Erdogan’s Afrin Policy Threatens Disastrous Humanitarian Crisis – And More
By launching an offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters in Afrin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan risks a humanitarian catastrophe for the hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in Afrin. This is a provocation for a violent backlash from the Kurds at home that could undermine internal security and crush his hopes of neo-Ottoman regional hegemony. The offensive may also harm Ankara’s recently improved relations with Moscow and further jeopardize its alliance with the United States, which will eventually reduce Turkey’s influence in post-war Syria.
Since January 19th, the Turkish army and its proxies of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) have pursued an incursion into Syria’s Northern canton of Afrin, an enclave protected by the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG) and other defense units of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). After weeks of heavy shelling, the Turkish military claims it has now encircled the city of Afrin. This will not only mark the beginning of a bloody urban warfare between Turkish military with its affiliates and the YPG but also foreshadows a catastrophic crisis for the civilians of Afrin, many of them internally displaced from other parts in Syria.
Code-named Operation Olive Branch, this military campaign aimed at the Syrian Kurds has already shown that the strategy has little to do with strategic behavior but everything to do with sporadic foreign policy decisions. For fear of Turkey’s own security and stability, Erdogan has been trying to contain political and territorial gains of the region’s Kurds to avoid mobilisation of Turkey’s Kurdish ‘minority’ – which makes up over 19% of the total population of Turkey.
Kurdish demonstrations not only in Northern Syria, Iran and Iraq but also in European cities such as Brussels, Paris, London, Berlin and Cologne are a warning that as such, Operation Olive Branch puts Turkey in danger. It risks breaking standing alliances, losing stakes in the post-war Syria and ultimately crushing Erdogan’s hopes for regional hegemony. The biggest security threat for Turkey is, however, the inevitable alienation of its own Kurdish minority which is bound to result in violence.
The YPG, a Syrian Kurdish military faction that has been crucial in the fight against the so-called Islamic State, has accumulated support from Western countries as a valuable ally in Syria’s civil war. As Russia continues to balance its support for Assad’s regime with maintaining amicable relations with the Syrian Kurds to advance its own strategic interests, it has amassed political leverage that can strengthen the prospects of Kurdish autonomy in the northern provinces of Syria. Amidst the US withdrawal from the region, Erdogan has been left with the need to adapt to new geopolitical realities, but not much success has come out of his political maneuvering.
Without a doubt, the new power balance in the Middle East is a challenge for Turkey. The political and security uncertainty that followed the 2011 Arab uprisings sparked regional rivalries and also set the stage for a confrontation of hegemonic ambitions of the Middle Eastern non-Arab periphery: Turkey and Iran. When Ankara opted to chip in to the temporary alliance of Iran, Syria and Russia, the stage was set for these rivalries to emerge in Syria.
For its part, Turkey’s key foreign policy direction has been dominated by a neo-Ottoman vision of becoming a leading regional power – a goal to be reached through the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) ‘zero problems policy’ and the establishment of a ‘functioning Islamic democracy,’ a model to inspire the region and to become a political-economic link between the Middle East and Europe. Traditionally, ensuring domestic stability and national security is a crucial pre-requisite for regional hegemony.
The insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered to be a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and Germany, among others, has therefore been featured on the agenda of the ruling party. The PKK is considered to be the main challenge to Turkey’s national security, yet Ankara’s issue with the Kurds in Turkey and the region goes way beyond its battle with the PKK.
Turkey’s Kurdish minority has been of a substantial political value for the AKP. Most of Turkey’s Kurds are living in the southeast of the country, and Ankara is well aware that this very region hosts a decisive number of swing voters. Turkey’s Kurdish population turned out to be instrumental in the AKP’s success in previous local and parliamentary elections.
Now, Ankara threatens to re-ignite old fires and ultimately reverse all the AKP’s previous attempts, as sincere or not as they may have been, to democratise and resolve its Kurdish conflict. Instead, increasing arrests of HDP members for their alleged support for the PKK, are only likely to further alienate the Kurds in southeast Turkey, which has dramatic implications for its Kurdish population. It is worth remembering that it was the absence of a political space for the expression of Kurdish demands that led to the creation of the PKK in the 1980s in the first place.
It is therefore not surprising that international support for the YPG and affiliated militias, growing prospects for Kurdish autonomy and the threat of the spillover effect from Syria have been taking over Turkey’s foreign policy, with the Operation Olive Branch as only one of the examples.
However, Turkey is likely to be left alone with its Kurdish struggle. Moscow might be silent on this issue for now, but it cannot provide active support to Ankara in its anti-Kurdish policy in Syria. Moscow’s interest in this fragile balancing game is to secure Syria’s stabilisation and a stake in the post-conflict reconstruction for which Russia is preparing to compete with other regional and global actors – particularly in exploring Syria’s oil resources. In order to do so, it has to maintain good relations with all stakeholders, including the Kurds who, coincidentally, sit on Syria’s key oil resources. Moreover, as the military involvement in Syria is a heavy financial burden on Russia, Moscow will seek a fastest road to peace for which winning Kurdish support is essential.
So while no other member of the Sochi group (Russia, Syria and Iran) wholeheartedly supports Kurdish autonomy, the Kurds still remain a valuable ally and a proxy for pursuing national interests. Even Iran, struggling with its own Kurdish minority (albeit less than Turkey’s), is a pragmatic actor in terms of regional foreign policy and has high stakes in Syria’s post-war future. Maintaining a power base in Syria falls within Tehran’s own hegemonic ambitions in the region, which is a direct point of confrontation with Turkey. To make things worse for Ankara, it is ironic that even the Iraqi Kurds expressed support for the YPG in Afrin, despite long-standing divisions.
Erdogan’s perpetual fear of regional developments with regard to Kurdish mobilisation – be it in Syria, Iraq or Iran – as a key driver of its regional strategy is not a sustainable way to achieve domestic stability, and a threat of a humanitarian disaster in Afrin is far from Erdogan’s ambitious regional hegemony. If Erdogan does not adapt his current foreign policy to regional developments, it might not be only Turkey’s Kurdish conflict that spins out of control.