The greatest trick the state ever pulled, to paraphrase, was convincing the world that it was acting for its national security.
And for all intents and purposes, it does look like Turkey is operating in Afrin in order to secure its borders against terrorist groups and fractions operating in Syria. And when you look at Turkey’s position from this point of view, you could hardly have any reasons to doubt, and indeed, oppose its intentions. Syria is still a playground for mobs other than ISIS, and particularly ones that Turkey sees as a more immediate threat to its safety: namely, PYD-YPG and at least according to official Turkish perspective, their parent organization, the PKK.
Afrin is, indeed, strongly held by PYD-YPG whom Turkey deems a danger, as Erdogan put it bluntly in Sochi when meeting with Putin a few months ago. But part of PYD’s congestion in Afrin is Turkey’s own doing. Following Erdogan’s relentless pursuit for a regime change in Syria and his goal to topple the Assad administration was one of the main causes of the power vacuum in Syria’s north, which is Turkey’s direct south. PYD-YPG did what rule of physics dictated them to do, and they swiftly occupied the void with pipedreams of establishing a free Kurdish state around the area. They were under the protective wings of Putin’s Russia whose strategy was to drive the conflict as far away from Assad as possible, and towards ISIS, the more immediate threat at the time. In order to persuade the Kurdish fractions to continue to fight ISIS relentlessly, Putin paid plenty of lip service to the Kurds, promising them constitutional rights and a voice in the upcoming administration. Not that the PYD-YPG needed much persuasion, as ISIS was clearly an existential threat to them, even one more severe than Assad himself. Add to that the reluctance of the USA to intervene in Syria directly, and instead using Kurds as proxies in its war against ISIS, and it seemed, if only for a short time, that Russia, USA, Turkey and Iran were on the same page for once. Keep your allies close, and your foes closer, if anyone needs another movie paraphrase.
Little did the Kurds know that they were once again being played on all sides. They were, of course, acting with primal survival reflexes and had little room to maneuver. They couldn’t afford the luxury to plan two steps ahead about where they would be once the ISIS threat was partially removed. For its account, Turkey neither objected or applauded the YPG efforts on the ISIS front, but it didn’t shy away from implementing their post-ISIS strategy in the region. Operation Euphrates Shield was one bold move in that direction. Erdogan and his team thought the most efficient way to prevent the various Kurdish fractions from reaching the Mediterranean was to play one against the other. That operation did exactly that. It is hard to say with confidence whether that move was planned as a precursor to Operation: Olive Branch in Afrin. The way the plot played out isolated Afrin from the east making it an easier target to attack both militarily and diplomatically.
Russia, on the other hand, knew perfectly well that the PYD-YPG coalition considered them as the only trustworthy major power. So, they figured, turning a blind eye to Turkey with nothing more than a few ethereal “we are worried” comments, would not derail their relationship with the Kurds. And seeing Turkey as a more important future player in the region than the US, they attributed Turkey’s actions to USA’s disregard towards Erdogan’s concerns. The timing of the Afrin operation with US being busy with its own internal politics and government shut-down worries, was a Godsend for both Turkey and Russia. Putin figured Turkey’s move would put a dent in Turkey’s relations with the US, but he would rather it didn’t happen right away, and thanks to the incompetency of the Trump administration, he got what he wanted.
The US, hasn’t cared much for the west of Afrin anyway. They would rather Turkey operated there than almost anywhere else in Syria, so even though they must be sensing the danger in Turkey acting with Russia rather than with a NATO ally, they are formulating that the operation will cause a rift between Turkey and Russia if the conflict doesn’t stop quickly. Either way, they don’t have much to lose at the moment, so they are happily playing the innocent but “concerned” bystander.
The real question that the Turkish media is willingly bypassing is: “Whom is Erdogan trying to appease here?”
When you look at the Turkish media covering Operation: Olive Branch, you would think TAF is carrying out its heaviest military operation since Cyprus in 1974. We are bombarded with news of targets pinpointed to the inch, and PKK positions obliterated without any incidental damages. As if this is the final push before the PKK is wiped from the face of the earth. Turkey’s mortal enemy, the Kurdish separatists, if you let yourself be taken away by the reports, will soon be not a problem anymore. And all we need at this point is a collective national unity.
And there it is: The military and MHP are already in Erdogan’s pocket. There are a few puny voices trying to break out, and not from the main opposition mind you! But apart from that, Turkey, in recent days, has become a place where dissent is nothing less than treason. Next to its external Operation: Olive Branch, Turkey is simultaneously carrying out its internal Operation: Perception. The opposition which has for years been portrayed as detached from public and its interests, is stuck in the piles of mud that have been thrown at them, and they are not able to raise their voice anymore.
A need for national unity has historically been the perfect pretext to pull the wool over a nation’s eyes. And 2018-2019 is a particularly essential period where the public is blindsided. Not only the presidential election is looming in 2019, in which Erdogan is almost sure to remind the Turkish public of the courageous steps he had taken a year ago to provide security to Turkey’s southern borders and helped kill separatist Kurds’ dreams of having a sovereign state, and to contrast his position with the opposition who did nothing but stood and watched, as if they had any other option.
But more importantly, and expected to arrive sooner, is the rising signs of an economic downturn. The government has little left to offer the public when it comes to economics: inflation and unemployment rates continue to rise without much a sign of a slowdown. When you are in a state of “national unity” however, it becomes much easier to deemphasize the economy and instead accentuate national security. It is, after all, something everyone has to sacrifice for. The present State of Emergency, and the vast secrecy it provides the government in apportioning funds, will continue to be prolonged under the guise of national security. In short, this operation and what aggression follows regarding Turkey’s Syria policy, will account for more internal than external political gains for Erdogan. And there seems little that stands in his way.