On October 9, 2019, Turkey started its third military operation in northern Syria within three years. After Operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, Turkey once again enters Syrian soil in the course of Operation Peace Spring. Unlike the former two operations, Peace Spring is under heavy criticism. In this article, I explain the motives behind the operation, the likely effects on the region and how Turkey is modernising International Conflict Resolution and Peace-Building.
Operation Peace Spring
Turkey long ago announced its desire to establish a safe-zone along its Southern border to Syria. Accordingly, after peaceful compromises failed to realise, Turkey’s move does not come by surprise. Since the Syrian Civil War erupted 8 years ago, many different groups claimed Syrian territory and among them are also terrorist groups such as DAESH (also known as ISIS or ISIL) and YPG. The YPG was able to capture much of northern Syria and has established its dominance there. However, because the YPG is an affiliate of the terror organisation PKK, which is active in vast areas of Turkey, the YPG, together with the PKK, has also destroyed much of Turkey’s border regions to Syria. Turkey fears that once the YPG manages to establish an autonomous state in that part of Syria, the casualties on the Turkish side will rise and the regional situation will become even more volatile. Operation Peace Spring aims at pushing the YPG further into Syria (32km) and relocate 2 of the 3.6 million Syrians living in Turkey back to their home country, who have been displaced for now more than 8 years.
A Complex Background
Internationally, the operation is now under heavy critique and the background is quite complex. When DAESH emerged in 2012, the international state community was aware that the group is extremely dangerous and challenges international peace, security and also poses a threat to many principles of human rights. However, despite the danger, no state was willing to take actions against the group in the form of targeted ground operations, but the conducted airstrikes were only partially successful against the group. The European Union (short: EU) and the United States of America (short: USA) decided to support one of DAESH’s enemies, which were already on the ground: namely the YPG. The support came in the form of military equipment, advice and training. So far, the problem would have been a solely Syrian one, if the YPG would not be affiliated with a terrorist group in Turkey: the PKK. From 1983 onwards, the PKK is waging a guerilla war against Turkey and its civil population in the country’s Eastern regions. The group claims to be representatives of the Kurds, an ethnic minority in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the PKK’s aim was to establish an autonomous state for Kurds on Eastern Turkish soil, because of the under-developed economy there. Later, the aims became less transparent, since the group removed the aim of a Kurdish state from their agenda in the early 2010s. However, the group continues to raid villages and buses, engages in human trafficking, drug trafficking and extortion. Unfortunately, the victims of the decades-long guerilla war are the civilians, Turkish and Kurdish civilians alike. The international community tends to portray the Eastern parts of Turkey as being fully Kurdish, which is not true; the majority is still Turkish and equally suffers from the under-development of the region. Due to the PKK’s terror, companies do not settle in the East of Turkey (although subsidised by the state), fearing attacks. Now, it becomes clear that YPG’s connection to PKK is a dangerous one for Turkey, because if the group is able to establish an autonomous state in Syria, they will have more opportunities to support the PKK and would pose a two-front threat to Turkey.
Internationally, the operation has been under heavy critique. Since the YPG is mainly Kurdish, people are quick to assume that the conflict has an anti-ethnic dimension. It is believed that Turkey wants to ‘eliminate’ the Kurds. Logically, this is not the case and here is why: there are over 15 million Kurdish people in Turkey, an estimated 5 million in Istanbul alone. The whole security infrastructure in Turkey’s East is based on the cooperation between the Military Police (Jandarma) and big Kurdish families. Ironically, these Kurdish families are the ones that protect the citizens from the PKK, the ones who claim to be representative of the Kurds. Further, there is a Kurdish political party in Turkey (HDP), which currently holds more than 11% of the seats in the Turkish Parliament (TBMM). Even the speeches and messages of the imprisoned former leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, are publicly read out at big events of the Kurds and the party events of the HDP. It would be wrong to equate Kurds with the PKK and YPG; it harms the Turkish-Kurdish friendship and peace.
War should always be the last resort. There is no way to euphemise war and the destructive effects of it. Unfortunately, the diplomatic efforts by Turkey were insufficient to achieve a compromise. Now the operation is in full effect and we can only look forward — and there is hope! Looking back at Turkey’s past operations (Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch), we can see how surgical the Turkish Armed Forces work. With a minimum amount of civilian casualties and record times of approximately 7 and 2 months, they demonstrated that the operations were goal-oriented and transparent, effectively bringing stability to the region. Unlike other states that deploy troops in other countries for decades, Turkey’s actions show a true commitment for bringing the 8-year Syrian conflict to an end. This is maybe the biggest opportunity we have. After the successful operation, Turkey plans on relocating 2 million Syrians back to their home country, from which they had to flee years ago. Looking at the situation in the region around Idlib, we can see that Turkish Armed Forces managed to safeguard the region quickly and foster the reconstruction and development of the region; we can expect nothing less this time. So this operation provides a chance to stop the Syrian diaspora and restore order in at least one little part of Syria, while also giving Turkish border regions the chance to recover from the effects of the Syrian war.
A New Era of International Peace and Security
From an emotional standpoint, we all initially reject the idea of cross-border military action. Legally seen, there is much ambiguity about the extent sovereignty principles and responsibilities to protect (R2P) and national interests collide or not. However, if we detach ourselves from our current paradigms we will have to acknowledge that this radical move by Turkey could bring a faster end to the Syrian war than expected. For 8 years, all the participants waited for something to happen and none of the talks and actions were successful. By intervening surgically, as Turkey does now, Turkey’s interest will be served, as well as the interest of 2 million Syrians. This means that one actor (namely Turkey) will no longer be part of the conflict, if the mission is successful. Further, it reduces the refugee problem significantly. Also, it opens the possibility of a Kurdish state, just not right at the Turkish border. So, with one operation three factors are eliminated that caused stress in the region. This type of interventionism is a revolutionary new approach. In contrast to American interventionism, Turkish interventionism does not follow an imperial logic. Turkish interventionism is solution-oriented, which means that the Turkish Armed Forces move quickly and retreat immediately, once the goal is accomplished. This is not the case with American troops (Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Cuba, Syria until recently) or German, French and British troops (Mali, Afghanistan, Somalia). Further, Turkish Interventionism does not apply to operations that serve economic interests. Grounded in Turkish culture, peace is a higher good than money. It would not be possible to convince the Turkish people to support an economic war, but for the cause of long-term peace and safeguarding our national security the situation is different. Of course, this new approach to international relations can also be dangerous, as states, such as the USA or China, might increasingly intervene under the flag of Turkish Interventionist principles, but in reality exert dominance or pursue economic interests. However, the approach can also be the beginning of a change in modern international peace-building.