Opposition to Turkish presence in Syria motivated by politics, not genuine concern for locals

THE EDITORIAL BOARD
ISTANBUL
Published

On Sunday, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) captured the Afrin city center just eight weeks into Operation Olive Branch. Until now, international media coverage of the NATO member's military incursion largely focused on a handful of issues, including alleged civilian casualties, clashes between Turkish-backed forces and People's Protection Units (YPG) militants and statements issued by various governments and international organizations.

In the wake of Turkey's takeover of Afrin, attention quickly shifted to a new set of allegations. The same commentators who boldly claimed that Afrin was going to be "Turkey's Vietnam" started making the case that YPG militants, whom Turkey and the CIA describe as the PKK's Syrian branch, had withdrawn from the area out of the goodness of their hearts just to prevent civilian casualties. Needless to say, they conveniently avoided more recent incidents such as that a YPG bomb claimed 11 lives days after the militants left. Nor was there any mention of a report by the United Nations that the group had been preventing civilians from leaving the town center.

At the same time, there have been efforts to discredit Turkey's security concerns. On Tuesday, the BBC issued a so-called reality check, suggesting that it had been unable to substantiate Turkey's claim that the YPG militants in Afrin had carried out approximately 700 attacks against Turkish citizens in the year that preceded Operation Olive Branch. "Only 15 of [those attacks] came from Afrin," the story concluded. The piece carefully avoided any mention of repeated attacks by the PKK's Syrian affiliate on civilian communities in Kilis and Hatay, which claimed several casualties and inflicted severe damage on a 500-year-old mosque.

Let us take a step back here and ask the obvious question of how many attacks must a terrorist organization carry out against a NATO member before the government can neutralize the national security threat emanating from the organization? For the record, the Daesh terrorist group had carried out no attacks in the U.S. before then-U.S. President Barack Obama's administration launched a military campaign to defeat the enemy. Al-Nusra Front was likewise a listed terrorist group before it had engaged in any acts of violence. In these circumstances, the admission that Turkey was attacked at least 15 times by the YPG would reasonably merit retaliation.

The usual answer to those questions is that the PKK is a terrorist organization, whereas the YPG is a separate entity. But the terrorists themselves seem confused about that distinction, possibly because they just suffered a humiliating defeat. Earlier this week, Duran Kalkan, a senior PKK leader, told one of the organization's propaganda outlets: "We will take Şemdinli [in southeastern Turkey] in retaliation for Afrin."

To be clear, Western opposition to Turkey's direct involvement in the Syrian civil war reflects political concerns as opposed to genuine care for local communities or the war-torn country's stability. By extension, Turks do not mind this politically motivated smear campaign against the successful military incursion into northern Syria, because facts are their allies.

It is no secret that PKK militants had been laying the groundwork for a series of terrorist attacks in southern Turkey in the months leading up to Operation Olive Branch. In October 2017, Turkish police captured a group of nine PKK militants in Muğla. According to officials, the individuals had been trained in Afrin before entering Turkey via the Amanos Mountains and reaching Latakia, where they boarded vessels and traveled to southwestern Turkey. Turkish authorities were keen on neutralizing the threat emanating from northwestern Syria ahead of the tourist season.

Going forward, Ankara has a vested interest in restabilizing northwestern Syria by protecting local communities from terrorist groups as well as the criminal regime of Bashar Assad. In addition to preventing attacks on Turkish citizens, Ankara hopes that bringing peace and stability to the area will facilitate the return of thousands of mostly Kurdish natives of Afrin among Turkey's Syrian refugees who had been forced into exile by the terrorists who seized control of their ancestral land. Altogether, there is no reason to be concerned about the Turkish presence in northern Syria unless critics care to admit to their political biases.

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