The situation in Rojava, the Kurdish region of Syria east of the Euphrates River, was far from clear this week, with both sides accusing the other of breaching the ceasefire that had been agreed last week.
The Turkish Ministry of Defence claims that 14 “provocative attacks” had been launched from the Syrian side into Turkish towns and villages across the border, while Kurdish forces have appealed to the international community to pressure Ankara into halting its breaches.
However, the “fragile agreement” brokered by Washington last week is still holding, and this is secretly desired by Turkey.
As loudly as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proclaimed his intention to resume the Turkish operation and crush the people he calls terrorists, he knows it is not in his interests to re-escalate the conflict at this point.
It was clear that he was flabbergasted by the overwhelming onslaught of condemnation from all quarters of the international community at the Turkish invasion of Syria, including from quarters he thought would defend him or at least remain silent.
On Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron described Turkey’s Peace Spring Operation in Syria as “madness”. He also criticised NATO for failing to prevent the Turkish invasion, calling this “a serious mistake” in comments to reporters following a European Summit meeting in Brussels.
“It weakens our credibility in finding partners on the ground who will be by our side and who think they will be protected in the long term. So that raises questions about how NATO functions,” Macron commented.
Whether in order to take a more definitive stance or to save face, NATO member nations have set up a crisis-management centre to assess the impact of the Turkish military offensive in northern Syria, according to the German Welt am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday.
The centre is to include intelligence and security experts, military specialists and political advisers.
Macron added that together with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel he would meet with Erdogan in the coming weeks to discuss the crisis, most likely in London. “We need to see where Turkey is going and how to bring it back to a reasonable position,” Macron said.
In the face of this unexpected storm of international outrage, Erdogan has been trying his utmost to look reasonable. Macron’s remarks alone cannot explain this, however, and as political analyst Ergun Babahan observed in his column on the Turkish Website Ahval last week, Erdogan has also failed to read US public opinion.
The general impression in the US is that “Erdogan, the world’s most prominent exponent of Political Islam, is attacking the secularist Kurds,” Babahan wrote. Over the past weeks, the US public has been closely following the close cooperation between the US Special Forces and the Kurdish fighters who have endured enormous sacrifices in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.
“Whether in the most serious newspapers or the leading tabloids, the US public has followed the heroic feats of the Kurdish warriors and the superhuman courage of Kurdish women warriors above all,” he wrote. Turkey is “the supporter of IS that hosts terrorist training camps in Turkey and the supplier of shipments of weapons to terrorists in Syria disguised as humanitarian aid,” he added.
Gökhan Bacik, an Ahval contributor and political science professor at Palacky University in the Czech Republic, agreed that the operation had taken a toll on Turkey’s international prestige.
Whatever the military outcome, the Turkish invasion “has the potential to backfire and actually work against Turkey’s main aims,” which are primarily “to cripple the political and military abilities of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Kurdish-led administrations that have gained control of a large part of the country’s northeast,” he said.
Yet, Operation Peace Spring has had the effect of severely damaging Turkey’s standing in global public opinion, “a key dynamic of international politics the significance of which the Turkish government has not grasped.”
The role of the SDF and other Kurdish groups in the fight against IS “has boosted their image to the point that the Kurds are now seen as freedom-fighters by the western public. Turkey’s intervention has added a new dynamic to the already positive image of Kurds, especially in the western media, with what was once seen as an ethnic group being now presented as an oppressed nation under Turkish rule,” he wrote.
“There is little doubt that the balance of global public opinion on the Turks and the Kurds will have a negative effect on Turkey from now on.”
Once again Erdogan has miscalculated. He failed to learn the lesson from the US Pastor Andrew Branson case, which also backfired with drastic consequences for the Turkish economy last year and still rankles among the evangelical community in the US.
This has long been among US President Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters. Evangelical Christians in the US have also been among the most ardent supporters of the anti-IS campaign and the role of the SDF in it.
Trump’s “green light” to Erdogan and Turkey’s subsequent invasion of Syria triggered such an outcry among this crucial component of Trump’s electoral base that he was forced to backtrack. It has been suggested that he instigated the lawsuit against the Turkish state-owned Halkbank bank at this point as a means to assuage US public opinion.
Meanwhile, while Trump has put his sanctions on hold for the duration of the “ceasefire”, another branch of government in the US has some firm opinions of its own.
Congress does not trust Erdogan, and it is still likely that it will approve a sanctions bill with enough support to override a presidential veto. Whatever happens next on the ground in Syria, it won’t be clear sailing for Erdogan. Sadly, it will be the Turkish people who end up paying heavily for how his policies rebound on the Turkish economy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.