelet in Syria is weak. It should be remembered that the population of northern Syria is mainly Sunni Arabs, Turkmens and devout Muslim Kurds, who are far from the PKK-YPG Marxist-Leninist ideology. Turkey’s quick success of the Olive Branch operation in Afrin and the transition period after it is a proof of PKK-YPG weakness in northern Syria. While the region is sliding to a Kurdish-Arab ethnic war, U.S. policy in Syria is provoking Turkey to act and this policy seems unsustainable.