The Turkish president’s epic distortion of facts on Syria

The Turkish president’s epic distortion of facts on Syria
© Getty Images

On Jan. 7, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that is a masterpiece in historical revisionism better suited to Turkey’s state-controlled media. Erdogan relies upon most Americans’ lack of awareness of the situation on the ground in Syria and makes bold claims with outright falsehoods.  

For example, Erdogan begins by stating: “In 2016, Turkey became the first country to deploy ground combat troops to fight the so-called Islamic State in Syria.” This is wrong on two levels.

ADVERTISEMENT

First, the United States deployed special forces to assist the outgunned Kurds in northern Syria in repulsing Islamic State fighters in October 2015, and is widely suspected of having dispatched covert forces to combat ISIS in Syria as early as October 2014.  

Second, when Erdogan deployed troops to Syria, the enemy the Turks were fighting in August 2016 was primarily America’s Kurdish allies, who Ankara defines as “terrorists.” These Syrian Kurds had just infuriated Turkey by capturing ISIS’s primary springboard for launching attacks against Turkey and Europe — the northern Syrian town of Manbij. Yet Erdogan bizarrely claims it was Turkish forces who “impeded [ISIS’s] ability to carry out terror attacks in Turkey and Europe.” The Kurdish conquest of Manbij thrilled the CIA, which gained a treasure trove of intel on ISIS, but sadly it also gave Turkey a pretext to launch a war on the Syrian Kurds.

Equally outrageous is Erdogan’s statement that, “Unlike coalition operations in Raqqa and Mosul, which relied heavily on airstrikes that were carried out with little or no regard for civilian casualties, Turkish troops and fighters of the Free Syrian Army went door to door to root out insurgents in al-Bab, a former stronghold of the so-called Islamic State.” The reality is that al-Bab was conquered by the Turks only because of U.S. close air support and bloody fights that turned many neighborhoods into rubble.

It should be noted that the United States and its Iraqi Army and Syrian Kurdish-Arab-Assyrian ground partners went to extraordinary lengths to prevent civilian casualties among populations they were trying to liberate. And contrary to the assertion that Turkish soldiers went “door to door” gently fighting ISIS, the Turks deployed their air force, artillery and tanks to defeat entrenched ISIS fighters in al-Bab. The openly stated objective of the Turkish invasion of al-Bab was to create a buffer zone, which would prevent the advancing Kurds of northern Syria from uniting their three democratic cantons into one homeland to be known as Rojava, “The Land of the Setting Sun.”  

Erdogan also writes of al-Bab: “Today, children are back at school, a Turkish-funded hospital treats the sick, and new business projects create jobs and bolster the local economy. This stable environment is the only cure for terrorism.” This could just as easily describe the situation in the North Syrian Democratic Federation, which has been liberated from ISIS by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). There, organic, democratic councils are ruling. Security is being maintained, schools and hospitals are being rebuilt with U.S. support, and there is rare harmony among peoples.

According to Erdogan, “Under Turkey’s watch, the Syrian territories that are under the control of the YPG [Socialist Kurdish fighters, a component of the SDF] or the so-called Islamic State will be governed by popularly elected councils.” The reality is that councils have been elected to govern in areas liberated by the SDF. There is no need for Turkey to invade this stable land, destroy the grassroots councils through mass arrests, as happened in Afrin in northwestern Syria, and put pro-Turkish jihadist fighters in power.

Erdogan incorrectly states, “Militarily speaking, the so-called Islamic State has been defeated in Syria.” This is an effort to remove the rationale for U.S. troops to stay in Syria and it refutes findings by the Pentagon, United Nations, British, French, Kurds and Iraqis that ISIS has regrouped and still has 30,000 fighters in the field. Clearly, Erdogan wants President TrumpDonald John TrumpPentagon update to missile defense doctrine will explore space-base technologies, lasers to counter threats Giuliani: 'I never said there was no collusion' between the Trump campaign and Russia Former congressmen, RNC members appointed to Trump administration roles MORE to fulfill his Dec. 19 decision to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria so that Turkey can launch a planned attack on the Kurds.

ADVERTISEMENT

If U.S. troops leave, Erdogan promises, “Turkey proposes a comprehensive strategy to eliminate the root causes of radicalization.” Yet Turkey’s invasion of Afrin (where there was no ISIS presence) resulted in ethnic cleansing of Kurdish inhabitants. This sort of brutal anti-Kurdish repression will lead to the sort of radicalization seen among Kurds in Turkey.

Erdogan essentially has promised to turn the homeland of America’s stalwart allies into a cemetery. He portrays himself as an above-the-fray leader of a country that he falsely depicts as a benign player in Syria. The sinister reality is that Turkey has promised to bury the Kurds “in their ditches.”  

These facts are known to national security adviser John Bolton, who is working to undo the damage done by Trump’s Dec. 19 tweet that stunned the world. On Jan. 7, Bolton told Ibrahim Kalin, Turkey’s deputy head of security and foreign policies board, that Erdogan’s New York Times piece was “wrong and offensive.” A day earlier, Bolton had warned: “We don't think the Turks ought to undertake military action [in Syria] that’s not fully coordinated with, and agreed to by, the United States, at a minimum so they don’t endanger our troops but also so that they meet the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered.” Bolton’s statements are long overdue messages of support to the SDF, and they boldly defy Erdogan’s threats to the Syrian Kurds.

The stateless Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without their own nation, have loyally fought alongside the United States since the 1991 Gulf War. They have a bitter saying that captures their sense of betrayal by the world: “We have no friends but the mountains.” It seems they have at least one friend in Bolton, who is willing to put out his neck out to rebut the Turkish leader’s disinformation campaign and honorably establish preconditions to protect them from catastrophe as U.S. troops withdraw.

Brian Glyn Williams is professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and author of “Counter Jihad: The American Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) and “The Last Warlord” (Chicago Review Press, 2013). He worked for the U.S. Army and CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @BrianGlynWillms.