In October of last year, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the United States, liberated the city of Raqqa from the Islamic State (ISIS) in a major defeat for the collapsing jihadist army that had proclaimed it to be the capital of its caliphate.
Four months later, NATO member Turkey has opened a military campaign in the Syrian region Afrin against the same Kurds who led the fight against ISIS.
The campaign appears to have jihadi expansionist goals. Turkey’s government-funded Diyanet (Presidency of Religious Affairs) declared that worshippers in mosques across Turkey—in at least 90,000 mosques—and across Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus will pray for “the victory of Turkey’s military operation on Afrin,” reciting the Koranic verse Surah al Fath (verse of conquest) every day until the invasion ends.
Surah al-Fath is the 48th chapter of the Koran, which says: “Allah has promised you much booty that you will take and has hastened for you this and withheld the hands of people from you—that it may be a sign for the believers and He may guide you to a straight path” (48:20).
It also contains this command: “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah; and those with him are ruthless against the unbelievers, merciful among themselves” (48:29).
Afrin is a Kurdish-controlled region in northern Syria where many people, including religious minorities from other parts of Syria, have sought refuge from the attacks of Islamic extremists The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is led by the YPG (People’s Protection Units), a Kurdish group which has some ideological and structural connections with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey lists as a terrorist organization. The Turkish government claims that it is carrying out the military operation on Afrin to stop “terrorist forces that threaten Turkey.” However, the Kurdish-led SDF has issued a written statement, which said, in part:
We are a peaceful movement focused on defeating Daesh [ISIS] and bringing stability to Syria consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254… If attacked, we will have no choice but to defend ourselves and our people, but we state in front of the world that we harbor no hostile intent towards Turkey.
Ilham Ahmed, a Kurdish leader in Syria, stated in an op-ed for the Washington Post last year: “We have never used northern Syria to launch any attack against Turkey. If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t trust us when we say this, fine. But why can’t he trust the U.S. personnel in our area who assure him of the same?”
So, the SDF have declared that they do not oppose dialogue, negotiation, and coexistence with Turkey. Nor do they seek to pursue any aggressive actions or policies against their neighbor.
(To read Joe Carter’s explainer “What You Should Know About Kurdish Fighters” for Providence, click here.)
Then why is Turkey attacking Syrian Kurds? Part of it is hatred in Turkey against Kurds. Turks’ genocidal obsession with Kurds has reached such heights that the Turkish government and much of the Turkish public cannot tolerate the possibility that Kurds—who are minorities in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran—may conceivably gain some national rights or political status in the region.
Another important reason is that Turkey prefers Islamic extremists to secular Kurds. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has publicly referred to Kurds who request national rights as “atheists” and “Zoroastrians.” Many Turkish newspapers have referred to Kurds who seek freedom as “Armenians” and “Christians” who are being manipulated, of course, by Israel. So, killing Kurds, who are actually a predominantly Muslim people, is not a “sin” according to many fanatic nationalist Turks. They believe that a Kurd who wishes to have equal political rights is a “bad Kurd” and a bad Kurd is to be annihilated.
Apparently, Turkey wishes to revitalize its Ottoman past in the region. Many in the Turkish government and their supporters view lands that Ottomans once invaded and captured as “eternal Turkish lands.” The myth “once Ottoman, always Ottoman” seems to resonate with many Turks.
And they are not hiding their Ottomanist goals. An Ottoman-style military band, known as “mehter,” has performed in the border province of Hatay as a show of support for troops taking part in Turkey’s military operation on Afrin.
Moreover, the official Twitter page of Turkey’s Gendarmerie General Command has posted verses of an Islamic jihadist poem by the Turkish author Yahya Kemal Beyatlı:
The storm that is breaking out right now is the Turkish army, oh Rabb [Allah]. This is the army that is dying for you, oh Allah —so that the adhan [Islamic call to prayer] will rise through mosques to call your true name. Make us victorious, for this is the last army of Islam.
Erdogan and his supporters’ pro-Ottoman, anti-Western, and xenophobic rhetoric has been alarmingly on the rise in recent years. The fact that anti-ISIS Syrian Kurdish forces have been backed by the U.S. seems to infuriate and further motivate the genocidal intent of Turkish nationalists.
However, the Turkish government and the judicial system seem to have embraced a completely different stance toward Islamic State members or supporters in Turkey. Several reports have suggested that many fighters have made their way into Syria and Iraq via Turkey to join ISIS, al-Nusra, and other Islamist groups in the region and that Turkey has implicitly acquiesced to the infiltration of arms and other supplies for these groups.
ISIS members have reportedly been treated at Turkish hospitals. According to a 2015 “confidential” note by a Turkish chief of police, there are ISIS sleeper cell houses in 70 cities across Turkey. Marc Pierini, former European Union ambassador to Turkey, referred to the country’s unchecked borders as “an open-door policy to jihadists. So much so that the flight from Istanbul to Gaziantep has been called “the jihad express.”
In 2015, two German TV channels documented the slave trade being conducted by the Islamic State through a liaison office in the province of Gaziantep in Turkey, near the border with Syria. On April 17, 2016, the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet reported that the Gaziantep police department had raided the said office and found $310,000, many foreign (non-Turkish) passports, and 1,768 pages of Arabic receipts that demonstrate the transfer of millions of dollars between Turkey and Syria. Six people were brought to court for their involvement in crimes, including “being members of an armed terrorist organization.” All defendants were acquitted, but the complainant, the Gaziantep Bar Association, was not even invited to attend the hearings that lasted for only 16 days. “The court made the decision of acquittal without looking into the documents found by police,” said Bektaş Şarklı, the head of the Association.
So, it seems that the Turkish government has been far more tolerant to and accepting of ISIS activities both in and outside of Turkey.
In the meanwhile, Turkey now appears to be planning to “settle” Afrin. According to the news website Sendika, the provincial directorate of national education in Hatay issued a message to the teachers in the border town of Altınözü stating that “a new structure will be formed in the region after Afrin is cleansed” and “Turkish teachers who will work voluntarily in Afrin are needed.”
However, religious minorities in Afrin are in fear and panic. Yazidis living in Afrin have declared they fear persecution by advancing Turkish and allied forces, which they say include Islamic militants.
Also, three churches in Afrin issued an appeal for “international protection” and a halt to the Turkish offensive. The statement, which said there are about 250 Christian families in Afrin, said they fear Islamic militant groups.
Erdoğan, however, sounded defiant as he vowed to crush the Kurdish forces in Syria. “No one can say a word,” he said.
The Turkish government calls the invasion “Operation Olive Branch.” How can Turkey have the courage—despite the lack of American approval—to invade a neighboring country and violate a peaceful community living there?
The answer lies in the impunity Turkey has enjoyed for its past and current crimes. Throughout its history, Turkey has never been held accountable for the many actions that have gravely violated human rights and international law. Hence, the question is: Will Turkish impunity continue? Will the Trump administration, and the West in general, let the Turkish military kill and abuse Kurds, Christians, and Yazidis in Afrin, and thereby encourage Erdoğan to wage full-blown war in the region?
Uzay Bulut, a journalist and political analyst born in Turkey, is currently based in Washington D.C. She is an associate fellow of the Philos Project. Her journalistic work focuses mainly on Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities, political Islam, and the history of Turkey. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/uzayb.
Photo Credit: Kurdish YPG Fighters on Qamishlo frontline, January 23, 2018. By Kurdishstruggle, via Flickr.