As almost everyone will tell you, there is no such thing as black and white in politics, and rarely a clear-cut good versus evil story. Given the western world’s almost unanimously negative reaction to Turkey’s military operation in Syria you could be forgiven for thinking we had found one, but as is often the case, it is not as simple as that.
I have already written to some extent this week about the reaction to the operation in Turkish Cypriot politics, but for the first time I can remember the entire spectrum of Greek Cypriot politics was united in its condemnation of the operation. As is the case in most unlikely convergences of opinions, the reasons for having that position were different across the scale but the end result largely the same.
The Greek Cypriot right wing, for example, would argue that the sky was red if Turkey said it was blue, and the left wing sympathised with the similarly left wing views of those who Turkey intends to combat with this operation, named “Operation Peace Spring”.
While news reports worldwide may have made it seem that Turkey is simply barging into Syria and thrashing its military around for the sake of it, in reality that is not the case. Turkey has a clear target in Syria, that being the SDF or “Syrian Democratic Forces”, a primarily Kurdish coalition led by the YPG or “People’s Protection Units”, a left-wing and primarily Kurdish militia which controls large swathes of land in northern Syria including two thirds of the Turkish-Syrian border.
The kurdish forces have been fAr from angelic in their actions
Why does Turkey care? Large swathes of southeastern Turkey are Kurdish-majority areas, in which a number of people are sympathetic towards the PKK or “Kurdish Workers’ Party”, a group of terrorists / freedom fighters (depending on your opinion) who have since their foundation in the late 1970s been using both political means and taking up arms in order to agitate for autonomy or independence from Turkey. The PKK and YPG have strong ties to each other, both forming the KCK or “Kurdistan Communities Union”; the umbrella organisation which oversees activities on either side of the border as well as in Iraq and Iran, and which will be the abbreviation I’m going to use to refer to the organisation for the rest of this article.
Turkey has been engaging in conflict with the KCK within its own borders for around four decades, therefore, and despite the feel-good stories of vegetarian female Kurdish soldiers beating back ISIS gaining traction in the media over the last few years, the KCK has been far from angelic in many of its actions.
While it would be unfair not to mention that Turkish forces in the largely Kurdish southeast of the country have committed human rights abuses; targeted civilians, allegedly used torture methods, and forcefully displaced people, the KCK has not come out of this conflict smelling of roses either. The KCK has used methods such as suicide bombings, civilian massacres, and kidnapping people (including children as young as twelve) in order to force them to fight for them.
the kck have a lot of credit in the bank in terms of western opinion
In short, “Operation Peace Spring” is the latest chapter in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, in which there is really no moral high ground from which to pick a side.
Turkey has simply seen a group with which it has been waging conflict for four decades gather in large number across a large area on the other side of its border and was left in a difficult situation. To do nothing and to allow the situation to develop further could be inviting trouble further down the line, with a KCK on its doorstep more powerful and more emboldened than before, which was not afraid to take action before that. However, as I am about to explain, the consequences of taking action, as Turkey has, also have the potential to be less than satisfactory.
First of all, the KCK almost despite itself has a lot of credit in the bank when it comes to the opinion of the west. They have found themselves to be a popular group among western commentators, and have won the hearts and minds of many. For that reason going into Syria and attacking them was never going to be a popular move on a global scale, especially when Turkey is at best viewed less favourably by the same west. As I’ve already mentioned, Turkey’s action in Syria is an almost universally unpopular move, has been looked upon scornfully.
In addition, despite its clear hostility towards Turkey, the KCK had stabilised northern Syria to a greater extent than anyone else has managed since the conflict there. Invading and breaking that up may reduce the threat from this hostile and potentially dangerous group for Turkey, but could create a power vacuum instead. I do not imagine that Turkey has expansionist wishes in northern Syria; it is not an area that harbours much pro-Turkish sentiment, nor is it rich in natural resources.
the area could be left vacant for more dangerous groups to take power
Therefore, in deposing a region’s incumbent leadership without a plan for what to do afterwards, Turkey could potentially be walking us into a situation not dissimilar to the Iraq war of the 2000s, where after having got rid of an area’s leadership, the area is left vacant for potentially more dangerous groups to gain power, as ISIS did in Iraq. If Turkey does not have a plan for what to do afterwards it could find itself facing painful consequences in the medium term should a group similar to ISIS spring up on its southern border in the power vacuum left after the deposition of the KCK.
Finally, at a base level engaging in armed conflict is bound to kill, injure, and displace people. It is regrettable that the only solution that is being offered to this problem on all sides is armed conflict, no matter the validity of the motives. I can guarantee in any case that whenever arms are picked up, things will get worse before they get better. Let’s hope that in northern Syria they do eventually get better.