Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Euphrates Shield

Erdogan appeared to get from his demands that Gulen be extradited a green light to engage directly in Syria. But as that intervention unfolds on the ground, Washington is getting nervous, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Only a month ago, Turkish audiences watching their government officials on TV screens — the most omnipresent being their President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — railing against Washington and threatening that it had to choose between “democratic” Turkey and Gulen, felt almost certain that their country’s close and strategic relationship with its NATO ally was doomed. In response to that vitriol, US President Barack Obama dispatched his Vice-President Joe Biden to Turkey, though this turned out to be only a few-hour stop on a tour. One would have presumed that Secretary of State John Kerry would have assumed the task, but apparently the situation required that other measures be taken.

In the course of that brief visit, Biden was taken on a tour of the section of the parliament building that had been struck by a missile during the coup attempt in mid-July. Expressing his sorrow at the sight of the ruins, Biden added that he wished that he could have been with the Turks in Turkey on the day after the aborted coup.

The US vice-president also met with the Turkish president, although the substance of their talks remains confidential. After the meeting the two officials held a joint press conference which again revealed nothing about what went on behind closed doors. Nevertheless, Biden did bring up the subject of Fethüllah Gülen, the reclusive Islamic preacher who is alleged to have masterminded the attempted coup. The extradition of Gülen is a matter that falls entirely under the jurisdiction of the US federal courts; Obama does not have power to decide this, he said. He added that he hoped the Turkish people would understand the procedural complexities of the American legal system and pointed out that the White House did not even have the authority to put Gülen under precautionary detention as Erdogan had requested.

In other words, it could take years through proper legal channels before Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) he founded can satisfy their thirst for revenge. Ankara, which should have realised this beforehand, had little choice but to accept this, albeit grudgingly. A sign that it has is that since that visit, the noise about extradition has nearly faded from the presidential palace and, hence, from the Turkish press. Not that there was much that could be said. The US delegation that had visited Turkey 23-24 August returned to the US carrying a heavy load of files purportedly containing proof of Gülen’s guilt, having pledged that the documents would be subject to thorough study. It also appears that there is no longer any point to the prospective visit by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Justice Minister Bakir Buzdag to the US, or that, at least, this visit will be postponed.

But Biden could not leave Ankara without leaving a good impression. He was therefore keen to express his agreement with Erdogan on the need for solidarity and cooperation in the war against the terrorism of Daesh (the Islamic State group) and other takfiri groups, especially those in Syria. This, of course, was the green light for the Turkish military incursion into Syria beneath the heading, “Euphrates Shield.” Beginning a week ago on Wednesday, the operation, which is unlikely to conclude swiftly, has added new complications to the already complex and intractable Syrian crisis.

If Russia had given an “okay” (at least implicit), the Iranians appear to have given their blessings. These, moreover, will remain unreserved as long as Erdogan’s strikes hit both Daesh and the Kurds (Iran, too, has no desire to see an independent Kurdish entity in Syria that might encourage ethnic Kurds in Iran), and as long as there remains an opening for the Mullahs to work to forge a bridge between the two implacable enemies, Erdogan and Bashar Al-Assad, through indirect meetings between officials from both countries.

So, the Turkish incursion into Syria seems to be playing well internationally and regionally. But what about domestically? How does Turkish public opinion feel about it?

Certainly Turks are perplexed if not perturbed by the rush of developments in their country. Perhaps this may explain the huge media fanfare accorded to the official opening, last Thursday, of the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, the third bridge spanning the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Observers believe that the government was using this as a means to divert public attention from popular concerns and to market an achievement that would revive the people’s dwindling confidence and win their approval for the plunge into Syria which, the government claims, is the only way to safeguard a united Turkey and prevent the rise of a Kurdish entity across the border in Syria.

But it was not long before the people learned the news of the first Turkish fatality in the operation. One soldier was killed and three others wounded when missiles fired by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG, which Ankara regards as an extension of the PKK) struck two Turkish tanks in Jarabulus, Turkish state television reported, adding that Turkish forces retaliated with artillery fire against Kurdish positions. This development is an ominous sign that the Turkish road to Manbij will not be a smooth one. Manbij is currently held by YPG forces and a clash will undoubtedly be fierce and leave yet more civilians dead.

The battles on the fourth day raised many suspicions about the nature of the campaign and the plan that ostensibly sought to create a “safe zone” around Jarabulus, in order to prevent the YPG from moving westward. Many have questioned the feasibility of the plan, especially in light of strong European — and particularly French — reactions against the Turkish prioritising the targeting of Syrian Kurds.

Moreover, Washington is very alarmed by the fighting between its two allies — the Turks and the Kurds in Syria. In a strongly worded statement issued on Monday, 29 August, the US Department of Defense stated that it found these clashes “unacceptable and a source of deep concern”. The statement made clear that the green light that Biden had given was restricted to Daesh forces and Daesh controlled areas and stressed that the US “was not involved in these activities, they were not coordinated with US forces, and we do not support them”.

Meanwhile, in southeast Anatolia, the warfare continues to rage between the Turkish army and PKK militants, claiming dozens of more lives by the day. To fuel it, Erdogan continues to whip the public into a frenzy through an ultranationalist rhetoric that had not been in his repertoire five years ago when he initiated negotiations with the organisation against which he subsequently declared war. At the same time, takfiris, including Daesh members, are roaming freely around that region and elsewhere in Anatolia. Not just observers but also many ordinary Turkish people have remarked on this irony. Also, in marked contrast to the general tenor of the Turkish media, one hears increasing murmurs saying, “Our country should not have stepped into the Syrian quagmire.”

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