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How Turkey Defines “Safety” on Its Border with Syria

We spoke with SIS professor Doga Eralp about his new research article, “The Safe Zone for Undesirables on the Turkey-Syria Border.”

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After the abrupt withdrawal of US troops on the ground in Syria in October 2019, Turkey launched an offensive dubbed Operation Peace Spring, resulting in a so-called “safe zone” on the Turkey-Syria border. This was just one of three major military operations carried out by Turkey in Syria since 2016, but Operation Peace Spring received a negative international reaction that was much bigger compared to Turkey’s previous offensives.

SIS professor Doga Eralp’s recent research in Peace Review evaluates all three military operations—Operation Euphrates Shield, Operation Olive Branch, and Operation Peace Spring—and examines how Turkey’s authoritarian government defines peace on its border with Syria through exclusion. We had a few questions for him.

You can also read Professor Eralp’s full original article, “The Safe Zone for Undesirables on the Turkey-Syria Border” with access provided by American University Library.

Q: For readers who are not familiar, what was the Operation Peace Spring, carried out in October 2019, and what was the objective of this operation?

In a massive show of force, the Turkish military pushed into Northern Syria with the primary objective of creating a safe zone that would stretch 30 km deep and 450 km wide from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border along the M4 highway. For that to happen, the Kurdish-YPG-led forces—recognized as a terrorist organization by Ankara—would be forced to pull out of the Northern Syrian towns they started controlling after the defeat of ISIS. The secondary objective of the operation was to open the safe zone for the resettlement of millions of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.

Q: You write in your article that Operation Peace Spring was not the first phase of Turkish control into Northern Syria. What were the objectives of the previous phases—Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch?

Operation Peace Spring could best be seen as a follow-up to the two earlier interventions. When the Syrian Kurdish forces captured Manbij from ISIS in summer of 2016, they had a unique opportunity to take Jarablus and form a unified political entity from the east to west of the Euphrates River—literally controlling a significant chunk of the Turkish-Syrian border. The Turkish security establishment could not tolerate such a risk and decided to launch Operation Euphrates Shield. The military operation had two main objectives: first, hitting the ISIS targets in and around Jarablus; and later, reigning on the consolidation of Kurdish cantons east of the Euphrates River with the cantons on the west bank of the river under the political and military leadership of the PKK linked Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Northern Syria, locking in Rojava entity to the east of the Euphrates River.

In January 2018, Turkish Armed Forces launched Operation Olive Branch, an air and ground campaign into Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled enclave in Northwestern Syria. Turkish forces and their Jihadist Syrian allies aimed to force the YPG, which controlled Afrin with 8000 militia, out of the Northwestern Syrian town. Furthermore, Afrin was located only a few miles north of Jihadist rebel-held Idlib. Earlier in October 2018, as part of the Astana peace process, Turkey has sent troops to the Syrian Jihadist rebel-controlled Idlib province to monitor de-escalation between Assad forces and rebels in coordination with Russian forces. The presence of armored Turkish military forces spread out across 13 observation posts around Idlib and allowed Turkey to effectively further cut the westward expansion of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Q: Turkey received more criticism for Operation Peace Spring’s alleged human rights violations than they received for the previous incursions, including the humanitarian crisis Operation Peace Spring caused in Syria. Why was this, and how has President Erdoğan silenced the critics of these three operations at home and abroad?

On the home front, the Erdoğan regime engaged in active narrative closure and silencing. President Erdoğan personally threatened all Turkish citizens who would speak up against the war, saying that there would be a "heavy price to pay." As part of its silencing act, the Turkish government imposed sanctions on media coverage of the events. According to a report by Reporters Without Borders, Turkish prime minister Yildirim asked the 21 top editors of Turkish media channels to pursue a patriotic coverage of Operation Olive Branch in "service of the government and its war goals." Still, people took to the streets, and hundreds of activists were detained for civil disobedience and for protesting the war. Turkish police detained 800 social media activists, 100 journalists, and Kurdish and socialist politicians on charges of unpatriotic behavior during a time of war.

During the height of Operation Peace Spring, Amnesty International published a very strongly-worded report on the conduct of Turkish and Turkey-backed Syrian Jihadist forces, accusing Ankara of showing "a shameful disregard for civilian life, carrying out serious violations and war crimes, including summary killings and unlawful attacks that have killed and injured civilians." Similarly, social media channels have flooded with videos and images of alleged war crimes committed by the Turkish-backed Syrian Jihadist forces on civilians. In Washington, DC, facing the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, former ambassador James Jeffrey, the US envoy for Syria and the global coalition against the Islamic State (ISIL), suggested that the images and videos circulating on media channels may be considered as indicative of war crimes committed by the “extremist” Syrian allies of Turkey. In a more tragic incident, the Turkish-backed Jihadist faction Ahrar al-Sharqiya executed Hevrin Khalaf, a prominent Syrian Kurdish woman politician. The images of her body being dragged by the Jihadist militants were widely circulated on social media. The UN Human Rights Commission accused Turkish-backed Jihadist groups of possible war crimes and demanded Ankara launch an “impartial, transparent, and independent investigation.”

Q: You write in your article that “Turkey’s venture into Syria to create a safe zone is a textbook case study of how authoritarianism deploys who deserves to be in, out, or in between.” What role does authoritarianism play in the sanctification of national borders?

Control, defense, and expansion of territory has been the main tenet of politics ever since the first city-states. Nationalism further sanctified borders. After two world wars, a cold war, and surge of global fundamentalist terror networks in the post 9/11 world, a global authoritarian wave re-emerged—this time through the sanctification of national borders. Whether it is the US southern border with Mexico or Italian territorial waters in the Mediterranean, there is a growing emphasis on borders. Turkey under Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime has been concurrently using its Syrian border’s permeability and its defense to galvanize and consolidate political support. Since the earlier days of the Syrian Civil War in 2012, Ankara has been pushing to create a safe zone on its 450 km long border with Syria. As part of its war propaganda Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime introduced an exclusive national security terminology to public circulation by the state-controlled mainstream media. Terms such as terror corridor, terror zone, safe zone, and peace zone soon became a part of everyday political lexicon in Turkey.

Q: Former president Donald Trump’s announcement that the US would no longer have troops on the ground in Syria bolstered the decision by Turkey to launch Operation Peace Spring. Do you think the Biden administration’s approach to foreign policy will influence any further action taken by Erdoğan’s government on this issue?

The Biden administration, especially the State Department under the guidance of secretary of state Anthony Blinken, wants to make things work with Ankara. However, the US has decisively vacated the operational ground in Syria and would not necessarily make a significant comeback as such a move may not be necessary. The Erdoğan regime has been trying to reach out to Biden, offering a new partnership on rebuilding the areas under the control of Turkey. However, the US’s earlier and still strong military partnership with the YPG dating back to the fight against ISIS remains a big obstacle in rebuilding the relationship.