Because of Afrin, US should abandon the ‘olive branch’ with Turkey

Getty Images

Eight years into Syria’s civil war, Turkey has taken control of the northwest region of Afrin. Why should we care? At least 150,000 people have been displaced in this area along the border between Turkey and Syria. Some estimates put the total number of civilian deaths at over 204 since Turkey began its aggression under the perversely named “Operation Olive Branch” in January 2018. Given other war horrors in Ghouta and Yemen, it is understandable the media have paid insufficient attention to the tragedy unfolding in Afrin.

Yet Afrin cannot be ignored, for several reasons. First, if unchecked, Turkey’s aggression into Syrian territory has the potential to be a landmark in the evolution of a strongman in the mold of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, emboldened by the relatively swift success in Afrin, signaled his intent to continue on this course of aggression. Specifically, he has spoken about military action in Iraq and further incursions into Syria.

{mosads}This is a recipe for disaster in a region already reeling from a selection of actors with no concern for innocent lives. The world does not need another tyrant without respect for the international legal order. A failure to hold Erdoğan to account now would make us complicit in further illegal acts that are certain to have catastrophic consequences.


Despite the illegality, there has been deafening silence from the international community with a few notable exceptions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has condemned Turkey: “For all Turkey’s legitimate security interests, what has happened in Afrin, where thousands and thousands of civilians are persecuted, killed or forced to flee, is unacceptable. This too we condemn in the strongest terms.” Unfortunately, the European Union (which has, however, condemned Turkey for aggression against Greece and Cyprus), and other major actors have not shown similar leadership.

Second, Erdoğan’s actions are being undertaken under the protective umbrella of Russia for obvious reasons. Turkey likely is being used as a pawn in Russia’s game — playing up Erdoğan’s attempts at restoring Turkish pride built upon recalling the Ottoman Empire’s glory days and tapping into a historical sense of grievance. This is a familiar narrative straight from   Putin’s playbook. If Turkey continues on its path, it has the potential to come into conflict with the United States because of the latter’s ties with Kurdish fighters in Manbij.

Russia probably calculates that this conflict will turn Turkey away from NATO and firmly into its orbit. The United States must turn Turkey from this calamitous course — by leveraging its dependence on Western aid (Turkey was supposed to receive over 4.4 billion euros from the European Union during 2014-2020), highlighting its self interest in playing by the rules, and being firm about the costs of embracing the Russian way into the outlaw ranks.

Third, as a NATO ally, Turkey cannot be allowed to behave in the manner of rogue regimes such as Russia and Syria. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented numerous instances of civilians being killed in violation of international humanitarian law. Turkey’s military forces have been accused of indiscriminately striking civilian targets and looting people in Afrin. Women and children have been killed in strikes against targets with no apparent military justification, based on corroborated evidence established by Human Rights Watch.

Further, Turkey’s aggression into Syria likely breaches international law. Its claim of self-defense against terrorism is unlikely to be availing. There is insufficient basis for the use of force within the territory of another state based purely upon an apprehension of threats. The argument that YPG (People’s Protection Units) are terrorists and are using Syrian territory to attack Turkey, while the Syrian government is unable or unwilling to stop them, does not authorize the use of force in international law. If other countries used the same argument to violate state sovereignty and commit acts of aggression outside their territory, there would be widespread bloodshed and chaos.

The Kurds fought alongside the United States against the Islamic State and must not be abandoned to be slaughtered by Turkey. Aside from the moral obligation generated by their sacrifices in the fight against ISIS, it is pragmatic to support the Kurdish case for statehood in order to secure peace in the region. Successive U.S. administrations have dodged the question, despite every reason dictating that they possess a right to self-determination that deserves to be expressed. Instead, they have been allowed to endure ill treatment at the hands of majority populations in several countries, without any support. Betraying the Kurds at this hour will earn the United States another enemy in a region where it has few friends.

Afrin is too important to neglect because of “crisis fatigue.” Failure to act will send the wrong message to Erdoğan and escalate conflict in a volatile region. It will also exhaust the last mile of leverage to persuade Turkey to walk back from the brink before it turns into another failed state ruled by a strongman with delusions of reclaiming past national glory.

Turkey has urgent problems that require attention — 21 percent of its population lives below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is over 11 percent. It has to deal with about 4 million refugees and 1.1 million internally displaced persons. The United States has no choice but to act.

Sandeep Gopalan is the pro vice chancellor for academic innovation and a professor of law at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.

Tags Afrin, Syria Kurds Middle East Syrian civil war Turkey Turkish involvement in the Syrian Civil War Turkish military operation in Afrin

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video