WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – Recent polls reveal that some 80 percent of Turks support their country’s assault on the Kurdish canton of Afrin, Gonul Tol, founding director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute, explained to a Washington DC audience.
Tol argued that the “main driver” of Turkey’s military operation was domestic politics. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “wants to boost his popularity” ahead of next year’s elections, she said at a seminar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), “Syrian Impasse: America Between Turkey and the Kurds.”
There has always been a strain of anti-American sentiment in Turkey, Tol observed, but “the anti-Americanism we’re seeing now is different.”
“It is much more widespread,” and involves the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as the Kemalist military, and leftist elements too. They have all found “common ground” in anti-Kurdish and anti-American sentiment.
Other panelists joined in describing the alarming animosities riling Turkish society.
Amberin Zaman, a journalist who serves on the board of advisers for the FDD’s Turkey Program, described an increasing polarization within the country, which she characterized as “terrifying.” Among Kurdish youth, “fewer and fewer” see “any common future with Turks, inside Turkey,” she said.
Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian and now a senior fellow at FDD, spoke with Kurdistan 24 after the discussion. Although linking anti-Kurdish and anti-American sentiment may seem a relative novelty, Erdemir remarked that it is a “winning combination” for Erdogan.
Asked to explain the timing of the Turkish assault on Afrin, Tol cited not only the upcoming Turkish elections but also the recent US announcement that it would maintain an open-ended presence in eastern Syria, where its partner, the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), controls nearly a quarter of the country.
Tol noted that Turkey has been threatening an attack on Afrin for over a year. However, Russia has troops in Afrin and controls the skies there, and such an operation required Moscow’s agreement.
The US announcement is “what prompted the Russian green light,” Tol said.
Zaman added that American officials have said that the US has two aims in continuing its presence in Syria: to facilitate UN diplomacy under the “Geneva Process” banner, which involves replacing the Assad regime; and to contain the Iranian regime, whose influence in Syria and Iraq has expanded greatly.
However, as Zaman suggested, the US is not really committing the resources that might accomplish those two goals.
By presenting the Kurds as allies against the Syrian regime and Iran, the US makes them “extremely vulnerable.” It also raises questions among Kurds about the solidity of US commitment, Zaman said, “particularly set against what we just witnessed in Iraqi Kurdistan, which seems to fly in the face of US claims of wanting to counter Iranian influence.”
“The more the Kurds are perceived as allies of the United States and part of this alleged effort to get rid of Assad and counter Iranian influence,” she predicted, the more we’ll be seeing “the Russians allowing Turkish aggression against the YPG (People’s Protection Units.)”
Responding to a question from Kurdistan 24 about the possibility of a direct clash between the US and Turkey over Manbij, the panelists tended to discount that danger.
Erdemir, however, pointed to the possibility of conflict arising accidentally. Given the proximity of the two forces and the strong passions that have been aroused in Turkey, an unintended clash is a real possibility, he suggested.
The panelists also thought it unlikely that Turkey would close Incirlik Air Base to the US. In their view, Incirlik is most useful to Erdogan as leverage with Washington.
However, Zaman suggested that other Turkish military facilities could be closed to the US, such as Kurecik Air Base, which Erdogan has threatened to close and which would be “terribly important” for any move against Iran.
Editing by Nadia Riva