Turks react to military offensive in Syria with mix of fear and pride: ‘War is an attempt to divide opposition'

Borzou Daragahi
Turkish-backed forces from the Free Syrian Army, stand in formation during military maneuvers in preparation for an anticipated Turkish incursion targeting Syrian Kurdish fighters, near Azaz town: AP

Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria inspired domestic support for the country’s armed forces, but also scepticism, fear and anger in a politically divided country that perceives it has already suffered greatly because of the continuing eight-year conflict to its southeast.

Turkey’s armed forces launched a military operation on Wednesday to create what it calls a “safe zone” in the country’s northeast, bombing targets in territory now controlled by a Syrian Kurdish political organisation Ankara classifies as a terrorist organisation and an offshoot of a separatist group it regards as a threat to the country’s territorial integrity.

While many supporters of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) hailed the intervention as a way to rid Turkey of a separatist threat and a way to relocate hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees back to their nation, strong voices of doubt emerged.

On Tuesday the country’s main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), which controls a large bloc in parliament and most of the country’s large cities, distributed a statement casting doubt on Mr Erdogan’s Syria policy, and urging a new approach.

“The ruling party has made Turkey one of the primary responsible parties of the destructive war in Syria through the wrong policies insistently pursued since 2011 despite all the warnings,” said the statement, which criticised Ankara’s policy of arming the rebel Free Syrian Army, and intervening repeatedly inside Syria.

“The ruling party has destroyed its own room for manoeuvre and been enslaved by its wrong decisions, chain errors of calculation and obsessions fuelled by its adventurist and sectarian policies,” said the statement, which called for negotiations with the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. “AKP administrations have made their choices in favour of war rather than peace, leading to prolonged conflicts and continued deferral of peace.”

Momentum toward a ground incursion appeared to be increasing. Local news outlets on Wednesday reported that convoys carrying Turkish special forces, tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery along with scores of trucks transporting an estimated 2,000 Free Syrian Army fighters were arriving near the Syrian border south of the city of Sanliurfa as they awaited for US troops to depart as part of a deal negotiated with President Donald Trump earlier this week.

Mr Erdogan has long demanded the creation of a Turkish-influenced “safe zone” in Syria’s northeast as a space to alleviate the pressure more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey and as a means to destroy Rojava, the budding proto-state there run by an affilate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a separatist group that Ankara has been fighting for decades.

But the president’s Syria policies have also begun to badly hurt him and his allies politically, as economic troubles exacerbate long-simmering Turkish animosity towards Arabic-speaking Syrians. Aided by local allies, Turkey has already created several relatively successful and mostly stable zones of influence in Syria’s north and northwest.

Turkey’s broadcast news outlets, mostly loyal to the government, reported jingoistically about the military intervention.

“Hands on the trigger at the Syrian border,” declared the A Haber news channel.

In parliament, the AKP, CHP, and two other nationalist opposition parties backed a general motion Tuesday to authorise Turkey’s armed forces to engage in cross-border operations in Syria while the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party (HDP) opposed it. Opposition figures voiced support for troops taking part in what is being dubbed, Operation “Peace Spring,” or “Stream of Peace.”

“Our prayers are for our heroic soldiers to return home safe and sound, after successful completion of Operation Stream of Peace. May God protect and lead our boys to glory,” CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu announced on Twitter.

But rather than unite Turks behind the flag and the armed forces, the operation has prompted numerous voices of dissent, a potential consequence of the increased political openness since ruling party losses in municipal elections earlier this year. On social media the hashtag #SavasaHayir, or “no to war” was trending in Turkey.

“The war is Erdogan’s attempt to divide the opposition front using the flag of nationalism,” exiled journalist Can Dundar wrote on Twitter. “If the opposition falls into this trap by saying this is a ‘national issue,’ it will shoot itself in the foot and throw the country into the fire. That is why we must say no to war.”

“This war is not a war of the people, but the Palace,” the HDP said on Twitter, in reference to the vast Erdogan-built presidential complex in Ankara.

Criticism of the war is risky. Turkish authorities detained more than 800 people critical of last year’s intervention into Afrin, a Kurdish-dominated enclave in Syria’s northwest.

In contrast to its previous interventions, including one into an area previously controlled by Kurds, the operation in the country’s northeast has also elicited strong criticism and worry from the U.S. Congress, Washington power players, European leaders, neighbouring Iran, the government in the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq and much of the Arab world.

“This planned operation represents a clear violation of Syrian sovereignty, threatens Syria’s territorial integrity and opens the door to further deterioration in the security and humanitarian situations,” said a statement by the Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul Gheit.

Even Mr Trump, who gave the operation a greenlight by vowing to remove the last few hundred US troops deployed to Syria, warned in a bizarre Tweet that he would “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it violated any of his undefined red lines in Syria, prompting a sell-off of the country’s currency.

Opposition voices said that Turkey risked international isolation by intervening militarily inside Syria with only the word of an untrustworthy Trump as its diplomatic cover.

“While the Turkish military’s operation brought the [Syrian Kurds] closer to Damascus, Trump’s zigzag tweets are continuing.” opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet wrote. “They are playing with Turkey.”

Others noted wryly that perhaps Mr Trump is showing wisdom by seeking to abandon Syria, and handing to Turkey thorny issues such as the hundreds of Isis prisoners held in detention facilities in northeast Syria. “While everyone else in Syria is trying to clean their hands, Ankara is trying to place its hand in more dirt,” said analyst Kerim Has on Twitter.

Turks also worry that the intervention could put them on a path of direct confrontation with a resurgent Isis, which reportedly launched a multipronged attack that killed and wounded 25 Kurdish-led fighters in its former Raqqa stronghold on Tuesday.

Turkey’s defence ministry noted that it has fought against Isis “both domestically and beyond its borders.”

Syrian political opposition leaders allied with Turkey appeared poised to take up the reigns of governance inside northeast Syria. On Tuesday, Oqab Yahya, vice president of the Syrian National Coalition told a Western diplomat that his organisation had already begun mapping out security and administration in the enclave, which stretches from the Euphrates River east to the Iraqi border.

But critics warned that the intervention was a dangerous last-ditch gambit by Mr Erdogan to salvage a Syria policy that many Turks regard as an unceasing disaster that has cost it tens of billions of dollars. The financial ratings agency S&P issued a note on Wednesday warning that the incursion “raises risks for Turkey’s currency and balance of payments,” potentially damaging tourism revenues.

“The war is a decayed branch that the AKP, which is near exhaustion, is holding onto,” economist Mustafa Sonmez wrote on Twitter. “War is a quagmire and it will deepen the crisis. People have become pessimistic, production and consumption have decreased and unemployment is rising. Price hikes and taxes are never ending,”

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