The multiple drivers of Turkey’s Syria offensive

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The multiple drivers of Turkey’s Syria offensive

Last week, Turkey’s armed forces launched “Operation Olive Branch” — a full-scale military offensive into Kurdish-controlled Afrin in northern Syria. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim have reaffirmed what the government sees as obvious and legitimate justifications for the operation: To prevent the formation of a de facto Kurdish state along Turkey’s southern border and to crush the People’s Protection Units (YPG). With close ties to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), both of which are considered terrorist groups by Turkey.
Given the ties between the PYD and the PKK, the prospect of an independent Kurdish Rojava and the unification of the three predominantly Kurdish cantons in Syria are seen as a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity. Although the offensive has been a long time in the making, the hastily-withdrawn announcement in early January that the US was assisting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — an alliance controlled by the YPG — in building a 30,000-strong security force to guard its borders seems to have finally triggered the decision. 
Other Turkish parties, including the ethno-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), share with the ruling AK Party an aversion to Kurdish autonomy. This possibility has often been described as more dangerous from Ankara’s perspective than the presence of thousands of Daesh fighters on Turkish territory.
But, for the AKP — beyond the defense of Turkey’s territorial integrity and a perceived need to send a strong message at a time of renewed international efforts to reach a political settlement to Syria’s crises — there are other factors influencing the decision to crush Kurdish ambitions in Syria. The growing aggressiveness and militarism of Turkey’s foreign policy in the past few years goes well beyond the Kurdish issue. 
Anxiety among Turkey’s secularists and liberals about the direction of the country under Erdogan dates back almost two decades, to when the Justice and Development Party rose to the top of Turkey’s political apparatus. Of particular concern is what is often called the “Iranization of Turkey” — the forceful Islamization of institutions, society and even of the country’s foreign policy, which is a process diametrically opposed to Kemalism’s sweeping and secularist drive.

Erdogan sees war against the Kurds as an opportunity, as it will unite ranks, foster support for the AKP’s internal agenda and further remove space for opposition and critics.

Dr. Manuel Almeida 

The merging of Turkey’s Islamic character with Turkish nationalism precedes the AKP and, considering the country’s history and culture, it is even quite a natural process. Yet, in the pre-AKP era of the 1980s and 1990s, this was essentially for domestic purposes. 
With AKP rule came the development of a neo-Ottoman vision and role for Turkey in the region. As Ahmet Davutoglu, chief ideological architect of this vision, once wrote: “Turkey is not an ordinary nation-state but the center of (Ottoman) civilization… (it must) become a political center that will fill the power vacuum which emerged after the liquidation of the Ottoman Empire.”
Turkey has become, together with its ally Qatar, a champion of all sorts of Islamist groups in the region, from the conservative to the radical. Since the Arab uprisings, Ankara and Doha have seen eye to eye in every major regional crisis, from Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to Syria and Yemen, and more recently the spat between Qatar and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. 
Participating in the Afrin offensive are a whole variety of Islamist militias, including extremists who have long used Turkish territory for their operations. Turkey’s government has also mentioned plans to do some large-scale demographic engineering in Rojava, by transferring many of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkish territory to northern Syria in order to overturn the Kurdish majority. 
Perhaps more important in the parallels between present day Turkey and Iran is the cultivation of a siege mentality, of the need to foster crises to justify means and ends, and for permanent confrontation with foreign and domestic enemies. An anti-Western and particularly anti-American rhetoric is part of the equation — a quite remarkable feature for a key NATO representative and once aspirant EU member. 
Syria’s Kurds have been a key US ally in the fight against Daesh, and Turkey’s president has already promised to extend the crackdown to Kurdish-controlled areas east of the Euphrates, where US troops are based. 
Last but not least are domestic politics and Erdogan’s personal ambitions. President Erdogan himself, once seen as an advocate of Kurdish rights, deserves a lot of credit for the peace process with the PKK between 2013 and 2015. Then came a U-turn, when the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) denied the AKP a majority in the parliamentary elections of 2015. Crucially, it opposed Erdogan’s plan for an executive presidency, leading the AKP to literally kill the peace process.
Now Erdogan is playing the Kurdish card again. With parliamentary and presidential elections on the horizon, the goal of an executive presidency ever closer, and significant internal challenges, including a struggling economy and constant allegations of graft surrounding government officials, the war against the Kurds is seen as an opportunity. It will unite ranks, foster support for the AKP’s internal agenda, and further remove space for opposition and critics. Only time will tell if it goes according to plan.  
Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science 
Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida
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