Turkish Invasion of Syria – 21 January 2018
Air Cdre RAF (Retd.) Andrew Lambert
Director, ERPIC Regional Security Program
On Sunday 21st January 2018, armed forces of the Turkish Republic invaded Affrin Province in Northern Syria. This invasion, codenamed somewhat paradoxically as Operation Olive Branch, involved tanks, artillery, infantry and aircraft. It is a very significant event and begs a number of strategic questions for the region, for Turkey’s future, and for Turkey’s allies.
First, is there a proper justification for this invasion under International Law? Perhaps Turkey regards this as an act of self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter, but it would be difficult to argue that “an armed attack had actually occurred against Turkey”.
An armed attack by whom? By either the state of Syria, or by the Kurdish group, known as the YPG who, hitherto, had enjoyed Russian support and had operated solely inside Syria.
In any case, to be justified, such action would require Turkey IMMEDIATELY to report the matter to the United Nations Security Council to allow the council to take measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.
In the event, it was France which summoned the UN Security Council. In a closed doors session, and with the US Permanent Representative surprisingly absent, the Security Council neither condemned nor approved Turkey’s actions. This lack of authorisation left the Turkish assault in a state of international law limbo.
Of course, this is not the first time that Turkey has bent International Law to suit. On many occasions over the past few decades, Turkey has carried out armed attacks into Northern Iraq, without UN approval, attacking Kurdish villages in the hunt for Kurds who supposedly were supporters of the terrorist PKK organisation. According to Ankara, the YPG are in reality an offshoot of the PKK, an expediency totally rejected by Washington.
The second item of concern is why Turkey is acting against warnings and in direct defiance of the foreign policies of its allies, particularly its most important ally, the USA. Even Mr Putin has had his arm twisted. Russian forces supporting the Syrian Regime had deployed 300 military police to Affrin but, after lengthy discussions with Moscow, they had to be rapidly redeployed so that the Turks would have a clear line of fire against the Kurds in Affrin.
But it is against the US that the rift is particularly stark.
In the UN-authorised fight against ISIS/DAESH, the Kurdish YPG were equipped and trained by the USA. Turkey watched with dismay as the YPG, and indeed the Kurdish Peshmerga, had been so successful against ISIS and how they now control about a quarter of Syrian territory, almost the whole of the north-east. The Kurds regarded the USA as their prime supporter; however, if the YPG are now to be thrown to the wolves it must surely beg the question in the minds of many Kurds, and indeed other supposed US friends, just how much can the USA be relied on when the chips are down?
Of course, Donald Trump was known to admire the ruthlessness of President Tayip Erdogan, and successive US Administrations have bolstered Turkish defences against a possible armed attack by Syria. But how pleased will Mr Trump now be, since the man he admired has bitten the hand that feeds him?
Anti-American sentiment is running high, and is exacerbated by the state-controlled media fuelling nationalist anti-Kurdish sentiment.
On the face of it, the Turkish invasion was triggered when the US-led coalition said it was working with the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to set up a new 30,000-strong border force along Syria’s northern border.
But this infuriated President Erdogan who stated during a speech in Ankara, “A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders.” He characterised US support to Syrian Kurds as undermining Turkey’s security, adding, “What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born.” And just in case this might spark reaction from Kurds inside Turkey, President Erdogan warned on Sunday that any Kurds who protested “would pay a high price”. So much for basic freedoms!
This now begs the third question: to what degree can Turkey continue to be considered a dependable NATO member? Article V of the NATO Treaty, the ‘attack on one is an attack on all’ article, is no justification for settling old scores, for ethnic cleansing or the suppression of ethnic minorities.
According to Reuters, quoting the Turkish state-run Anadolu agency, General Hulusi Akar, armed forces chief, speaking at a meeting of NATO top brass in Brussels, said that Turkey will not allow the Kurdish YPG to receive support, and said NATO should not differentiate between terrorist groups: “We cannot and will not allow support and arming of the Kurdish YPG terror group under the name of an operational partner. We hope this mistake will be corrected in the shortest time”.
Even more imperiously, last Sunday, Foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared that anyone who opposes Turkey’s operation there is siding with terrorists and will be treated accordingly.
These are hardly the words of a friend and ally; rather they echo the nationalist ultimatums, that were heard so much in the 1930s.
Internally, too, the Turkish Government is becoming increasingly imperious. In the aftermath of the so-called “Gulenist” coup just over a year ago, as many as 160,000 were, without due process, either imprisoned or dismissed from their jobs. Recent wrangles between the Turkish Constitutional and lower Law Courts seem politically motivated, and this all points to a deterioration in the rule of law. Judicial impartiality, according to the Financial Times, has now all but disappeared. Perhaps one should also recall that in the aftermath of the attempted coup, a number of Turks on the NATO staff actively sought asylum, while many others of middle and senior rank still in Turkey, were purged.
Although NATO Press announcements from Brussels portray an aura of calm and business as usual, other NATO nations, in particular the USA, must now feel distinctly uneasy about a member that seems to operate in its own self-interest, without any agreement from its allies. Other NATO members must, it seems, simply fall into line or accept the threatened consequences.
One has to ask, does Turkey no longer see herself as part of an organisation working to achieve consensus, or is she now a major regional power who can dictate terms?
If, however, NATO membership now sits awkwardly with Turkey’s unilateralist ambitions, one must also raise an eyebrow at Turkey’s increasing interests elsewhere. Moscow has found it hard to conceal its delight at the growing rift between NATO members. Turkey is already a dialogue member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a NATO look-alike in Asia. One wonders if she can, in all honesty, keep a foot in each camp, especially as she is increasingly turning her back on the West and the EU in particular.
So, in summary, one has to be concerned about the future path Turkey will take under her maverick, and increasingly nationalist, President Recep Tayip Erdogan.
In the words of President Lincoln, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’, and this applies not just to NATO, but Turkey as well. With a permanently suppressed Kurdish minority amounting to some 15-20% of the population, and with frequent extra-territorial forays to attack Kurds in Northern Iraq and now Syria, it is clear that Turkey is indeed divided. This ethnic split, coupled with the growing gap between the aspirational urban middle classes on the one hand, and the rural Erdogan supporters on the other, does not bode well for the future unity of a free country.
Whether President Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman, pan-Islamist actions, adventures and ambitions herald a real shift in Asia Minor, or are just the short-term, nationalist escapades of an opportunist remains to be seen.