March 20, 2018

What are Erdoğan's intentions after the fall of 'Afrin?

Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces (green) enter 'Afrin

Syrian rebel forces, supported by Turkish armed forces, have entered 'Afrin, the principal city in the Kurdish canton of the same name. The objective of the two-month long Turkish-led operation, ironically named Olive Branch, is allegedly to protect Turkey from what it labels as Syrian Kurdish "terrorists" of the People's Protection Units (YPG).

The Turks claim that the YPG is nothing more than an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has been designated as a terrorist group by numerous countries and international organizations, including the United States, Turkey, and NATO. I suspect the U.S. and NATO designations were a nod to Turkey's membership in the military alliance.

The United States does not regard the YPG as a terrorist organization, but rather as a key ally in the fight against the jihadi terrorist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - the Kurds function as the major "boots on the ground" component of the U.S.-led coalition.

Unfortunately, the Turks have lost sight of the mission and created a major problem in the almost-complete war against ISIS in Syria. Rather than support the coalition efforts to defeat ISIS, the Turks have chosen to mount a military operation against one of the key fighting units.

As was to be expected, elements of the YPG which were engaged in combat operations against ISIS in eastern Syria have redeployed to confront the Turks in the northwestern part of Syria. Ground operations against ISIS have come to a complete standstill as the YPG moves to defend fellow Kurds. Who can blame them?

Yes, that's right. A NATO ally (Turkey) is attacking the ally (YPG) of another NATO ally (United States). Hard to believe, but thanks to short-sighted, Islamist, nationalist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that's where we are. Where are we going?

One only needs to listen to the self-styled new Ottoman sultan. As far back as October 2016, he has appeared in front of what most of us Middle East analysts call the National Oath (misak-i milli) map of 1920.

"National Oath" map - 1920

Note the borders - the city of 'Afrin is well within the Turkish borders portrayed on the map. In fact, the aspirational borders of Turkey include portions of what is now Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Syria, Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan. All of this territory was part of the Ottoman Empire prior to its defeat in World War I. The map designates what the Turks believed should have been the new borders of their new republic.

The Turks will secure 'Afrin in short order. The Kurdish forces which had been defending the city have left, rather than watch the city be reduced to rubble with thousands of civilian casualties. The next city in Erdoğan's sights is Manbij, to the east of 'Afrin, but still on the west bank of the Euphrates.

A move on Manbij will present a problem for the NATO alliance. It will put Turkish forces, or at least Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces, in direct contact with both Kurdish YPG units and American troops located in the city. The Turks claim to have reached an agreement with the United States whereby Kurdish forces will withdraw, and turn the city over to a joint American-Turkish force. I have not seen that in outlets other than Turkish media.

I hope there is some solution that does not involve handing Syrian Kurdish territory over to the Turks. Of course, the Turks could solve the entire issue by simply stopping this unnecessary and unhelpful diversion from the main mission - fighting ISIS.

I doubt that will happen. Erdoğan has threatened to continue the Olive Branch operation east to the Iraqi border, and recently stated that his forces may even enter the Kurdish area of Iraq. I think he might be getting ahead of himself. He is the president of Turkey, not the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

That said, it is interesting that Erdoğan keeps using the term "Ottoman" in much of his rhetoric - for decades the Turks have avoided the term, claiming that atrocities such as the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides were not done by Turks, but the Ottomans. It appears now that is a distinction without a difference. His displays of the 1920 "national oath" map are not accidental - it is there for a reason.

At the same time, Erdoğan does not assuage the apprehensions of his neighbors when he openly encourages his young population to question the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) which effectively defined Turkey's borders with its neighbors. These are the borders that define the Middle East as we know it today. As part of that treaty, Turkey relinquished claims to the remainder of the Ottoman Empire, effectively ending the border conflicts that continued for several years after World War I.

A segment of the Turkish population, encouraged by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), are echoing a similar refrain, bristling at the terms - imposed or agreed to, depending on where you stand - of the Treaty of Lausanne.

We should not dismiss Erdoğan's words as mere rhetoric. He has shown himself to be a capable - if distasteful - political force with a vision for Turkey's future. We should be concerned about Erdoğan's long-term, strategic vision of Turkey. Are his displays of the "national oath" map, decision to provide military support to the Free Syrian Army in northern Syria (Operation Euphrates Shield), and the launching of Operation Olive Branch aimed at destroying the most effective anti-ISIS force in Syria, as well as his not-so-subtle encouragement of Turkish nationalists to challenge the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne a harbinger of things to come?

Are the Turks intent on at some point reclaiming what they consider to be Turkish territory "stolen" from them almost a century ago? I hope not, but I would not put it past Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.


Personal anecdote: When I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I had virtually no contact with the Syrian military. One exception was the monthly attaché dinner at the Syrian Officers Club to welcome new attachés and bid farewell to those about to depart.

Departing attachés were presented a small inlaid wooden box, a Syrian specialty. On the top of the box was a medallion with a map of Syria.

The map included a part of Turkey known as the sanjak of Alexandretta, an area ceded to Turkey by the French mandatory authorities in 1936. The Syrians have never recognized that agreement and believe the territory to be still part of Syria.

At every presentation, the two Turkish military attachés (one seen with me in the photo) would stand at attention and march from the room in protest of the inclusion of what they considered to be Turkish territory on a map of Syria.

I always admired my Turkish colleagues. I hope they are not part of the anti-YPG cabal.