What is and isn't Afrin all about?

ÖZGE BULUR @ozgebulurr
emAFP Photo/em
AFP Photo

In his article last week, Steven A. Cook attempts to rationalize the motive behind Turkey's Operation Olive Branch by using a limited perspective that barely goes beyond baseless claims

Turkey's offensive against the People's Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin is about to enter its third week, with more than a handful of villages liberated. In Turkish media organs, the offensive is being covered both critically and positively, but generally the latter. When it comes to foreign media outlets, however, the ongoing operation is reported as a cardinal sin that Turkey should not have dared to commit. Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow in Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, seems to have sharpened his tongue as a critic in his article, "The Entirely Rational Basis for Turkey's Move into Syria," which was published online on The Atlantic on Jan. 22.

Cook mentions the ongoing Operation Olive Branch throughout the article and makes many claims. For him, "the dissection of the [Ottoman] empire and the attempted division of its remnant has sowed a profound and pronounced mistrust of foreign powers – even allies – in Turkey's political culture." And from day one until now, he argues that the Republic of Turkey has done whatever it takes to make sure that "the nightmare of post-World-War-I dismemberment can never repeat itself." In other words, in his first claim, Cook acts as a Freudian analyst, believing that Turkey's problems can be traced to its childhood memories, or, as he puts it, "nightmares," the latest occasion of which, he says, was caused by what is happening in northern Syria. Cook argues that to escape another nightmare, "President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered his army to attack a district in northwestern Syria called Afrin" to fight against the Democratic Union Party's (PYD) YPG militia.

To begin, border security is neither a new subject nor special to Turkey. Securing borders from external threats is the objective of almost all nation-states, let alone old civilizations and empires alike, which had once used mountains or rivers as boundaries. One thing is for sure, unlike in previous centuries, the issue of border security runs much deeper today. Thus, dismemberment can be a nightmare for any country, not just Turkey. Therefore, it would not be a well-founded argument to say that Turkey's operation in Afrin is rooted in its childhood nightmares, because the operation is beyond one single line of reasoning.

Cook must be aware of the insufficiency or unprovability of such an argument. Thinking that a military operation cannot be linked to one single factor, he changes his objective and starts to accuse Turkey of not fighting terrorism properly, which is where his arguments fall flat.

"Turkey has much to answer for," he writes in his evaluation of Turkey's counterterrorism fight, saying that Turkish officials portrayed it "as an anti-terrorism operation" even though Ankara previously ignored "jihadists, enabled al-Qaeda affiliates, and was (at best) ambivalent about fighting the Islamic State." When I read the title of the article, particularly the "entirely rational basis" part, I wanted to believe that Cook's arguments were well thought out while questioning Turkey's motive for a military operation in Syria. It seems, however, he did not read up on the country's resolute fight against al-Qaida, and more importantly Daesh. Or maybe he did, but he does not want readers to know that. Cook did not refer to any of the official explanations from Turkish authorities regarding the country's counterterrorism measures or its collaboration with European countries in capturing foreign fighters, let alone mentioning U.S. President Donald Trump's National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster's special thanks to Turkey in late December last year for its fight against several terrorist groups, including Daesh, al-Qaida and the PKK.

Cook claims that "Turkey would likely be better off if it approached the grievances of many of its Kurdish citizens with an open hand rather than a clenched fist." Any way you slice it, his argument loses its basis due to overgeneralization. Although he contradictorily accepts later that "there are many Kurds who have prospered and participate in the political, social, and economic life" in Turkey, he leaves a question unanswered as to where he would exactly place this in the open hand versus fist argument. Cook is right, unlike in previous decades, that Turkey has made significant progress in recent years in terms of representation of Kurds in the political arena, media, educational institutions and many other spheres, which could only denote an open hand policy. The fist, however, only concerns the PKK today, especially after it ruined the Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) reconciliation process when it broke the cease-fire in July 2015. Cook has to think twice then while laying blame on Turkish leaders for ordering the incursion into Syria against the YPG, the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which has targeted civilians in several Turkish cities in a string of suicide attacks after the end of the cease-fire.

"Turkey's geography, identity and problematic history with great powers" is what makes the country's Afrin operation "entirely rational," Cook asserts before giving readers a mini geography lesson on Turkey, which he says "shares long borders with threatening, unstable, or warring countries." If it is simply rational to discuss the operation in geo-political terms, then why is it so hard to recognize Turkey's right to keep itself safe from danger? It is a catch-22 that those who say that Turkey has a right to keep its borders safe from external threats of terrorism are the ones who funnily enough also oppose the country's cross-border operation against terrorists who threaten its national security.

Cook continues to question Turkey's problems, another of which he says is identity – maybe his biggest claim. He argues that Turks fear that the Armenian and Greek minorities would also stake a claim if the PKK, which he says was formed by separatists who felt they were alienated because they are Kurdish in Turkish society, happens to prevail and take swathes of territory from Turkey's southeast.

If people only read Cook's long chain of claims, they might possibly be persuaded and think that Turks actually have such a fear. However, this cannot be true since the Armenian Patriarchate and the Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, have backed Turkey's offensive, which shows that they also think, as most of the public does, that the offensive is not against Kurds, but PKK-linked YPG terrorists. For those who are wondering, the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey wished the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) success in Operation Olive Branch against the YPG in a statement on its official website on Jan. 22, assuring that the minority "will pray for the unity of Turkey and the well-being" of society.

Going back to Turkey's "unhappy history with the great powers," Cook justifies the U.S.'s cooperation with the YPG in Syria by arguing that Turkey's "reluctance to fight the Islamic State," led Washington to choose the YPG as a partner. Yet, he does not mention why Turkey refrained from teaming up with the U.S. against Daesh in the first place. Turkey had to tiptoe around directly attacking Daesh in Syria at first while the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, Iraq, was seized in June 2014 by Daesh terrorists, who kidnapped 49 Turkish citizens and held them captive for more than three months. What is more, Cook never touches on the fact that Turkey joined the U.S.-led coalition against Daesh as soon as it was formed. Maybe this is because such an alliance does not reflect Turkey's unhappy history with a great power like the U.S. For the same reason, Cook might have thought that readers do not need to know how Turkey cleared the Syrian towns of al-Bab and Jarablus of Daesh terrorists, as he did not mention that either.

To make a long story short, Cook's reasoning of Turkey's Afrin operation within the contexts of dismemberment, geographical fate, identity, and, absurdly, the lack of fighting terrorism is unfortunately tantamount to seeing a major operation from a narrowed down perspective. Turkey's fight against YPG terrorists, aside from the PKK and Daesh, can only be evaluated from a broader view since it is not just because of a traumatic past, but for a secure future.

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