Tomorrow, it will be a week since the launching of “Operation Peace Spring”. International reaction to the operation is negative to say the least. One can count on the fingers of one hand the number of countries which appear to support the incursion. Unfortunately, the operation has shown yet again that Turkish government’s much touted “precious loneliness” is nothing but self-defeating isolation.
The operation started after an abrupt shift in US policy following a phone call between presidents Erdogan and Trump, the latter defying the advice of his defense officials who remain determined to maintain an American presence in Syria. This led to wide bipartisan opposition to Mr. Trump’s decision and initiatives in the Congress to sanction Turkey. These may have an impeachment inquiry dimension but they are troubling, nonetheless. President Trump has ordered most of the remaining US forces out of northern Syria, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Sunday, adding to the confusion. Later in the day, it was reported that Kurdish forces long allied with the United States in Syria have agreed to join forces with Damascus.
President Trump’s controversial foreign policy decisions criticized for lack of consistency are well-known. Yet, he may have a point regarding the withdrawal of US forces from Syria. Washington has allies and a huge military presence in the Gulf. It maintains close relations with Egypt and Jordan. Syria, on the other hand, has enjoyed a close relationship with Moscow for decades. In the mid-1990s US Secretary of State Warren Christopher paid two dozen visits to Damascus but was unable to move father Assad. In brief, Russia will not give up its only foothold in the Middle East and President Assad will continue to depend on Russia as its principal supporter.
Critics of the withdrawal have offered few arguments beyond saying that Washington should not betray the Syrian Kurds and continuing the fight against the Islamic State is fundamentally important. But in this respect Moscow, perhaps an adversary in some other areas, is a de facto US ally. Thus, President Trump might have seen merit in bringing US troops home to fulfill a campaign promise and leave the responsibility to orchestrate Syria’s political transition to Moscow.
EU countries have been strongly critical Operation Peace Spring. Germany and France have announced the suspension of arms exports to Turkey.
If President Trump’s withdrawal of forces was “green light” for the incursion, Russia’s reaction has so far been only a “yellow light”. President Putin attending a meeting of heads of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Ashgabat on October 11 said, “There are areas in northern Syria where [Islamic State members] are active militants. Kurdish units used to keep an eye on those areas, but now that Turkish troops are entering the region, they may just flee away. I’m not sure that the Turkish army will be able to take control of the situation, and quickly.”
During peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana in January 2017, Russian diplomats had circulated a draft constitution for Syria. The Syrian opposition rejected it. The draft, while underlining Syria’s territorial integrity, said that “Syria consists of constituent parts.” It also referred to Kurdish cultural autonomy. In other words, while strongly backing the regime, Moscow did not wish to leave the Syrian Kurds solely in Washington’s hands. Perhaps, Moscow’s priority is bringing the Assad regime and Syria’s Kurds together and then work out a solution with Ankara as some observers suggest.
Obviously, Moscow is also balancing its desire to move Turkey away from the West with its objectives in Syria. Ankara is at odds with all its traditional allies but Russia does not even recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization, let alone the YPG.
Arab League foreign ministers are among those condemning Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria. The League’s Secretary General said the League has called on the UN Security Council to act against Turkey. The Arab League is an insignificant body but Arab masses are not on the streets cheering either for the operation or for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party.
Thus, we Turks are entitled to ask, “how come the world is united against us?”
Widespread Western opposition to “Operation Peace Spring” reflects firstly, worry regarding the re-emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and secondly, humanitarian concerns.
Last Saturday, spokesperson of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responding to a question said Turkey will take over the custody of Daesh elements and their family members being held in detention facilities and camps in areas to be freed from terror by Operation Peace Spring. He added that on the one hand Turkey is ready to work together with the countries of origin and international organizations for the rehabilitation of spouses and children who have not been involved in crimes committed by foreign terrorist fighters affiliated with Daesh. “On the other hand,” he continued, “it should be acknowledged that the sustainable solution to this issue is repatriation, prosecution and rehabilitation by countries of origin of all foreign terrorist fighters and their families detained in Syria. We attach utmost importance to the joint efforts of the international community in this regard…”
This means that Turkey, on top of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the country and a looming crisis in Idlib, will become responsible also nearly 10,000 Daesh fighters and 70,000 Daesh family members. This is another incredible step in the wrong direction.
As for humanitarian considerations, it goes without saying that Turkish armed forces should take utmost care not to harm innocent civilians and also rein in the Turkish-backed Syrian Arab fighters taking part in the fighting. They should do this for humanitarian reasons as well as for preventing lasting resentment among the local population and their extended families in Turkey.
The Turkish government must also realize that constant announcements of the numbers of eliminated terrorists is not good public diplomacy. Its public discourse must prioritize respect for humanitarian considerations and a desire to achieve peace, sooner than later. It must admit that, beyond Turkey’s democratic decline, its undiplomatic, aggressive language of recent years, with expressions of defiance such as “who are you?”, “know your place”, “don’t overstep the mark” has only contributed to its international isolation. Unfortunately, this last one happens to be the favorite rebuke in our domestic political language. Finally, Ankara must realize that while this may secure some votes, it is detrimental to Turkey’s national interests. Turkey’s self-inflicted isolation is not sustainable.
Starting with the final months of Mr. Obama’s second term in office, Turkey’s leadership has invested a lot in its relationship with President Trump. Despite ups and downs the relationship has so far survived. But the US is not Turkey. The principle of separation of powers remains fundamental. The media is free and carries weight. Public opinion is important. In brief, Washington’s policy decisions are not taken exclusively by the president. Moreover, Mr. Trump is a leader in trouble and Ankara’s putting all its eggs in his basket may not be the wisest investment in the future of Turkish-American relations, if that is of any concern.
Western governments have every right to look at “Operation Peace Spring” from the prism of their interests. This is the dictate of international relations.
However, their claim to “moral high ground” through the highlighting of their humanitarian concerns is more than disputable. To remind them of their double-standards one does not have to go as far back as the Sykes-Picot Agreement and to their use of force to impose their will on Arabs. One may look at the family tree of the Islamic State, Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda and the birth of the Taliban. One may look at the numbers of Afghan civilians killed in coalition air raids in Afghanistan. And one may look at the human cost of liberating the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State.
On December 21, 2017 the Associated Press, under the title “Mosul is a graveyard: Final IS battle kills 9,000 civilians” reported:
“The price Mosul’s residents paid in blood to see their city freed was 9,000 to 11,000 dead, a civilian casualty rate nearly 10 times higher than what has been previously reported. The number killed in the nine-month battle to liberate the city from the Islamic State group marauders has not been acknowledged by the U.S.-led coalition, the Iraqi government or the self-styled caliphate…” (*)
Sadly, if an investigation group from another planet were to prepare a report on the violations of human rights, international law and international humanitarian law during the last eight years in Syria, no country involved in Syria’s proxy war will prove innocent.
Turkey’s problem is being a neighbor of Syria with a 910-kilometer border and its assuming a leading role in the regime change project. This is why it is continuing and will continue to pay the highest price. Ankara needs to realize that it has a limited time frame to bring this incursion to a reasonable conclusion before being compelled by others to do so.
Syrian weather remains most unpredictable and making a forecast even for the weekend seems as risky as exceeding the speed limit in freezing rain.
Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog.