Turkey’s ongoing military campaign in Afrin against Syrian Kurds, Western allies in the fight against ISIS, must be condemned and opposed.
The last week has seen a concerted campaign by Turkish forces against the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin, located in the northwest of Syria, near the Turkish border. In the conflict to date, reports of dozens of civilian casualties, including several children have emerged. This latest military operation against the Kurds, known as ‘Operation Olive Branch’ in and around Afrin, is alleged by Ankara to be a way to expunge members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey deems to be a terrorist group, from the region near its borders.
In targeting Afrin, however, Turkey is not going after the PKK, as many observers assume. Instead, they are targeting the YPG, the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The YPG has been allied with the Western coalition forces in the fight against ISIS over the last few years. In addition, the Pentagon assisted in the formation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian forces in the military operation against ISIS within Syria. In order to justify ongoing air strikes and army attacks on Afrin, Erdogan has conflated the YPG and SDF with the PKK to pass them all off as terrorist groups endangering Turkish security interests.
US and international support for the Kurds against ISIS has long been a point of contention between NATO and Turkey. As far back as the siege of Kobane in 2014-2015, Turkey has strongly denounced the YPG and US support of the group. These simmering tensions were overlooked in the need to focus on the fight against ISIS. From a Western perspective, Turkey appears to no longer be a reliable partner in the fight against ISIS and against jihadism more broadly. I previously raised this issue in an op-ed from last year, questioning whether Turkey should remain a member of NATO. Even last year and earlier, the divergence of Turkey’s actions from the geopolitical and security aims of NATO was becoming obvious.
Part of the reason why the United States and other NATO members have looked the other way at Turkish actions has been its past importance as a strategic partner in the region. During the military campaign against ISIS, for instance, NATO utilised Turkish airbases, such as Incirlik in the nation’s southeast. At that time, it was understandable that NATO would look past what Erdogan was doing within Turkey, as the fight against ISIS was prioritised. In light of the ongoing campaign in Afrin and direct entanglement with American-backed forces, however, it is high time to raise serious questions about Turkey’s member status within NATO.
It is troubling, then, that the international response to Turkey’s military incursion into Afrin has been muted and inconsistent. The Trump administration did not explicitly condemn the Turkish military operation. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for instance, stated that ‘We hear and take seriously Turkey’s legitimate security concerns’ when asked by White House reporters about the situation. Meanwhile, the administration has also put out statements signifying their continued support of the Kurds. Senior officials within the Pentagon insist that Syrian Kurds remain vital to the ongoing fight against ISIS within Syria. ‘Our SDF partners are still making daily progress and sacrifices, and together we are still finding, targeting and killing ISIS terrorists intent on keeping their extremist hold on the region’, Major General James Jarrard said in a statement last Tuesday. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on the other hand, noted Turkish concerns about security in the area and promised to keep working with the Turkish government.
The mixed messages and inconsistent statements from the United States have been noticed on the ground in Afrin. Hussein Othman, a pharmacist based in Afrin speaking to the New Yorker, believes that by not condemning Turkish actions against the Kurds of Afrin, the United States has committed ‘the biggest betrayal of our lives’. Othman goes on to describe the impending humanitarian crisis that will occur if there is no respite soon. ‘If this lasts for one more week, we’re all going to die of hunger. There’s no bread, no food coming. We’re surrounded on three sides by the Turkish and one side by the Syrian government, and nothing is being allowed in or out. Two or three million people could die of hunger.’ If this situation were to eventuate, it would be a disaster in terms of stability in the region. It would also amount to a massive failure on the part of NATO and the West to assist our Kurdish allies in a time of genuine humanitarian need.
NATO member nations must make a clear and decisive decision on where they stand. The Turkish military operation against the Kurds, an instrumental Western ally against ISIS, cannot be ignored. In my opinion, it is time that the West and NATO made a strong commitment to stand with the Kurds, who are far more amicable toward Western interests in the region in comparison to the increasingly Islamist Turkish government under Erdogan.