Syria, the Conflict in Afrin: A Turkish Perspective

As Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria’s region of Afrin continues, there is a growing disillusionment in Turkey with the analyses and viewpoints being put forward by the international media. Above all in Europe and the United States, many experts and commentators seem to be totally neglecting the very reasons of for Ankara’s military intervention, which is based in the legitimate defense of vital Turkish national security interests.

The right of disagreeing with Turkey’s approach is not under discussion. Nevertheless, reducing criticism to slogans and commonplaces, without taking into due account the Turkish perspective, does not contribute to a more objective understanding of what is actually happening in Afrin, nor does it heighten the level of the debate on how to advance conflict resolution in Syria.

In the first place, the fact that PYD/YPG, in its capacity as PKK’s Syrian wing, is a terrorist organization for Turkey should not be questioned. It is enough to examine their interlinked structures and their statements to figure out that PKK and PYD/PYG are not different from each other. The United States opted for differentiating PYD/YPG from PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by Washington as well, in order to justify military support to the former as the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), employed in the war on ISIS. The distinction between PKK and PYD/YPG is not valid for Ankara, and the SDF’s formation appeared to be intended to facilitate the forging of military ties with the PKK’s Syrian wing.

Operation Olive Branch, initiated on January 20, is thus aimed at protecting vital Turkish national security interests threatened by the PYD/YPG presence in the Afrin region, and is fully legitimate pursuant to the principle of self-defense enshrined in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Turkey’s right to self-defense was acknowledged by foreign institutional authorities and high officials of international organizations. Even though relations with the Netherlands are undergoing a phase of crisis, former Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra said that Turkey has “sufficient grounds” to intervene in Afrin. UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that “Turkey is right to want to keep its borders secure,” and on the same note NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that Turkey has the right to act in self-defense.

To redress simplistic and inaccurate (mis)interpretations, it must be noted that Operation Olive Branch is not directed whatsoever against the Kurds living in the Afrin region. It is exclusively directed against PYD/YPG, while Turkey has no ambition to occupy this land in full respect of Syria’s territorial integrity.

It is perhaps good to remember that PYD/YPG only took control of the area in 2012, after the withdrawal of the Syrian military forces, which were relocated to other parts of the country to face the growing uprising against the Assad regime. Since then, PYD/YPG have been building their own state infrastructure, appointing mayors, hanging their flags over public buildings, establishing road checkpoints where underage teenagers have been used, and playing a role in terrorist attacks inside Turkey.

There should be no need to explain that the inclusion of Afrin as a “canton” of the so-called “Rojava” federal state run by PYD/YPG constitutes a major threat to Turkish national security. For this reason, Ankara has repeatedly warned for years both the United States and the international community that PYD/YPG permanent settlements to the west of the Euphrates river will never be consented to, much less the territorial continuity with other PYD/YPG “cantons” to the east of the river. During Operation Euphrates Shield, aimed at dislodging ISIS from northern Syria, Ankara took control of the Azaz-Jarablus corridor. In doing so, it barred PYD/YPG encroachment on areas previously occupied by ISIS, and with it also the PYD/YPG project to join together the Afrin region with the “cantons” located in the eastern side of the Euphrates. As a result of the operation, many refugees who had fled to Turkey could return to their lands, and the same development is expected to take place in Afrin when Operation Olive Branch is complete.

Operation Olive Branch has been launched amid polemics on the possible support of the United States for the buildup of a new military force spearheaded by YPG, consisting of 30 thousand militiamen to be deployed along the Turkish border. In the near future, to definitely address the issue of a PYD/YPG presence to the west of the Euphrates, Turkey could be compelled to carry out a third operation in the city of Manbij. International diplomacy and the recent joint commission established by Turkey and the United States may hopefully succeed in bringing about a new situation that will make such an eventuality unnecessary.

PYD/YPG, however, embodies an actual threat for not only Turkey. In northern Syria, Arabs, Turkmens, and non-affiliated Kurds have been subjected to PYD/YPG violence and abuse. People were forced to evacuate their homes, and some villages were destroyed in order to reshuffle the demographic structure of those areas according to the PYD/YPG blueprint. Amnesty International argued that the forced displacements by PYD/YPG correspond to war crimes, while Human Rights Watch reported that “some politically active individuals with non-PYD parties have gone missing or been killed in unclear circumstances.” As for Manbij, the PYD/YPG attempt to impose its rule over the local Sunni Arab majoritycould give rise to violent reactions, and create a breeding ground for other extremist groups.

In addition to Turkish officials, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia also denounced the “authorities in Syrian Kurdistan” for having pardoned 400 ISIS terrorists in the month of January, “including field commanders and caliphate officials,” while opening their ranks to 120 of them. These allegations follow the deal that allowed hundreds of ISIS terrorists to leave Raqqawith their families in November 2017, after the capture of the city by SDF.

During the operations in Afrin, in areas previously occupied by PYD/YPG, the Turkish army discovered a large number of anti-personnel landmines, which are banned by the Ottawa Treaty. Moreover, dozens of PYD/YPG rockets targeted Turkish villages on the other side of the border, in the provinces of Kilis and Hatay, killing civilians and disrupting people’s daily lives. In Hatay’s Reyhanlı district, rockets fired by PYD/YPG killed a 17-year-old girl and hit the 17th century Çalık Mosque during prayers.

That notwithstanding, PYD/YPG succeeded in turning social media into a disinformation zone with fake photos, videos, and news, affecting the Western media’s perception of the conflict’s dynamics. For instance, the image of a child on a stretcher claimed to be one of the civilians wounded by the Turkish army was actually taken on August 29, 2017, in the city of Mare’a next to Aleppo, after an attack by SDF. These methods are not new to PYD/YPG, which also used them in past circumstances. It is worth remembering an incident that occurred in the city of Al Hasaka in northeastern Syria. A PYD/YPG affiliate killed his brother in a family dispute, but his body was used in a ceremony where he was mourned as a PYD/YPG “martyr” and PYD/YPG flags were waved.

On the other hand, the Turkish army has been very careful not to harm civilians during Operation Olive Branch. Turkish soldiers established friendly relations with the children from Afrin, and after the capture of Bilal Aga, a village previously held by PYD/YPG, two elderly people were taken to Turkey for medical care and accommodated in a nursing home. Furthermore, the Turkish Red Crescent is handing out humanitarian aid in Afrin’s rural areas. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Rob Manning replied to a question about PYD/YPG allegations that Turkey’s shelling is causing plenty of civilian deaths in Afrin with the following words: “I am not aware of any incidents regarding what you just specified.”

Greater attention to the Turkish perspective would enable many parties to overcome misconceptions over the ongoing events in Afrin and more broadly Syria. Today, Turkey is often seen only through the distorted lenses of prejudgments, to an extent that touches on Turkophobia. This approach is unfair toward the whole of the Turkish people, which is largely supportive of Operation Olive Branch regardless of their political affiliation and ethnicity. According to various surveys, the general public endorsement varies between 80, 85, and 90 percent, while in the eastern and southeastern Anatolian provinces, where the majority of the Kurdish people live, the consensus amounts to 70 percent.

This also proves that those who belong to the opposition camp, and have been highly critical of Turkish foreign policy in the last few years, have rallied behind the defense of the national security interests endangered by the expansion of the PKK-related PYD/YPG in Syria. The latter does not overshadow the fact that ISIS continues to be a major security threat for Turkey, requiring the adoption of proper countermeasures to avert new domestic terrorist attacks, along with increased diplomatic efforts to bring the Syrian crisis to an end.

A. Gencehan Babiş is Secretary General of the Turkish Centre for International Relations and Strategic Analysis (TURKSAM), Ankara.