In Turkey, killing ‘terrorists’ in Syria sold as worth the cost

Why We Wrote This

Fear sells. For President Erdoğan, that means Turks’ fear of Kurdish “terrorists.” But as Turkey tries to ride out an economic crisis, the incursion into Syria is already facing unanticipated costs.

Ugur Can/DHA/AP
Turkish forces advance toward the Kurdish-held town of Manbij, Syria, Oct.14, 2019. A U.S. military spokesman says U.S. forces have left Manbij as part of their withdrawal from northern Syria.

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In the Middle East, regional chess pieces have been moving as dramatically in the past week as at any point in Syria’s devastating eight-year civil war. Shortly after President Donald Trump pulled U.S. forces out of northern Syria, Turkey launched its long-planned incursion into the area, aimed at killing or driving out Kurdish “terrorists” from a 20-mile-deep buffer zone along its southern border.

It sparked the displacement of 160,000 civilians, according to the United Nations, and prompted the escape of hundreds of ISIS prisoners being held by Kurdish forces. But perhaps more ominously for Turkey, Russian-backed Syrian government troops have returned to areas they have not held for years after Russia mediated a tactical alliance between the Kurds and Syria.

Yet Turkey is signaling that it will press on with its map-altering offensive, despite Mr. Trump’s threats to “destroy” its economy.

“Turkey’s main policy is, ‘This is not a war, this is fighting against terrorism,’” says Metehan Demir, a defense analyst in Ankara. “If Turkey steps back from this position its national honor will be seriously damaged ... because Turkish authorities, the Turkish state, many times promised its people that these terrorists would be wiped out from the area.”

Turkish television audiences – far from the widespread U.S. and European criticism of Turkey’s week-long incursion into northern Syria – watched helmet-cam video of their front-line troops raiding a prison emptied of its Islamic State militants.

The “terrorists” of a Kurdish-led militia, which ran the prison and was armed and trained for years by the United States to fight against ISIS, had “set free the [ISIS] militants in an attempt to fuel chaos,” the viewers were told.

“The folly of trusting a terrorist group for keeping watch over another is exposed for all,” said a senior Turkish official.

Imparted was one clear message: Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” – to create a 20-mile-deep “safe zone” across northern Syria and kill all militants there – is a necessary and precise anti-terrorist operation aimed, officials say, at protecting Turkish citizens from the menace of a Kurdish statelet from which militants can attack.

Another clear message: Turkey will press on with its map-altering offensive, despite threats to “destroy” its economy from President Donald Trump, who is widely seen to have greenlighted the Turkish operation in a call Oct. 6 with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In a first step, Mr. Trump said he would “immediately stop” negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal, again raise tariffs on Turkish steel to 50%, and sanction current and former officials.

The launch of the Turkish offensive with little warning, shortly after Mr. Trump promised that U.S. troops would get out of the way, has already had far-reaching consequences, many of them problematic for Turkey and Mr. Erdoğan, whose motives, say some analysts, were political as well as strategic.

It sparked the displacement of 160,000 civilians, according to the United Nations, and prompted the escape of hundreds of ISIS prisoners so far, out of tens of thousands of jihadists and their families in prisons and in camps.

But perhaps more ominously for Turkey, as the U.S. precipitously pulled back, it has enabled the return of Russian-backed Syrian government troops to areas they have not held for years. The troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad moved in at the invitation of America’s former Kurdish militia allies and with Moscow’s mediation of a tactical alliance that the Kurds entered to survive. On Tuesday, Moscow said its forces also were patrolling the northern zone.

“National honor”

As the regional chess pieces move – as dramatically in the past week as at any point in Syria’s devastating eight-year war – experts say there are many reasons Mr. Erdoğan is not likely to yet bow to White House calls for a cease-fire.

“Turkey’s main policy is, ‘This is not a war, this is fighting against terrorism.’ It has long been on the agenda, for years,” says Metehan Demir, a defense analyst based in Ankara.

Turkey considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which lead the 50,000-strong Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought Turkey for decades and has also been on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. The U.S.-supported and funded SDF lost 11,000 members in the fight against ISIS in northern Syria over several years.

“If Turkey steps back from this position its national honor will be seriously damaged ... because Turkish authorities, the Turkish state, many times promised its people that these terrorists would be wiped out from the area,” says Mr. Demir.

“In my opinion, most all the people, all of the country, are united behind this operation because Turkish people are so tired ... of the bombings and terrorist attacks that killed thousands of people,” says Mr. Demir. “Turkish people mostly believe this operation will put an end to these terrorist attacks against Turkey.”

Emrah Gurel/AP
With Turkey defying growing condemnation from its NATO allies to press ahead with its invasion, Turkish soldiers pass a truck transporting armored personnel carriers at the border with Syria in Karkamis, southeastern Turkey, Oct. 15, 2019.

From 2015 to early 2017, especially, Turkey was afflicted by numerous high-casualty terrorist attacks, including in Istanbul against Ataturk Airport and the Reina nightclub. Many were claimed by ISIS, but the PKK also repeatedly struck targets – mostly Turkish security forces – as its four-decade battle against the Turkish state resumed.

American support for the Syrian Kurds has triggered deep unease in NATO-ally Turkey and been a key factor in ongoing U.S.-Turkey tensions. Mr. Trump prevented a Turkish incursion last December, concerned that it might jeopardize the safety of U.S. troops.

But the U.S. policy reversal followed a single Sunday call between the two presidents. The White House issued a statement at 11 p.m. on Oct. 6, noting that Turkey’s long-desired military offensive was coming. It began shortly thereafter, on Oct. 9.

U.S. sanctions

By then Mr. Trump, responding to a bipartisan outcry in the U.S. against a perceived “betrayal” of Kurdish allies, vowed that he would “destroy” Turkey’s economy if it stepped out of line. Turkish tanks rolled into northern Syria with little preparation to deal with imprisoned ISIS cadres or civilian refugee flows.

In addition to the measures Mr. Trump signed Monday, sanctions legislation with bipartisan support is being prepared in Congress. And the foreign ministers of all 28 European Union members agreed unanimously Monday to stop selling arms to Turkey.

Mr. Erdoğan has been calm in the face of such outside pressure, dismissing the risk of sanctions on Turkey’s fragile economy.

“We are determined to take our operation to the end,” Mr. Erdoğan said in a speech in Azerbaijan on Monday. “We will finish what we started. A hoisted flag does not come down.”

Speaking earlier in Istanbul, he said: “Those who think they can make Turkey turn back with these threats are gravely mistaken,” adding that the Turkish Armed Forces could crush Syrian Kurds “in a couple of days” if it weren’t taking care to avoid civilian casualties.

“We work as precise as a jeweler and show utmost efforts not to allow even one civilian’s nosebleed,” he claimed.

Among the incursion’s engagements being highlighted by Turkey’s Ministry of Defense was a drone strike on an ammunition truck. A ministry video said the strike “destroyed the baby killer … terrorists” who target residential areas with mortars, as they prepared for “new massacres.”

Miscalculation?

But Mr. Erdoğan’s plan to control a buffer zone in northern Syria – with one stated aim to provide a “safe” resettlement place for 2 million of the Syrian civil war refugees currently in Turkey – may already have been undone by the swift return to northeast Syria of Mr. Assad’s forces.

“Turkey has miscalculated by failing to anticipate the rapprochement between Assad’s forces and the Syrian Kurdish fighters, facilitated by Russia,” says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the Chatham House think tank in London.

“One cannot separate the military adventure in Syria from the domestic politics in Turkey,” says Mr. Hakura. “Turkey is facing a severe economic crisis.... Shifting the agenda to the war in Syria is an attempt to play at the Turkish sense of nationalism and insecurity, [but] the game plan has been shredded by Russia.”

He says “damaging blowback” is also likely to come from U.S. sanctions, imposed by a Congress widely hostile to Mr. Erdoğan.

Still, Turkey does have “legitimate grievances,” says Mr. Hakura, and has complained since the Obama administration about the U.S. friendship with Syrian Kurdish militias.

“Turkey does fear the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Syria, and perhaps eventual independence, [which could] fuel irredentist claims by Turkey’s own Kurdish population, and lead to the fragmentation of the country,” says Mr. Hakura. “That is an ingrained fear in Turkey since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.”

And that fear is what plays best at home in Turkey, says Mr. Demir, the analyst in Ankara.

“Turkey will definitely go on, until all targets are cleared,” he says. “Turkish people believe that the operation will target only terrorists and their hideouts, and Turkey many times insisted that this is not an invasion, not an incursion, not a war, and does not actually aim to invade Syria for good.”

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