Extending an ‘olive branch’
What lies behind the incursion into Syria? Esen Uslu looks behind the headlines
Turkey has opened a new chapter of aggression against the Kurds by crossing the border into Afrin. The operation is named ‘Olive Branch’ - quite apt, as Turkey has long been extending such ‘olive branches’ in the form of bombs, shells and bullets. That has been the normal treatment for Turkey’s own Kurds, as well as those living on the other side of its borders.
Afrin - an area predominantly populated by Kurds - is now part of Rojava, the self-governing Kurdish region along the Turkish border with Syria. In Afrin the central government lost control in 2012 to the Popular Protection Units (YPG) and it is one the three cantons in Rojava where an interim constitution was adopted in 2014. YPG units have successfully defended its control against the attacks of various Sunni militias, which were financed, trained and equipped by the Gulf States, through Turkey, from the start of Syrian civil war in 2011.
The Afrin canton encompasses the former Syrian province of Afrin, as well as parts of neighbouring pre-civil war provinces. It forms a salient into the westernmost end of the southern border of Turkey. During the latest stages of the civil war, Afrin, together with an adjacent area to the south controlled by the Syrian army, constituted a land mass separate from the zones controlled by Islamic State and other Sunni insurgents.
The previous foray of Turkish armed forces into Rojava in the spring of 2017 - ‘Operation Euphrates’ Shield’ - started in Jarabulus, where the Euphrates river crosses the Turkish border. The operation proceeded towards the south-west and the towns of al-Bab and Azaz. The area looked set to be captured by YPG forces, who were battling against worn-down IS and other jihadi militias. For Turkey the perceived danger of that situation was the creation of a continuous belt of land controlled by the Kurds along its southern borders - a so-called ‘Kurdish corridor’. That danger seemed so palpable that Turkey was prepared to risk international condemnation, and in the end its gamble paid off - sort of.
The operation created a Turkish-controlled area - actually a wedge - separating the Afrin canton from the YPG-controlled areas to the west of Euphrates, where Manbij is the principal town. While Turkey has managed to prevent Afrin from linking up with other parts of Rojava, it has also assumed control of a zone to the east of Afrin canton. As a result Afrin became a more protruding salient more open to attack from the Turkish army, as well as Sunni militias.
But before it could act Turkey felt it needed a green light from one of the principal forces embroiled in the struggle for control of the region. Russia has a small force in the province policing the ‘de-escalation zones’ created by the ‘Astana Agreement’ drawn up last year. Previously when Turkey threatened to intervene in the zone, Russian forces made a show of force on the border and that was sufficient for Turkey to back down.
This time the Russians - the main supporters of the Assad regime - saw an opportunity to assist the Syrian army, which is trying to regain control of the main road from Hama to Aleppo, through the creation of a more northerly flashpoint. The calculation seemed to be that the Sunni militias would be asked by Turkey to support their foray, and they would withdraw their forces dug into the eastern part of Idlib in the path of the advancing Syrian army. They would then relocate those forces in the more northerly part of the province. Their game seemed to be working out, when, with Turkish forces massing on the border, the Abu al-Duhur airbase - one of the key points on the road to Aleppo - was recaptured by the Syrian army.
Russia was also quite certain that Turkey, which is at loggerheads with the US over its handling of the Kurdish issue in crisis-torn Syria, would only be allowed to stage a limited operation that would not change the actual balance of power in the region. So, by giving the green light to Turkey, Russia was able to pile on the pressure, taking advantage of the cracks that have opened up between the positions of Turkey and the US. Since the start of the operation Russian diplomatic rhetoric seems aimed at widening those cracks: “The unbalanced approach of the US so enraged Turkey that it felt it had to act,” says foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.
Meanwhile the US, which has been beefing up YPG forces by training and equipping a 30,000-strong army, is ready to dance to the same tune. It is quite ready to accommodate a limited Turkish operation, so long as US long-term aims of creating a force capable of defeating the Sunni insurgence remains on target. This also allows Turkey to let off steam in what the US sees as a relatively harmless manner.
In the future, when a ‘moderate’ Sunni state, province, region, federal area or whatever is created at the end of the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, the US believes it would be able to resist Iran-backed Shia forces - as well as that part of the Sunni insurgence under the control of reactionary Arab states. A Kurdish-dominated army, bringing Arabs, Turkomans and other minorities of the region together, one that has established a reliable, friendly relationship with the US, would be an important asset in such a situation. Provided that such a scheme is acceptable to Russia, it would provide a so-called ‘workable unitary solution’ to the Syrian crisis, at the same time sidelining Iran - the other principal force in the Middle East.
However, we must not let ourselves be duped by the seemingly missing factor of Israel in these developments. It also has its own aims - including the aim of destabilising the whole region and keeping Hezbollah, the main Lebanese Shia force, bogged down in the Syria conflict. A war without a victor is what Israel is looking for, and Turkey’s intervention is a godsend.
The Gulf states, quarrelling amongst themselves, have also been attempting to use Turkey to regain their clout in the Syrian war. Despite the money they have poured in, they have so far failed to achieve the result they wanted, and that was one of the main reasons for their recent farcical quarrels under the gaze of world public opinion. A revitalised version of the Free Syrian Army, one that is capable of advancing thanks to the firepower of Turkish artillery and the Turkish airforce, would act as a showpiece, keeping the embers of hope alive.
Meanwhile in Turkey, the AKP government seems to have lost all its steam. It is apparent that in any fair election in the near future it would not be able to win a majority. In the presidential referendum last year, the AKP felt obliged to adopt abhorrent, underhand tactics to maintain a semblance of democracy and cling on to power.
That is why the AKP and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, decided to go for a military ‘solution’ in relation to the Kurdish issue. It is part of a desperate attempt to maintain its hold on power. Erdoğan is attempting to create a new alliance with the military, at the same time adding nationalistic-racist rhetoric to his staple electioneering material based on Islam.
In the 1990s the top brass was ‘neo-Eurasianist’ (sic) and Alexander Dugin provided their basic reading material. The general secretary of the National Security Council even suggested that Turkey should seek membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (originally the ‘Shanghai Five’, which now includes India, Pakistan and Russia as well as China. But they were shunned by Nato sympathisers and gradually sidelined.
However, now Erdoğan and his post-coup top brass are prepared to purchase an air defence system from Russia despite repeated warnings not to do so from Nato circles. Every day we hear pseudo-anti-American rhetoric that plays to nationalist as well as Islamist ears - and actually there are many ‘anti-imperialists’ among the Turkish left lending their ears too.
And words have been followed by actions. The Kurdish cities, towns and regions of Turkey, where the opposition to AKP was apparent, were razed to the ground - literally. Turkish artillery, tanks, armoured vehicles and fighter jets, as well as the ‘special forces’, have been used to create ‘scorched earth’ areas in Kurdistan. Air raids in Qandil Mountains and the Kurdish region to the south of the border between Turkey and Iraq became a daily occurrence.
The remaining semblance of democracy was thrown out of the window before these ‘operations’ and many Kurdish MPs have been jailed, including the co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). None of the HDP mayors elected in the last elections are still in post. All of them have been removed and replaced by state employees, armed with powers to reverse any decision adopted by municipal councils.
The right to assembly and other civil rights exist only on paper. The only mainstream media still operating have been singing to Erdoğan’s tune in unison, while independent publications have been heavily censored. And the media has been used to unite people behind the Turkish army by spreading stories of unheard of sacrifices and heroism. The prime minister gathered editors of all newspapers and read them the riot act: toe the line or suffer the consequences.
There was a period in the history of the Turkish left when ‘armed propaganda’ was considered to be among its main tactics. Now Erdoğan and co are utilising a new version of it - ‘armed electioneering propaganda’. But it is bound to fail. Not only because the army will not be able to achieve the unrealistic aims demanded of it, but because the Turkish economic crisis is deepening day by day, and popular discontent is growing.
Their time is up, but they do not know it yet. In the meantime they are lashing out in every direction in a drunkard’s frenzy, killing and maiming thousands. Hopefully the growing discontent and resistance, including from the Kurds, will sober them up pretty soon.