Terrorism and counter-terrorism: Turkey and neighbors, The Middle East Political and Economic Affairs

Reactions to Turkey’s Syria campaign: the U.S., Russia, the E.U. and the Muslim states

NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg was in Turkey on October 11 to discuss the Syria campaign with President Erdoğan (center) and Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu. (Archive photo: Presidency)

The United Nations Security Council had an emergency meeting on October 10 to take a stance against Turkey’s military campaign into Syria, launched on October 9. There were expectations of harsh reprimand and even sanctions. That didn’t happen: there wasn’t any denouncement. Furthermore, the U.S. and Russia made a move that they seldom choose to do: they vetoed the condemnation of Turkey. We’ll get to the reasons further on in this article.
After the vote, Turkey’s UN Permanent Representative Feridun Sinirlioğlu wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who had already asked for the de-escalation of the Turkish military operation and avoid hitting civilian targets. In the letter, Sinirlioğlu assured the secretary general that the “Peace Spring” operation is being run in a “proportionate, measured and responsible” manner, stressing that “All precautions are taken to avoid collateral damage to the civilian population.” Turkish National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and President Tayyip Erdoğan had already said similar sentences but, that letter stands for an official pledge made on Turkey’s part within the framework of international law.
A few interesting developments behind the scenes in the UN, in New York, followed this letter. For example, Permanent Representatives of six European Union (EU) countries issued a joint statement denouncing Turkey. These countries are Germany, France, Britain, Poland, Belgium and Estonia. Britain and France are permanent members of the Security Council with veto power. Germany and Poland are nonpermanent members. Indonesia and Kuwait, as two Muslim states, which are also nonpermanent members, seem like they did not object to the denouncement of Turkey.

NATO steps in

Turkey is a member of the Western defence alliance NATO. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General, arrived in Istanbul on October 11 to meet with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and President Tayyip Erdoğan.
The press conference with Çavuşoğlu was a bit tense. Stoltenberg stated that the the NATO understood Turkey’s “legitimate concerns” but that there was no consensus over Turkey’s military operation in Syria. Stoltenberg added that Turkey had to ensure that the gains we have made in the fight against ISIS are not jeopardized, as it was the common target.
Çavuşoğlu stated that acknowledging Ankara’s legitimate concerns was not enough. Turkey, naturally, wanted to hear “loud and clear” that the alliance was in full solidarity with the operation. This was odd considering Norway had stopped selling weapons to Turkey upon the operation’s announcement. According to Çavuşoğlu, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) –as the Syria branch or the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK)- was using tactics such as burning tires in the streets in order to give the false impression as if Turkish military was shelling cities and some allies have been falling into this “black propaganda”. That was an interesting example to give.
In conclusion, what continues to tailgate Turkey in this process is not only military difficulties but also diplomatic ones.
However, statements issued by the U.S., by Russia and by E.U. countries following the vote, as well as the recent developments, help us track down the respective positions all of these countries took concerning this operation directed against the PKK’s Syria activities next to its borders, carried under the protection of the U.S. until a few days ago.

What does the U.S. say?

On this issue, we have a couple of pointers. There are President Trump’s tweets that seem to shift in tone and message overnight that reflects the White House’s position, and there are the statements issued by the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Mike Pompeo’s mention of “Turkey’s legitimate security concerns”, for example, following his talk with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, is not to be missed.
Trump wants to make use of this situation to prevent Turkey from getting even closer with Russia and to create grounds for new trade connections. On the other hand, with impulsive words that don’t even affect the exchange rates, such as “I’ll devastate you if you kill the Kurds” he keeps Congress lobbies sweet at the expense of offending Ankara.
It’s possible to summarize the U.S.’s current attitude in the following way: 1- It doesn’t approve of Turkey’s operation on Syrian ground. 2- It doesn’t give military backing to Turkey in this context and, for example, doesn’t share air intelligence. 3- However, it also doesn’t stand in Turkey’s way, doesn’t set up a no-fly zone despite calls from the YPG and takes back about 50 of its soldiers that could sway the American flag. 4- It keeps the objection out of politics and within a “humanitarian” framework, such as the demand to leave the cilia Kurds and Christians unharmed. 5- In that framework the U.S. claims it will be Turkey’s responsibility if the jailed ISIS militants were free again.
This means that Trump wants to say “you had all that military training and money in return” and part ways with the YGP/PKK, that Barack Obama had chosen as allies in 2014 against ISIS despite turkey2s objections, and close the Syria chapter despite Israel’s objections. That’s why Trump expects Erdoğan’s Peace Spring operation to move against ISIS in a way that would justify Trump’s position against his American opponents, perhaps before November 13 where he said he invited Erdoğan to the White House.

What does Russia say?

Considering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Oct 11 statement, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statements right before the operation and just after it began, and the UN’s Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebezia’s statement following his vote to veto any denouncement of Turkey, we could sum up Russia’s position in six points: 1- Russia doesn’t approve of an operation of Syrian territory. 2- It finds Turkey’s concerns about the PKK legitimate. 3- It holds the U.S.’s collaboration with the PKK responsible for Turkey’s current operation in Syria. 4- Within that same framework, it holds the U.S. responsible for carrying out “demographic engineering” by replacing the Arab population with a Kurdish population in the East of Syria. 5- ISIS is a shared concern with Russia. 6- It suggests Ankara rekindles communication with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus.
That last point especially is a hidden reference to the Adana Protocol mentioned during the Astana meeting son September 16 between Erdoğan, Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The Adana Protocol which Erdoğan showed as a legal justification among the U.N. Chapter 51 on self-defense for the Peace Spring operation upon his return from Serbia. This protocol was signed, between Turkey and Syria on October 19, 1998, following the expulsion of the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan from Syria upon Turkey’s threatening with war. The protocol suggests a joint struggle against terrorism by forming a joint committee, hinting a potential cooperation between Ankara and Damascus.

What does the EU say?

Some EU countries’ appeal to Turkey to end the operation, following the UN Security Council vote, points out to a certain pressure building up within EU capitals. Those capitals, on one hand, worry about yet another wave of migration for domestic policy reasons. On the other hand, they worry about their ISIS member citizens currently under PKK arrest by the YPG/PKK could be released and decide to return home. Finally, since the PKK has been well organized in European countries, particularly in Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK, they worry about the PKK’s possible acts of terror in their own countries.
Yet the EU failed to unite in denouncing Turkey’s decision: Victor Urban, who doesn’t want to see a single new Muslim immigrant in Hungary, and who considered the possibility that, should the operation be successful, the Syrians would return home, has vetoed the reprimand. But EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s claim, “if Turkey is asking us for money for the Safe Zone we can’t give it”, infuriated Ankara. Erdoğan harshly retaliated on October 10, saying “we don’t want your money but we can send your 3.6 million refugees”.
The EU countries’ position can be summed up as follows: 1- Turkey must stop the operation. 2- It must continue preventing immigrants from entering the EU. 3- It must not ask us for help in ensuring the immigrants can go back to Syria. 4- It must prevent the return of EU citizens who are members of ISIS.
These positions show that the EU cares about Turkey’s concerns even less than the U.S. or Russia say they do. The EU’s position looks ambivalent, unclear and far from being result-oriented.

What do the Muslim states say?

Frankly speaking, Erdoğan hasn’t had half the support he might have gotten from the U.S. or Russia from Muslim countries, except for Pakistan and Azerbaijan. The disappointment materialized in his speech directed at Justice and Development Party (AKP) provincial heads on October 10, where he said harsh, accusing words about Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Turkey had declared three days of national mourning following the death of Saudi King Abdullah in 2015.
The Arab League unanimously reprimanded Turkey; among these countries was Palestine, to which Turkey had made all kinds of help. Moreover, Qatar, which has been the greatest friend of Erdoğan’s AKP government, is a member of the Arab League as well. When Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates had made a blockade against Qatar n 2017, Turkey has sent troops in support; in 2019, Turkey trusted Qatar so much that it sold them tank shares.
The Arab League, which is scheduled to meet once more on October 13 to discuss the Peace Spring operation, don’t share the concerns of the other aforementioned countries; it looks like, even more so than being anti-Erdoğan, and anti-Turkey stance is coming into sight.
It’s also worth mentioning that Iran, which was one of the three countries in the Astana meetings alongside Turkey and Russia, is among the countries harshly criticizing Turkey’s Peace Spring operation.

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