Syria lies in the heart of the Middle East, sharing a border with the Republic of Turkey. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons User RAS67

Turkey’s operation in Syria from a Turkish perspective

On Oct. 6, Turkey began military operations in Syria. On Lewis & Clark’s campus many students want to discuss it or have opinions about it, but do not have the necessary insight. Thus, I wanted to write an article explaining different actors in the region as well as their interests. I would also like to note that while I try to be objectively critical, I can only do that to some extent as a citizen of the Republic of Turkey.

First of all, it is important to understand what the Western media means when they say “the Kurds.” I personally have heard many people say “Oh my God! Your country is attacking the Kurds!” and when I ask “What do you mean by ‘the Kurds?’” no one seems to have an answer. 

The Kurdish people live in four countries as substantial ethnic groups: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Turkey has the largest population of Kurdish people with 10 to 15 million people. Iraqi Kurds have an autonomous region in Iraq, and the Syrian Kurds have a de facto autonomous region in Syria called Rojava. Within the context of our conflict, Turkey is executing the military operation against the Islamic State and the YPG (People’s Protection Units), which Turkey considers as terrorist organizations, on the Syrian border. YPG is not part of an official army and is mainly Kurdish. There are humanitarian concerns on a global level because some of the YPG’s locations are within Syrian cities where civilians live.

This is not the first time the Turkish army has been in Syria. However, this time, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan aims to create a “safe zone” on the border of Turkey from the Euphrates River all the way to the Iraqi border. But why does Turkey want or need such a safe zone? Turkey has been struggling with terrorism since the 1970s. Especially since the beginning of the Syrian War, the terror attacks have increased in number in the southern border of Turkey. Turkish government has clearly stated that they considered YPG a terrorist organization linked to the PKK (The Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which is considered a terrorist organization not only by Turkey but also by the U.S. and the European Union.

The TRT (Turkish Radio Television) World has made references to different American officials accepting ties between the PKK and the YPG. On April 28, 2016, Sen. Lindsey Graham said the YPG is “aligned or at least have substantial ties to the PKK,” which was accepted by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Earlier this year, Graham said, “We owe it to Turkey that when we withdraw, if we withdraw, that we do not create a terrorist corridor, an enclave of terrorists in the eyes of Turkey inside of Syria armed by the Americans.” The U.S. defines YPG as a key ally in the region because it helped Americans fight the Islamic State. For Turkey, this looks like a NATO ally provokingly arming terrorists on its borders. 

Securing the southern Turkish border through the military operation could have serious consequences for Syria and the global community. There have been many casualties and innocent people being displaced from the region. I am shocked at how the deaths of innocent people can be justified as “collateral damage.” However, in times of fear, such cases are more easily justified.

The EU, NATO and the U.S. each have different interests in the region. The biggest concern for the U.S. is how the Turkish operation may change demographics. Apart from displaced civilians, the U.S. also expressed concerns about the prisons that hold Islamic State militants and how conflict could free a substantial amount of extremist prisoners. This is clearly alarming for the U.S. as they think it could lead to a resurgence of the Islamic State or other extremist groups.

Despite criticism, the EU has not been very active regarding this matter. There are between 1,500 and 2,000 EU citizens who have joined the Islamic State who might potentially turn back to their countries in the wake of the Turkish military operation which is clearly concerning for the EU. President Erdoğan’s comments about letting 3.6 million refugees into Europe might have also caused some fear within European nations that are struggling with immigration. Such action is unlikely but nevertheless a strong leverage for the Turkish Republic. Turkey instead is planning to relocate these refugees in the safe zone it aims to create. NATO is unable to take a strong stance against Turkey as it is a NATO member and the ideological unity between member states is important for NATO. 

Russia has already filled the gap left by the U.S. in the region. At a meeting on Oct. 22 in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Erdoğan agreed on a deal on Northern Syria which will establish joint Russian and Turkish patrols in the region. This puts the U.S. in a harder position because Turkey, as a NATO member, chose to cooperate with the Russian Federation.

It is also important to note that the issues are much more complicated than what an international audience sees on TV or in other sources. Reading news, taking a class or even having a minor will not allow you to fully understand the whole picture. Emotional connection, having family present in the region and being fluent in the local language means more than just studying texts. People that claim they know what is going on in another part of the world are like aliens that think they know what it means to be human only looking down at Earth and not interacting with anyone. 

I would also expect people to mind their words in class as they have psychological consequences on international students. Genocides, ethnic conflicts, wars, people dying in protests and immigrants’ bodies being washed up at your shores are not easy to talk about. That is why sometimes we remain silent, but that does not mean we do not have an idea or that we accept yours. It becomes irritating, especially when some feel entitled to comment on your country and how things should be. What they need to know is that our countries are not your playground. 

 Last but not least, do not forget that we are learning things from a certain perspective at this college. Expecting an objective education is not possible as education is constantly influenced by its context. Narratives would be very different if you took classes in a different country in a different language. So, reading academic sources from one or several similar perspectives and being able to articulate those in your native language in a sophisticated way does not necessarily mean that you truly understand what is going on in the world. 

The need for acknowledgment of different narratives is greater for the U.S. as its media and foreign policy interactions promote or at least result in the creation of “existential threats.” These existential threats define the world in a very evangelical “good” and “evil” sense rather than acknowledging that international actors have different interests. Villainizing these actors only causes more problems and misunderstandings because you simply cease to understand why they are doing what they are doing. In addition to being geographically isolated from the rest of the world, most Americans are not able to understand what is truly going on in the world because the American media shows the conflicts around the world like the next Marvel movie with a clear good and evil. Lack of knowledge when it comes to geography and languages makes American public and private attitudes towards other countries even more detrimental. 

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