Friday, October 11, 2019


It’s easy, especially thousands of miles away, to jump onto the bandwagon of Turkey-blamers following its recent military incursion into Syria. However, Ankara has legitimate reasons for its actions. Its own national security as well as creating a sustainable solution for the Syrian refugee problem are at stake.

Turkey is not the only actor to be blamed for the mess in Syria. Major mistakes by Washington and Brussels have significantly contributed to the problem. However, Turkey, having a long border with Syria, suffers more from the instability in Syria and must act in order to secure its territory.

The United States made major mistakes in Syria. The Obama administration’s decision in 2016 to arm People’s Protection Unit (YPG) members and directly embed American special forces with them was the wrong decision. PKK, another Kurdish group, and YPG are identical organizations, and PKK is listed as a terrorist organization according to the United States, European Union and NATO. Witnessing its strategic partner arming its major terror threat was traumatizing for Turks and Turkey.

Arming what Turkey views as a terrorist organization was not the only mistake the United States made. More important, the Obama administration failed to act to prevent bloodshed in Syria despite the crossing of redlines and multiple ultimatums. If President Obama had actually acted and intervened in the Syrian crisis, the situation could have been different.

President Trump has not been helpful in avoiding the heightened tension.Impulsive decisions, erratic tweets, lack of coordination among the Pentagon, State Department, and the White House have been once more showing the global leadership vacuum in regional and global politics.  

Even though European countries suffer from the flux of refugees to the region, the EU did not keep its promise assisting Turkey in its challenge of accepting millions of Syrian refugees. Turkey and the Turkish economy have suffered badly from the refugee crisis and the country has been facing major social tension as the public becomes more and more hostile to refugees. Nearly 4 million Syrian refugees are living in Turkey, perhaps permanently.

No matter the mistakes of Washington and Brussels, Turkey could do better and avoid such a military operation. Especially between 2012 and 2016, Turkish foreign policy, led by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, was fully focused on the removal of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad rather than fighting ISIS and stabilizing Syria. Mr. Davutoglu and other Turkish leaders even publicly praised groups such as Al Nusra, which later merged with ISIS.  

The lack of action and intent to fight against ISIS allowed YPG to position itself as a reliable ally to the United States. Turkey suffered multiple ISIS terrorist attacks that killed hundreds of Turkish citizens in its major cities.

One thing that the U.S. media and public opinion does not understand is that Turkey is not in Syria to kill Kurds. There are millions of Kurds in Turkey, living as citizens with equal rights. Ankara’s operation is against PKK and YPG.

The projection of Turkey’s operation as a violent act by the mainstream U.S. media is not fair. Despite all the internal problems, Turkey is a strategic NATO ally and acts in accordance with the international law in preventing a safe zone in Syria for terrorist groups that attack Turkish soil regularly. It is clear that Turkey’s legitimately concerning democratic deficit and rule of law prevents the international community to acknowledge its concerns, even when they are legitimate and right.

There is much to do to fix the problem. President Trump’s decision to pull out from Syria is immature and risky. Washington should cooperate with legitimate actors in the region led by Turkey and Syria and abandon the policy of arming terrorist groups against other terrorist groups. This is contradictory and against the principles of U.S. foreign policy. 

Turkey must limit the scope and length of the military incursion and launch dialogue with the Syrian regime. Having dialogue channels with Damascus would help Ankara to accomplish its tactical and strategic goals. Syria and Turkey have more in common today.

European nations should re-admit their own citizens who fought for ISIS and plan a judiciary process for them. Those radicalized individuals are the byproduct of those societies and European nations must take responsibility. All actors should contribute to the mission of creating a safe zone for refugees in Northern Syria and ensure the safety of the area.

Everyone has responsibility in the Syria mess. Isolating Turkey and punishing the country via sanctions will only harm the stability of the region and will enlarge the vacuum created by the absence of responsible U.S. leadership in the Middle East. 

• Cenk Sidar is co-founder and CEO of GlobalWonks. You can follow him at @cenksidar. 

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