Turkey’s next target should be the hearts and minds of Kurds
Turkey’s operation against the enclave of Afrin, held by the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) - which Ankara says is a terrorist group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) - seems to be unfolding much better than some expected or may have wished for.
So far we do not have scenes of chaos and major bloodshed. Even the negative economic fallout from this that some expected will remain limited it seems, judging by the way markets are reacting.
The international reaction to the operation is also relatively muted. This may change depending on developments on the ground, but the reaction so far remains measured.
Meanwhile, the pictures put into service by interested parties, allegedly showing civilian casualties from Turkish shells, have not been corroborated independently, even though there are countries and organizations that would want to highlight this if it were true.
Neither do we have the predicted “Kurdish uprising” in Turkey. Of course, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s dire warning to crush anyone taking to the streets to protest “Operation Olive Branch” may have had some effect to this end. Still, in the past people bent on trying to kick-start a “Kurdish intifada” in Turkey have not heeded such threats and taken to the streets.
It is no surprise then that the spokespeople for the YPG and its parent organization, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), are furious with Russia, saying it has betrayed them. Clearly they overreached in their expectations and were expecting Moscow to come to their rescue because it is Russia - not the U.S. - that has a military presence in Afrin and controls the airspace over the region.
Once again the PKK and the PYD face the harsh reality of seeing the limits of how much they can rely on superpowers, whose own interests always come first. The Kurds have suffered from the mistakes of such reliance in the past, and one would have thought that the lessons of history would have been learned.
The Iraqi Kurds revisited this bitter lesson when they were dumped by the international community, including the U.S. and Russia, after their independence referendum last summer. The PYD also has to understand that its reliance on the U.S. military east of the Euphrates is only valid to the extent that Washington needs it.
In a nutshell, Turkey’s operation against Afrin is a major blow to the PKK, which even Washington acknowledges the PYD has strong links to. Everyone knows that PKK and YPG fighters have acted interchangeably in Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
Kurds may have aspirations, as the referendum in northern Iraq showed, but these aspirations are faced with limits, given the global and regional powers they have to contend with. Separatism does not get much international support either these days, as developments in Catalonia have shown.
Meanwhile, there are indications that Turkey’s Kurdish citizens are tired of the PKK and its violent tactics, which have brought them nothing but bloodshed and sorrow. However, this is exactly why Turkey’s responsibility towards its Kurds has now increased.
Every country has the right to protect itself and Turkey is no exception. But in doing so it must not alienate any ethnic group that represents a significant portion of its population. Ankara insists that its operations in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria against the PKK and its affiliates is a fight against terrorism and not against the Kurds.
Turkey has to act, therefore, to win the hearts and minds of its Kurds. Ankara has given its operation against Afrin the name “Olive Branch.” This places a big responsibility on it to achieve the ideal that his code name represents.