The International Reaction to Turkey’s Military Campaign in Afrin
Despite numerous efforts by the Turkish government to explain its concerns over the threats PYD/PKK represent for Turkish national security, Ankara’s western partners and international players showed little support for the military operation in Afrin. On January 25, US President Donald Trump’s homeland security adviser Tom Bossert stated that Washington would prefer Turkey to abstain from direct intrusion in Syria and instead focus on “long-term strategic goals” like ending Syria’s war. The major U.S. concern, allegedly, was that deeper Turkish involvement against Kurdish-controlled elements would spoil the power balance and risk major escalation with the participation of U.S. troops.
On January 28, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, when asked about the Alliance’s official position on the “Olive Branch” operation, responded by saying that even though Turkey has a right to self defence, it is important to pursue national security objectives in a proportionate and measured way, implying that military actions may contribute to the destabilization of Western-led efforts in Syria.
On January 29, UN General Secretary Spokesman Stephane Dujarric suggested that the Turkish military operation had led to losses among local civilians in Afrin, directly challenging Turkish official statements, particularly the claims of the Turkish General Staff about the absence of civilian casualties, despite the reports that the operation is complicated by instances when PYD fighters are spotted in civil clothes.
In early February, officials from the European Parliament and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), while acknowledging Turkey’s right to protect its borders, criticized a large-scale crackdown by the Turkish state authorities on anti-war campaigners and dissenters who demanded a quick end to the Turkish army’s military involvement in a foreign country. Western officials underlined that security concerns should not lead to disproportionate restrictions on fundamental freedoms, abuse of the state’s imperfect anti-terrorism laws, and detainment of people on charges of terrorist propaganda due to social media posts.
In late February, French officials, in several separate initiatives, called on the Turkish government to respect UN Security Council resolution 2401 on the Syrian ceasefire, spare civilian lives in Afrin and ensure the supply of humanitarian aid to the region. On February 26, in a phone conversation with his Turkish counterpart, Emmanuel Macron stressed that the ceasefire covered all Syrian territory, including Afrin, and must be put into effect everywhere and by everyone without delay, implying that the PYD shouldn’t be targeted by Turkish forces.
On a regional level as well, the Turkish military operation was received negatively. On January 21, an official statement by Egypt’s foreign ministry described the operation as a serious threat to Syria’s national sovereignty, while Turkish efforts were said to hamper plans to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis and combat terrorism.
Another regional actor, Iraq, whose principal position has been historically important in Turkey’s fight against the PKK insurgency in the Qandil Mountains along the northern border regions of Iraq, linked the operation in Afrin with its own efforts to solve the problem of Turkey’s military presence in Iraq. On February 20, Baghdad issued a statement where it once again called upon Turkey to evict its Turkish base and compromise with the country, whose claims have been backed multiple times by the Arab league. Less critical voices were also heard from the Gulf monarchies, except for Qatar, which Turkey has been supporting since the diplomatic crisis broke out last year.
The regional allies of the Syrian government, Iran and Russia, stated that Turkish security concerns can be understood, though the sides must exert self-restraint and avoid turning the Afrin canton into another source of instability. On February 19, Iranian minister of foreign affairs Javad Zarif stated that even though Tehran understands the threats Ankara is facing, Turkey should seek other ways to solve security issues, because intrusion into a neighboring country will not provide a tangible solution. The Russian official position emphasized the provocative actions of the US government in Syria, characterized by its building a military presence using Kurdish elements in the SDF, which ultimately provoked Turkey to undertake extreme measures against the PYD elements in Afrin.
Domestic Politics in Turkey and the Olive Branch Operation
From the very beginning of the Olive Branch operation, the Turkish government adopted a hardline approach toward its critics. By the end of January, the Turkish government had ordered the arrest of more than 300 people on allegations of spreading terrorist propaganda over social media. Anti-war campaigners and civil society groups faced outright defamation from high-level officials.
The heavy-handed approach of the Turkish officials was not limited to efforts to silence anti-war critics. On February 15, Turkish former Chief of the Staff Ilker Basbug made a statement that the military campaign should not be turned into “material for domestic politics,” suggesting that both the ruling party and opposition should avoid using security matters for political gains, especially to rally the support of the population before the season of critical national elections. The general’s comments were criticized by Turkish President Erdogan.
Meanwhile, major political parties expressed their support for the military campaign in Afrin. Considerable support has also registered among broader layers of Turkish society. According to the MAK polling and survey firm, the level of public support for the operations in late January was stood at 85%.
These conditions contributed to the consolidation of the information environment in Turkey. The trend was further reinforced by the Turkish government’s efforts to tame critical media over the period before the start of the operation). Lack of security and guarantees against arbitrary arrests of journalists, both Turkish and foreign, also contributed to the lack of discussion on the necessity of the military campaign and critical self-reflection on the part of government officials in regards to the anti-PKK fight in previous years.
International Coverage and Comments on the Olive Branch Operation
From the official statements of Western, regional and local players, we can assume that there are several issues that cause criticism of the Turkish military operation in Syrian Afrin. A major problem for the Turkish government is proving the legitimacy of its military invasion of a foreign country. The Turkish government justified the move by invoking the UN Charter provisions that give states certain rights to such acts in cases when national security is under threat and other means of diplomacy fail to solve the issue.
The problems with the justification of the military campaign partly stem from the fact that the Turkish government has not been cooperating with the Syrian government, a legitimate representative of the Syrian people in the UN, to resolve the PKK issue. A further problem was presented in statements declaring that the Syrian PYD is not a terrorist organization and does not present a threat to Turkish security. These claims are supported by the fact that the Turkish government has been in contact with the PYD on several occasions, most famously during the Shah Euphrates Operations in February 2015. Another point supporting the thesis against Ankara’s justification of the military campaign deals with the cooperation between the PYD-affiliated Syrian Democratic Forces and the United States of America, a major ally of the Turkish government in security matters and the fight against the PKK in Turkey and Iraq.
Further criticism of the military operations revolves around claims that the move is directed either against the Kurdish population of Afrin or the civilian population of the canton. This thesis is supported by claims that the Turkish government uses paramilitary groups, whose background may be traced to the moderate Islamist Syrian movement. The fact that Free Syrian Army groups are not affiliated with the Turkish government via a legal framework prompted many critics to say that the military campaign could lead to war crimes in Afrin.
Finally, a considerable number of comments critical of the Turkish military operation touch upon the Turkish government’s utilization of the move for domestic political interests. The narrative of a Turkish struggle against Western-supported terrorists in Syria suits the plans of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party to consolidate the electorate around nationalist slogans and the idea of a strong ruler at the helm of Turkey.
The Constraints of Turkish diplomacy
Official Turkish diplomatic efforts since the operations began have been directed at the clarification of Turkey’s concerns to the country’s allies and partners in Syria. The meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on February 16 should be seen in the context of these efforts. The meeting is considered a part of the initiatives to clarify Turkish objectives in Afrin, influence public opinion in the West, and resolve the PKK/PYD issue through diplomatic means. Contacts between Turkey, Russia and Iran have also been serving to mitigate concerns over the military operation in Afrin on the official level. On the local level, the Turkish government approached foreign representatives to explain Ankara’s official position with regards to the PKK in Syria and the security concerns the Turkish government has in light of the military build-up in northern Syria.
On the level of public diplomacy, governmental efforts to clarify the official position and bring the Turkish narrative to the broader international community seem to have failed. The primary reason behind this misfortune is domestic politics, where the Turkish government, through its own actions, contributes to the main theses of the critics of the Olive Branch operation in Afrin. Of particular importance in this context is the use of Ottoman and Islamic narratives in the Turkish media. In the absence of Western journalists in Turkey, and with wide-spread biases around the world, such messages reinforced negative coverage of the military operation. Moreover, the arrests of Kurdish activists and harassment of Kurdish politicians contributed to the narrative that the operation is directed not at the PKK elements in Afrin, but at the Kurdish population per se. In a number of statements, Turkish officials resorted to anti-Western whataboutism without providing objective clarification on the military and defensive necessity of the operation.
The Practical dimension of the Mishandled Diplomatic Efforts
It is important to emphasize that the informational environment and coverage of the military operation in the world is tightly linked to Turkey’s efforts to support counter-terrorism and its own political interests in Syria. Failed attempts to withstand the negative reactions from its regional and global partners may negatively impact Turkey’s ongoing fight with the PKK. First of all, a failure to present the Olive Branch as an operation against the PKK, and not the Kurdish population of northern Syria, contributed to the narrative of the PKK’s sympathizers and large support network in Europe, from which the terrorist organization manages to send financial aid to its headquarters in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, thus influencing its activity against Turkish state. Moreover, as the example of Germany shows, failure to provide a credible narrative for the anti-terrorist operation in Afrin may force the European government to listen to the vocal pro-Kurdish community and impose restrictions on the Turkish government, especially with regards to arms exports.
Negative coverage of Turkish actions in Afrin may hinder Ankara’s efforts to gain a stable foothold in the region as well. With a narrative that the Turkish operation is part of an occupation by Islamists or an Ottoman-inspired Turkish voluntarist government may harm Turkish plans to build legitimate self-governance in the Kurdish-majority area in Afrin. A failure to gain credibility and trust among Kurdish civilians may prompt Turkey to tighten its grip on the territory, a step that would definitely raise concerns among Turkish partners in the Astana process and players in the region that have been allergic to Turkish ambitions in recent years.
Olive Branch revealed an ongoing trend in Turkey’s isolation from its Western partners. The trend is further reinforced by the prevalence of anti-Turkish narratives in the Western media. The speculations and narrative, however, are supported by the actions and badly managed PR campaign of the Turkish government. The resulting effect negatively impacts not only Turkey’s relations with Europe and the US, but also the Turkish image in the region, especially among the Arab countries, where the media has been directed by political regimes opposing Turkish activism in the Middle East. A lack of critical debates in Turkey has been a contributing factor to the shift in Turkish foreign policy from diplomatic to military means for resolving national security issues.
First published in our partner RIAC