Since Jan. 20, Turkish forces and Turkish-backed militias have been engaged in battles with Syrian Kurds holding an enclave called Afrin, northwest of the Syrian city of Aleppo. Turkish authorities say they are fighting units that are an extension of the PKK, a violent Kurdish separatist group in Turkey that's seen by both Ankara and Washington as a terrorist organization.
Reports suggest Turkish air and artillery strikes have damaged villages and killed civilians there, in addition to killing dozens of Syrian Kurdish fighters. Images are circulating online of the destruction wrought by a Turkish airstrike on an ancient temple complex dating back to the first millennium B.C.
“Step by step, we will clean our entire border,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared over the weekend. But the operation has created an international mess.
The Turkish campaign followed an announcement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the United States would commit to an open-ended troop presence in Syria and endorse the creation of a permanent Kurdish-dominated border force in northeastern Syria. (Turkish officials described such a force as a “terrorist” entity.) Both the Obama and Trump administrations have leaned heavily on Syrian Kurdish factions in waging the ground war against the Islamic State, despite Turkish objections.
While Washington says it does not back the Kurdish factions in Afrin, it is much more involved farther to the east, where it has helped arm and train Syrian Kurdish units that are part of a coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF — and sometimes fought along with them. U.S. Special Forces have been conducting patrols in the most bitterly contested areas in a bid to keep the SDF and Turkish-backed forces from clashing, but that may soon become a much harder task.
With Erdogan “intensifying his threats to extend the Turkish offensive to the areas farther east, where the U.S. military maintains troops, a larger conflict looms,” my colleagues wrote, "A Turkish attack on Manbij [a strategic border town] would present the United States with a major dilemma," forced to pick a side between their allies on the ground and a historic NATO partner.
The U.S.-Turkey relationship has been in free fall over the course of the Syrian war. Erdogan grew furious with the Obama administration for not doing enough to challenge the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while also emboldening Kurdish factions on Turkey's doorstep. President Trump's arrival offered hope for a reset, but that, too, quickly faded.
A phone call last week between Erdogan and Trump did nothing to resolve the simmering grievances. Turkish officials challenged a White House readout of the conversation, denying that Trump had “expressed concern” about anti-U.S. propaganda coming out of Ankara or the escalation of violence in Afrin.
In Turkey, the offensive has let loose a new tide of nationalist feeling. Erdogan once championed a historic opening with Turkey's long-suppressed minority Kurdish population. Now he casts himself as the merciless enemy of Kurdish separatism, rallying right-wing Turks to his banner. Pro-Erdogan media outlets belt out a steady stream of vitriol against both Kurdish separatists and their supposed puppet masters in the West. Meanwhile, Turkish authorities have clamped down on dissent or opposition to the military offensive.
“At least 300 people have been detained for social media posts opposing Operation Olive Branch, deemed by authorities 'terrorist propaganda,' " noted Al-Monitor's Amberin Zaman. On Tuesday, a Turkish prosecutor order the detention of 11 senior members of the Turkish Medical Association, including its chairman, after the organization denounced the cross-border raid and called for “peace immediately.”
It's the latest indication of the deepening authoritarianism of Erdogan's rule, which indeed extends beyond Turkish borders. As Nate Schenkkan of Freedom House noted, Turkish officials have pursued an astonishing “global purge” in the wake of a failed anti-Erdogan coup attempt in 2016, revoking thousands of Turkish passports, while achieving “the arrest, deportation, or rendition of hundreds of Turkish citizens from at least 16 countries.” Thousands of ordinary Turks languish in prison in vague connection to the coup plot, including many figures from human rights organizations and other civil society groups.
“Despite his best efforts to build a stable majority as the foundation of his new regime, his policies of demonizing the opposition have created a deeply polarized society. Half of Turkey despises him and will never accept him as its leader,” wrote Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, for The Washington Post. “But Erdogan has failed to grasp this fact, becoming even more authoritarian since the 2017 referendum that granted him sweeping presidential powers. Erdogan’s current trajectory will deepen Turkey’s crisis, potentially even triggering civil conflict.”
Cagaptay said NATO allies like the United States need to walk Erdogan back from his hysteria by slowing support for the Syrian Kurds and siding more clearly with Turkey’s geopolitical interests in Syria over those of Russia and Iran.
But that’s not an easy sell. Foreign-policy and national-security elites in Washington have soured on Erdogan, while the Kurds command a great deal of affection. The Trump administration seems to have no choice but to grapple with the growing contradictions underlying its Syria policy.
“We are asking the Western powers to act on their principles. Why are you not condemning a flagrant and unprovoked assault on the very men and women who stood shoulder to shoulder with you against the darkness of the Islamic State?” wrote Nujin Derik, a female Kurdish commander in Afrin, in the New York Times. “Now a different evil, that of Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly undemocratic Turkey, aims to destroy our fledgling democracy. And this time, it’s claiming to act in your name.”
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