“We owe our uninterrupted existence in this region for a thousand years to our courage and patience… But while we are patient, we will not refrain from performing the duties that are incumbent upon us,” declared Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to his supporters at the ruling Turkish AKP Party’s provincial congress in the city of Kutahya this week.
Erdogan’s words trumpeted the news of the Turkish invasion of Afrin in northwest Syria in order to “wipe out the terrorists” who were not members of the Islamic State (IS) group or Al-Qaeda, he said, but Syrian and other Kurds.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring organisation with wide contacts inside Syria, said 24 civilians had died after three days of intense shelling and Turkish airstrikes on the city, as well as 25 Syrian rebels fighting alongside Turkey and 26 Kurdish fighters.
Turkey’s military offensive, named Operation Olive Branch, was sparked by a US announcement that it intends to build a 30,000 strong force to patrol Syria’s frontiers.
Though Turkish forces, together with fighters from the Syrian opposition Free Syrian Army, captured higher ground and three villages near Afrin on Monday, military analysts said the campaign was dependent on Russia’s agreement to open up the area’s airspace to Turkish jets. Russia controls Syrian airspace in the region west of the Euphrates River, which includes Afrin, while the United States controls the skies east of the Euphrates.
Kurdish militias shelled the Turkish province of Kilis across the border in response to the Turkish attack.
Turkish regime ideologues went into overdrive to lend a sacred aura to the battle. Ibrahim Karagul, a favourite media pundit of Erdogan’s and a columnist in the newspaper Yeni Safak, wrote that “the Seljuk/Ottoman-Turkish Republic has established a new ambit and entered a new phase of ascent. The role of history-maker has once again fallen on our nation’s shoulders. There is no longer just Turkey; there is Turkey with its geographical hinterland. Turkey is no longer the frontline country for others; it is now a hub country in its own right. There is now a Turkish-centred axis.”
Such was Karagul’s fervour that he omitted to mention those countries supposedly revolving around this “centre”. As the Turkish opposition pointed out in response to Erdogan’s speech, it would be difficult to find them anywhere in the neighbourhood, as these countries harbour deep resentments and mistrust towards Ankara.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s visit to Iraq, coinciding with the second day of Operation Olive Branch, failed to dispel the essential disagreements between Baghdad and Ankara, especially as concerns the future of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
Damascus regards Ankara as its mortal enemy, and when the Afrin Operation began Al-Assad described it as part of “the policy the Turkish regime had adopted since the first day of the Syrian crisis and that is built on its support for terrorism and terrorist organisations.”
Iran, the centre of an axis of its own, is a firm Al-Assad supporter, and in spite of its hysteria concerning its own Kurdish population, it called for an immediate halt to the Turkish attack.
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said Turkey’s ground and air offensive against a Kurdish enclave in Afrin was distracting from international efforts to ensure the defeat of IS. He said it risked worsening the humanitarian crisis in Syria and that the renewed violence in the Afrin region could be exploited by IS, though he added that the US “understood” Turkey’s security concerns.
Russia, meanwhile, has been playing its cards close to its chest. It seems to harbour strong reservations regarding the Turkish actions, and Turkish chief of general staff Hulusi Akar flew to Moscow last Thursday to seek a green light for the campaign to attack Afrin.
The Turkish objective, announced after the launch of the operation, was to establish a 30km buffer zone inside Syria to shield Turkish border towns from incursions or rocket attacks.
However, it seems that the Russian-Turkish meeting did not go quite as expected, as contrary to Turkish claims the Russians did not pull their observers out of Afrin in order to clear the way for Turkish forces. Instead, they relocated them in Afrin in order to avert possible provocations and to keep Russian soldiers out of the line of fire.
Meanwhile, the state-controlled Turkish media has been putting out a seemingly endless stream of propaganda in support of Erdogan’s latest action to counter the effects of any media remaining outside of government control.
Readers of the Turkish press and viewers of Turkish television have been warned of the failed coup attempt allegedly masterminded by renegade preacher Fethullah Gulen in the US and of the plots and stratagems that he and his aides, with support from the White House, have been weaving in order to destroy and divide Turkey, using the Kurds in Syria as a means to an end.
It is these plots, the Turkish government says, that justify the attack on Afrin. This aims to defeat the “nest of terrorists” across the border and to confront the foreign interventions in Turkey using the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria (also labelled PKK on Turkish maps) as a means to do so.
The idea is to forestall a Kurdish “terrorist” corridor to the Mediterranean, the state-controlled media says, with the attack on Afrin, according to Erdogan’s propaganda machine, being in the interests of “self-defence”. The attack is “an attempt to eliminate the greatest and most immediate threat to Turkey and its territorial unity,” the media says, and as a result no one abroad has the right to voice an objection.
Opposition opinion at home knows that to speak out would be to run an enormous risk in the present jingoistic climate in Turkey. But the country’s opposition parties have still voiced their views, and the pro-minority rights People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has denounced the war and the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which cautioned against becoming embroiled in the Syrian quagmire from the outset of the crisis, has warned of the huge costs of an adventure that has no regional or international support.
Critics have also pointed to the first Euphrates Shield Operation in which 78 Turkish soldiers lost their lives even as it failed to achieve its objectives.
Demonstrations against the Turkish attacks have been organised in Western capitals and elsewhere in protest against the unprovoked Turkish invasion and to voice solidarity with the Kurds. But Erdogan, armed with the Turkish emergency laws that have recently been extended, has warned the Kurds at home not to contemplate protest.
Those who do “should be aware that the security forces will be following you wherever you go,” he said.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly