Turkey’s invasion of Syria, Politico 15/10/2019

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16 Οκτ 2019
  • Αβραμόπουλος Avramopoulos


Last week, Turkey launched an incursion into Kurdish-held northeastern Syria, prompting stern condemnation from its Western allies.

On Monday, both the European Union and the United States decided to penalize Ankara over the operation, with EU foreign ministers agreeing to stop weapons exports to Turkey and Washington issuing sanctions.

Here are answers to eight key questions about Turkey's operation and its consequences.

Why the animosity between Turkey and the Kurds? 

After World War I, the Kurds were left without a state of their own, ending up spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. As ethnic minorities in these states, Kurds frequently faced repression. Against that backdrop, a militant group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), emerged seeking a Kurdish state within Turkey. (It now calls for greater autonomy in the country.) In the 1980s, a violent conflict ensued between the Turkish state and the PKK, killing tens of thousands of people; the PKK still regularly attacks Turkish security forces. Ankara, as well as the EU and the U.S., classify the PKK as a terrorist group.

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters gather around a Turkish army tank in the northern outskirts of the Syrian city of Manbij near the Turkish border | Zein Al Rifai/AFP via Getty Images

After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, a Syrian affiliate of the PKK — the People's Protection Units (YPG) — seized control of territory in northeastern Syria, establishing a semi-autonomous statelet bordering Turkey. The YPG later took the lead of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military alliance supported by the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group. The SDF lost some 11,000 fighters battling ISIS.

The YPG claims they're not directly linked to the PKK, but Turkey — as well as most experts on the region — say they share close ties. Ankara therefore saw a threat to its own security in the quasi-autonomous Kurdish state on its doorstep, dubbing it a "terror corridor" where the PKK could hide or easily attack from.

Ankara's aim is twofold: pushing YPG fighters at least 30 kilometers away from its border and establishing a so-called "safe zone" in parts of Syrian territory it seizes to which it plans to return refugees. Turkey currently hosts some 3.5 million Syrian refugees, more than any other nation, and resentment toward them is on the rise among Turkish citizens. It's also worth noting that parts of the opposition and many Turks, not just supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, support the military operation.

The incursion, fueled by security fears as well as nationalist sentiment, is Turkey's third operation in Syria. Erdoğan has long spoken about plans for a "safe zone" and driving away the YPG. But it was the U.S. that triggered the offensive when President Donald Trump announced the American troops stationed in northeastern Syria would withdraw — effectively green-lighting Turkey's planned incursion. Ankara subsequently launched the operation on October 9, with its troops entering Kurdish-held territories alongside Turkish-backed Syrian Arab militias.

The EU has condemned the invasion. In a joint statement on Monday, the bloc also pledged that member states would halt weapons exports to Turkey.

What has happened since in Syria?

Northeastern Syria, previously one of the most stable regions in the war-ravaged country, has become a battleground. As Turkey began capturing territory, the Syrian Kurds had little choice but to strike a deal with the Moscow-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad to halt the Turkish advance — likely spelling the end of their cherished semi-autonomy.

According to the United Nations, more than 130,000 people have been displaced since the start of the offensive. Turkey says it has killed nearly 600 "terrorists" as of Tuesday. Reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and others say dozens of civilians were killed. At the same time, hundreds of Islamic State supporters are reported to have escaped from Kurdish custody amid the Turkish advance. (The SDF says it holds about 10,000 Islamic State fighters.)

Does this mean another major influx of refugees into Europe is imminent? 

Probably not. Tens of thousands are trying to escape the fighting, but two factors make it unlikely a significant number will end up in Europe rather than become internally displaced. The first is geographical: Turkey is pushing down into the country from the north — meaning most will flee south rather than north into Turkey and then cross to Greece.

Second, it has become difficult to pass the Turkish-Syrian border even with the help of smugglers after Turkey built a wall and stepped up security along the frontier. Prior waves of displacement — such as in the spring, when fighting in northeastern Syria prompted 400,000 to flee — did not create another 2015-style refugee crisis.

Europe does rely on Turkey's cooperation for migration management, including in patrolling the Aegean Sea, so Erdoğan's threat to send all refugees currently in Turkey to Europe if EU countries continue to criticize Ankara's Syria offensive raised some concerns. But it is questionable whether Erdoğan would do so — he has made the threat numerous times before.

What has been the EU response? 

The EU has condemned the invasion. In a joint statement on Monday, the bloc also pledged that member states would halt weapons exports to Turkey. As of Tuesday, the countries that have formally suspended their arms trade with Ankara include Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden. The same day, they agreed to prepare a list of possible sanctions — to be deployed if and when the EU decides to do so — on Turkish individuals and legal entities over Ankara's drilling activities off Cyprus.

Turkey did not take kindly to the announcement, accusing the EU of displaying "a protective approach towards terrorist elements" in Syria and saying it would "seriously reconsider our cooperation with the EU on certain areas due to its unlawful and biased stance."

Syrians return to their homes in the town of Ayn al-Arus after it was taken over by Turkish-backed Syrian fighters | Bakr Alkasem/AFP via Getty Images

Hungary, meanwhile, appeared to endorse Turkey's Syria incursion on Tuesday in contradiction to the EU member countries' unanimous statement from only a day earlier, in particular Ankara's plan for refugee resettlement. Humanitarian organizations are warning against a so-called safe zone, however, and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has already told Turkey not to expect EU financial support for such a plan.

What impact will the export bans have?

It's likely to be very limited. Turkey, already the second-largest military within NATO in terms of personnel, has raised its defense spending by 65 percent over the past decade, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Ankara currently covers 70 percent of its defense needs with domestic production, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said, adding: "Even if an embargo is imposed ... our fight is against a terrorist organization, and we will not back down in that fight for any reason."

As for trade volume, the European Commission's trade department puts the value of EU arms and ammunition exports to Turkey at €45 million in 2018, although that number appears to be far too low. Germany alone exported €243 million worth of arms to Turkey in 2018, according to German media. According to SIPRI, 60 percent of Turkey's weapons imports in 2014-2018 came from the United States, with Spain and Italy in second and third place on 17 and 15 percent, respectively.

What has been the U.S. response?

Contradictory. Trump initially appeared to green-light Turkey's actions, then threatened to destroy the country's economy if it did not show restraint. He then said "let them" fight in northeastern Syria, before finally issuing sanctions against Ankara on Monday evening. The measures he announced include doubling steel tariffs and canceling negotiations on a planned trade deal with Turkey, as well as sanctions on the Turkish defense and energy ministers and the ministries of defense, energy and the interior.

It is unclear whether Erdoğan's planned White House visit will go ahead next month. The Turkish lira, meanwhile, appeared to shrug off the sanctions announcement on Tuesday morning.

Could NATO get dragged into all this? 

In short: It's extremely unlikely. But that hasn't stopped some from speculating that Turkey, a NATO member, could involve the alliance and invoke Article 5 — which enshrines the principle of collective defense — if it comes under attack as a result of its incursion into Syria. Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, for instance, said: "Imagine if Syria or Syria's allies hit back and attacked Turkey ... [because of Article 5] if Turkey were attacked, all NATO countries would have to step in and help Turkey."

Defense experts disagree. Ulrike Franke, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said it is "incredibly unlikely" that Turkey would invoke Article 5 in this situation. Asking for help would amount to an embarrassing "admission of failure" on Ankara's part. And even if Turkey did, Article 5 does not mandate NATO members to join the Syrian war on Turkey's side. It merely requires allies to assist with "such action as it deems necessary."

"It's a fundamental misunderstanding that if a NATO member declares a case of attack, all other members have to come to its aid with tank battalions," said Franke. "This fear that's being stirred up, particularly in Germany, that the Bundeswehr will be dragged into the Syrian war by Turkey invoking Article 5, is incomprehensible."

That doesn't mean NATO isn't watching Turkey's incursion into Syria with unease. The alliance's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has called on Ankara to act with restraint.

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