Many in Turkey feel that their national security concerns have been ignored by global powers and that their operation in northern Syria has been unfairly criticised. Here’s what experts had to say about it.
Turkey’s operation against YPG militants in northern Syria triggered a public outcry in the West against Ankara’s military action.
“The way the international media is reporting the military operation very different than what [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and [Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut] Cavusoglu said here,” said Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, at the TRT World Forum held in Istanbul on October 21 to 22.
Erdogan and Cavusoglu have repeatedly expressed how the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, has been threatening Turkey’s national security through its control over large territories in northern Syria across the border. Generally speaking neither the Western media coverage nor its political establishment has paid much heed to Ankara’s concerns.
The PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and the US.
Since 2017, Turkey had expressed that if the US, which initially allied with the YPG in the fight against Daesh, did not remove the group from border areas, Ankara would take it upon itself.
That day came on October 9, after Erdogan had a phone conversation with US President Donald Trump in which it seemed that the US was finally on board with Ankara’s concerns.
“It’s biggest national security threat for Turkey. People don’t understand that we had actually a separate state in the south of Turkey. If that was kept consolidated, they have an army and after a while, they are going to go into Turkey,” said Sami al Arian, an American-Palestinian professor, who has been recognised around the world for his political activism for both Palestinian and Muslim causes.
The PKK has waged a three-decade terror campaign against the Turkish state, leading to tens of thousands of deaths in the country.
The group’s Syria affiliate, the YPG, has carved out a large territory under its control across Turkey’s southern borders, using the civil war as a pretext for creating its ‘cantons’, or autonomous regions. Since 2015, the group has been trained and armed by Washington, swelling its ranks with tens of thousands of militants.
“That would have wreaked havoc not only for Turkish national security but also its economy, population, demography and everything. There has been no choice left [for Turkey],” Arian told TRT World.
“There is no country in the world that would tolerate a separatist group on its border where they are going to establish a country [which would extend into its own territory]. The US will not tolerate that,” Arian said.
Arian invoked the recent Spanish crackdown on Catalonia’s separatists after the economically-rich region voted for secession from Madrid in 2017, wholeheartedly rejected at national level, imprisoning separatist leaders.
“They went there and knocked them down,” the professor said.
Other experts agree with Arian.
“I think Turkey is making the right moves at the moment, taking a role that is duty-bound to take up for Turkish interests and Syrian people’s interests,” Maha Azzam, previously an Associate Fellow of the Middle East Programme at Chatham House, who is also leading the Egyptian Revolutionary Council told TRT World.
Mahjoob Zweiri, Professor of Contemporary History at Qatar University, also thinks that Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring was inevitable in many ways.
“There is a book called Revenge of Geography, which is a book focusing on how geopolitics is shaping your decisions. I think Turkey has no other choice but to act when it comes to the security of the country,” Zweiri told TRT World.
The book was written by Robert D. Kaplan, a famed American author, who has advised the Pentagon in the past.
“After years of working with the US and asking them to help create this kind of zone, [Ankara wanted] to make sure that northern Syria will not be a base anymore for those terrorist organisations to affect the security of Turkey,” Zweiri said.
The US has long had a habit of maintaining ties with non-state actors like the YPG whether they are militias, Zweiri said.
“It’s a pattern. It’s not a new thing by the way.”
Andrey Bystritskiy, a Russian expert, who is leading the Valdai Discussion Club, offered caution saying that northern Syria has many problems and challenges.
“It's a very complicated issue. I think the best decision is to find a political solution for this problem,” Bystritskiy told TRT World.
For years Turkey has tried diplomacy with Washington to create a safe zone in northern Syria to clean up terror groups from the region and relocate Syrian refugees living in Turkey. But Turkey’s advice fell on deaf ears in Washington.
Through Operation Peace Spring, Turkey has taken over territory between Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn from YPG militants. Furthermore, after reaching deals with both Washington and Moscow, Ankara appears to have secured a vast territory for a safe zone across its border, getting closer to the pledge it has promised for years.
According to Azzam, the Turkish operation is related both to its national security interests and the wellbeing of Syrian refugees.
“I think the two are strongly interlinked. Turkey has played an extremely important role welcoming Syrian refugees. If Syrians find a safe option, they want to return to their countries,” she concluded.