1. How did it all begin?
It all started with one of the evilest terrorist organisations in world history: ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham). Long story, but they were basically born out of Al Qaida during the Iraq War, and expanded after the US withdrew from Iraq. Here are 500 years of Middle East history: Who will fill in the authority gap? Not only during the Iraq War, but also during the Syrian Civil war they occupied Humus, Rakkaa and Halep, filling up Esed’s authority void this time.
Someone had to deal with this collective madness. They’ve been blowing up European cities and claiming Syrian, Iraqi oil reserves. Who could the peacekeeper be? The UN? European countries who got directly affected by the so-called caliphate? You guessed it right. It was the United States of America.
After years of Obama being passively involved in the Middle East, the US decided to intervene again, but this time with a different approach: my enemy’s enemy is my friend. The YPG, a Kurdish-dominated terrorist organisation, was fighting ISIS actively to defend the Kurdish-predominant parts of Syria, while Turkey and Syrian government opposition (armed Free Syrian Army and the parliament) was so busy with Esad’s impeachment.
Seeing the picture, the US decided to support YPG first with arms, then with medical equipment, then by training them and finally diplomatically, by crossing their name out of the list of “Terrorist Organisations Posing Worldwide Danger”. In the end, YPG was legitimised and Assad was still holding his seat (thanks to Russia and Iran). Having the US hand on their backs, they fought ISIS fiercely. Other coalitions were formed by European countries and the US as well. Turkey also attempted some cross-border operations against ISIS. Finally, ISIS was wiped out of the map.
2. What’s wrong with YPG then?
After ISIS fell, the YPG increased its US-backed legitimate presence in Northern Syria. On top of that, they began to hold elections for their leaders, started to relocate Turkmens and Arab’s out of the region. After the deliberate withdrawal of the Assad regime from Northern Syria (2011), the YPG-led militias claimed most of the territories and launched an assassination campaign against its opponents. They have killed 55 influential “Kurdish” political figures until now. In other words, they were forming their own state inside the borders of Syria, within the earshot of Turkey. Moreover, they merged with the PKK, the terrorist organisation Turkey has been fighting for 50 years, killing 40.000 Turkish in Northern Iraq and within Turkey borders since the 1970’s. Not the USA, not Armenia, PKK (listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union) has been the biggest foe of Turkey since the establishment of the Modern Turkish Republic. YPG kept on the same attitude. They’ve been fighting against Turkish Syrian Border Patrol, carrying out irregular bombings beyond the Turkish border. What should a nation do to protect its borders? Turkey decided to start the “Peace Spring Operation” to secure a 30 km buffer zone beyond the Syrian Border.
3. What was Turkey’s Aim?
A – Relocating Syrian Refugees to the Safe Zone
According to official numbers, there are 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. These refugees fled to Turkey from the ISIS threat and as a result of the Syrian Civil War. Turkey had an open-door policy towards those refugees and acted as a buffer for them not to leave to Europe, instead of becoming the “refugee corridor”. In return, Europe provided an aid of €3 billion to Turkey. Those refugees had to be looked after, to get educated and to be integrated into Turkish daily life. Especially in İstanbul, those refugees have been altering the socio-economic structure of Turkish society, creating a so-called Refugee Crisis. And so far, the so-called Refugee Crisis cost around $35 Million to the Turkish economy, as opposed to €3 billion aid from Europe. So Turkey’s aim was relocating one to two million of these refugees back to the safe zone in Syria.
B – Putting an end to the “Terror Corridor” on the southern border of Turkey.
Turkey has a 911 km of border with Syria. There is no way the country could disregard a non-formal state being formed by a terrorist organization right beneath its border. Moreover, Turkey has always criticised the US for using one terrorist group against another, pointing out the potential negative implications. And there they were! This was the 3rd cross-border operation Turkey made on YPG (Operation Euphrates Shield on 2016- to North Aleppo and Operation Olive Branch-on 2018 to Afrin). But the group remained the control on the Eastern side of Euphrates, holding their own elections, being involved in population engineering activities in the region and carrying out deliberate guerilla attacks towards Turkey.
NOTE: YPG Does not represent the whole Kurdish Population.
There are around 15 million Kurds in Turkey. Kurds have been living in peace with Turkish citizens. They own small to big businesses in Turkey and Turkey even has a state television, TRT Kurdi, devoted to Kurdish broadcast. And as Bernard Lewis put it in his book “Emergence of Modern Turkey”, Turkey even had Kurdish prime ministers in its history. Not the whole Kurdish population, but these around at most 50.000 forces are regarded as “terrorists” in the eyes of the Turkish Government. There is no evidence that YPG has a prominent support base within the Kurdish population. Yet, they are regarded as the “extremist” wing of the Kurds.
4. What exactly happened in Northern Syria?
On October 9th, Turkish Air Forces began assaults at the area marked as a “Safe Zone” in Northern Syria. This Safe Zone was going supposedly 30 KM deep into the Syrian border. The area was aimed to act as a buffer between the rest of Syria controlled by half-terrorist and half-Essed government. Turkey never planned a long-term presence in this area though. The idea was limited to a “clean-up” from terrorists.
Council of Foreign Relations
The second leg of the operation was Turkish Ground Forces, crossing the border and taking over Resulayn. Turkey’s Ground Forces were assisted by the Free Syrian Army (the civil Syrian army formed against Assad during the Syrian Civil War) to reduce Turkish casualties and to provide guidance as an organisation that knows Syria well enough. What’s left in Resulayn following the operation from YPG was a bunch of US arms, even highly advanced combat vehicles provided by the US. The operation kept on with the city Tel-Abyad and eventually, strategic M9 Highway was secured by Turkish Forces. But right at the entrance of Menbic, guns were lowered. The destiny of the rest was now going to be determined on the table. Russia was concerned about the pace of the operation and that Turkey will go beyond the declared 30 KM depth. Menbic was originally not included in the Safe Zone and Russia, along with the Syrian government, had no intention to allow it being included in the Safe Zone as the strategic importance of Menbic suggested.
5. The outcome and criticism against Turkey.
In the end, we will see if Turkey’s Safe Zone plans to go as intended; however, there is one winner already: Vladimir Putin, the Russian President. The US left Syria in the beginning even before the operation started, paving the way for Turkish forces. Turkey does not promise any permanent presence in the area either. YPG is already cleaned up in the light of the operation as well. There is only one big player left in the region now: Essed backed by Putin.
Turkey drew a lot of criticism from the Western World during and following the Peace Spring Operation. The main sources of criticism were the US and Europe. More than Turkey actually, the US public was provoked against Trump. They have seen YPG (not Kurds) an ally since the fight with ISIS and stamped this cross-border operation as a massacre against Kurds as they did not like Trump leaving the Middle East to Russia.
Apart from that, The West was scared of the biggest threat of close history: the Revival of ISIS. YPG kept thousands of ISIS militia under Northern Syria prisons. When Turkey went there for occupation, those prisons were empty. As seen from video footages, YPG let them go before even Turkey came in. So where are those thousands of ISIS militia involving Europeans who got rejected by their countries? As a response to those concerns raised by the US public (and as the US general elections are coming by), Trump pushed the button of a special operation that led to the execution of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, on 28th of October.
Also, the reckless behaviour of Turkey’s shoulder-to-shoulder ally, Free Syrian Army, against dead and captured terrorists was broadcasted in worldwide media. That for sure, harmed the legitimacy of the operation.
6. Turkey did something wrong…
The operation and its echo in the Western World implied that Turkey lacks diplomacy, media presence and lobbying power beyond its borders. High-level YPG executives were all-around live TV, telling their stories even before Turkish government officials were on international media. They cross-communicated the perception that they have all the Kurds in their backs very well that European and the US media followed by in a short notice. Even Trump is expected to welcome the YPG leader at the White House in November. The United Nations, the European Union and the Arab Union condemned Turkey, their long-term partner and a NATO member, over a terrorist organization. Turkey arguably undertook a successful operation; however, they lost the “Perception War”. Yet, as the famous strategist Lee Atwater put it: “Perception is the reality”. And the Turkish Government must always keep that in mind…