Turkey’s fight with France over Afrin military operation

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Friday 6 Apr 2018

The Turkish authorities have been trying to silence French criticisms of Ankara’s military operations in the northern Syrian region of Afrin

Erdogan in Hatay
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in full military combat uniform, center, flanked by army generals, his ministers and Turkish singers as he addresses Turkish troops at Ogulpinar border gate with Syria, near Reyhanli, Hatay, Turkey, Sunday, April 1 2018 (Photo: AP)

Since Ankara launched its Olive Branch Operation against the town of Afrin in northern Syria more than two months ago, Paris has been an unrelenting critic of the Turkish stance.

It cautioned against the invasion before the operation began, stressing the need to respect Syrian national sovereignty, and it has continually expressed its deep reservations and concerns regarding the operation’s aims and its effects on the civilian population.

This has been especially the case since the Turkish army and its jihadist allies have entered what had once been one of the most peaceful regions of war-torn Syria.

While reaffirming Turkey’s right to protect itself, Paris has urged Ankara to exercise self-restraint and to end its campaign as soon as possible, even if thus far such appeals have fallen on deaf ears.

 Ankara’s response has been to try to silence its critics, and not only at home. According to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, in a bid to “contain” French objections, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went personally to the Elysée Palace in Paris to meet French President Emmanuel Macron.

Erdogan’s “sole hope is to see his plans through to the end without encountering opposition, especially from a country as important and influential as France,” Cavusoglu said.

Erdogan had probably expected a softer tone from Paris after having bowed to pressures to release an imprisoned French journalist in Turkey last year.

The journalist, Loup Bureau, was arrested in south-eastern Anatolia last summer on suspicion of “colluding with terrorists” – a reference to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) – and then spent two months in prison.

However, Erdogan has clearly failed to appreciate developments that have made Paris more sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations. France is the home to around 150,000 Kurds, and the assassination of three Kurdish activists in Paris five years ago also had a strong impact.

The three women activists, Fidan Doğan, Sakine Cansız and Leyla Şaylemez, were found dead, shot in the head execution-style, shortly after a meeting with former French president Francois Hollande.

Suspicion immediately fell on the Turkish secret services, notorious for their targeted assassination operations, although the subsequent investigations failed to produce any concrete proof.

More recently, France, along with other countries, has voiced objections to Turkey’s refusal to abide by UN Security Council Resolution 2401 calling for a month-long humanitarian ceasefire throughout the whole of Syria.

Macron held that the resolution applies to Afrin, but Erdogan thought otherwise and ordered his army to press on with the Turkish incursion into Syrian territory.

Against this backdrop of already existing tensions between Paris and Ankara over the Syrian and Kurdish questions, Macron held a long-overdue meeting with opposition Syrian Democratic Party (SPD) leaders in the Elysée Palace recently.

He also declared his intention to send forces to support the Syrian Kurds, which Ankara calls terrorists.

This angered the Turkish authorities, since even the idea of foreign mediation in the Turkish question is anathema to them.

This is despite the fact that Erdogan himself once initiated (though subsequently jettisoned) a negotiating process that promised to put an end to decades of bloodshed.

Turkish Prime Minister Benali Yildirim has proclaimed that Ankara will never negotiate with “terrorists,” referring to the SPD and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG).

“We are resolved to eliminate terrorism throughout the whole of the country [Syria], as we have done in Afrin and in the Euphrates Shield Operation area,” he said.

He then went on to attack Paris, alluding to France’s colonial past in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

“Does France want the Syrian people to experience the same oppression suffered by the Algerians,” Yildirim asked, a reference to French colonialism in Algeria.

Deputy Turkish Prime Minister and government Spokesman Bekir Bozdag added that France would become “a target” for his country if it sent forces into Syria.

Turkish officials have not uttered the same threat against Washington, even though US forces are already on the ground supporting the SPD/YPG, which no other government apart from Ankara has labelled as terrorists.

Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli said that if France sent forces to northern Syria to support the Kurdish fighters there, this would be tantamount to an occupation of Syrian territory.

The Syrians have referred to Turkey as an occupying power since the Euphrates Shield Operation two years ago, however, and according to news reports, the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) has now appointed a governor for Afrin.

It has also linked the Syrian province administratively to the Turkish province of Hatay, according to Hasan Shindi, a spokesman for the Gaziantep-based Afrin Liberation Congress in an interview with German Radio’s Turkish-language service.

The Turkish government sponsored “Congress”, which brought together about 100 people in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, has announced that it has elected a 35-member parliamentary assembly for Afrin.

On the ground in Afrin, the Kurdish resistance is wreaking havoc on the Turkish forces and the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) that is helping them.

More than 30 members of the FSA’s Sultan Murad Division were reported to have been killed last week in an attack by Kurdish fighters in the Shara district of the Afrin province.

Four Turkish soldiers were killed in an operation staged by the YPG and its women’s counterpart, the YPJ, in the Bulbul district north of Afrin.

Erdogan is determined to forge ahead with his military campaign in northern Syria.

This is because it is linked to another campaign at home in his forthcoming bid for another term as Turkey’s president, and there is a strong possibility that these elections, scheduled for November 2019, may be brought forward out of Erdogan’s eagerness to exploit his “victories” in Syria.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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