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Conquering Afrin as Religious Duty: Operation Olive Branch & Turkey’s Supposed Transformation into a Sunni Superpower

Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

Turkey’s Tayyip Erdoğan (aka the Prez) is now once again performing a delicate war-dance with his partners Russia and America, with President Putin (aka the Czar) clearly supporting his southern neighbour while the U.S. President Trump appears as clueless as ever.

Ever since Syria’s not-so civil war erupted in 2011, Turkey’s role in the military confrontations across the territories legally governed by the Damascus authorities led by Bashar al-Assad has been both an open secret as well as a highly contentious issue.

AKP-led Turkey has been more than keen to oust Assad and replace his “political system . . . based on the principle of political pluralism” (Article 8.1), that “guarantees the preservation and protection of the cultural diversity of the Syrian society” (Article 9), with a Sharia-based polity beholden to the Prophet’s example and arguably aligned with Turkey, as a Sunni superpower in the Middle East – such were Tayyip Erdoğan’s not-so hidden pseudo-Ottoman dreams and ambitions when he suddenly performed a U-turn from having been a close personal friend of Bashar al-Assad’s to emerging as a champion of Sunni Islam hell-bent on punishing the “dictator Assad,“ notoriously famous for ‘killing his own people.’ At that time, Assad accused the Prez of being supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, as the underlying reason for his erstwhile friend’s sudden change of heart and mind. In this way, an armed opposition to the Damascus government aiming at ‘regime change’ solidified – supported and funded as well as supplied by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey . . . In response, the Assad government announced in mid-February 2012 that it intended to hold a referendum on a new constitution, and a draft document was published on the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), holding out promises of political pluralism, as testified in the above quotes, as well as democratic elections in due course.

In reality, less than five years before the outbreak of the supposed ‘Arab Spring‘-related and allegedly peaceful protests against Assad and his government, Washington had been envisaging the “potential threat to the [Assad] regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists” as an “opportunity,” an opportunity to be exploited by the United States (Cable dated 13 December 2006, authored by William Roebuck, at the time chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Damascus and published by WikiLeaks in 2010).  Apparently, it took the U.S. administration about five years, an election cycle, and a new president to bring these aspirations to fruition and transform the potential for opportunity into the realisation of a concerted effort. The same cable also speaks about “the Kurdish question” as a potential for effecting change amenable to U.S. interests. Roebuck’s leaked e-mail literally talks about the Kurds as the “most organized and daring political opposition and civil society groups,” located and “concentrated in Syria’s northeast, as well as in communities in Damascus and Aleppo.” In other words, already the Bush administration had been contemplating a rift with Turkey over the “Kurdish question” in relation to the U.S. goal of regime change in Damascus. And 2016’s Coup-that-was-no-Coup then led to a deterioration of Turco-American relations during the latter Obama years and at the outset of the Trump era, a deterioration that seemed politick or possibly apposite for the Kurdish gambit to be played out in full. But in 2011, Turkey and the U.S. were standing shoulder to shoulder in their opposition to Assad’s Damascus. But the Syrian Arab Republic has been a longstanding thorn in Washington’s side: “Syria has been on America’s enemy list for a long time . . . [n]ot just as part of the Bush-proclaimed Axis of Evil (29 January 2002), as elaborated by then-Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton (6 May 2002), the Damascus regime has always been regarded as a dangerous player in the region. Bashar’s father and predecessor President Hafez Al-Assad [1971-2000] was after all well-known as an implacable foe of Israel, and hence a figure loathed by the Americans, Israel’s primary backers and supporters.” In contrast, Tayyip “Erdogan has apparently been nothing but a U.S. protégé ever since the Clinton administration [1993-2001], and seems to have done nothing but advance the U.S. agenda in the region” prior to his more recent fallout with the White House and its occupant. And now Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or, if you will, T. Rex’s faux pas regarding the establishment of a “30,000-strong border force in northern Syria” has forced AKP-led Ankara to declare all-out war on Afrin, as part of the self-proclaimed Kurdish enclave of Rojava. For, the Kurds have so far been the big winners of the Islamist insurrection against Bashar al-Assad.

Kurdish Dreams and Harsh Realities: Sykes-Picot and the Islamic State

As I have written elsewhere about four years ago: the ‘terrorist outfit originally headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (allegedly killed by the Americans in 2006) and originally known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was . . . really back with a bang [in 2014]. Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had previously enjoyed the hospitality of the American prison system in Iraq enabling him to establish invaluable connections and networks, the group morphed into ISIS eventually becoming the IS. As Caliph Ibrahim, he assumed global pretensions and started dissolving the Sykes-Picot map of the Middle East, effectively dismembering Iraq turning the country into three separate units – with a Kurdish zone in the north and a Shia south both straddling a Sunni area occupied by the IS. But Baghdadi’s gang had first come to prominence in Syria, where the violent uprising against Assad had morphed into a free-for-all Jihadi love-fest, with numerous and variously-named Islamist outfits competing for supremacy. At the same time, the Kurds in northern Syria had by 2012 quietly but effectively established their own autonomous enclave that received the name Rojava or the West or sunset in Kurdish, as it corresponds to the westernmost regions occupied by Kurds spread out across Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Consisting of the three autonomous cantons of Kobani, Afrin, and Cizire and controlled by the PYD (or the Kurdish Democratic Union Party), an organization that is “ideologically affiliated” to Turkey’s PKK (or the Kurdish Workers’ Party), the Kurds steadfastly went their own way. The PYD/PKK leadership of Rojava arguably set out to put into practice precepts and ideas of “libertarian municipalism” developed by the libertarian socialist thinker Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) in an attempt to create a society based on liberty, equality and true democracy — an “ideology, a world view, a vision” that unites the Kurds in opposition to either autocratic or Islamist reaction, as expressed by the Kurdish activist and Ph.D. student Dilar Dirik.’

COLONIAL SPOILS: François Georges-Picot (left) and Mark Sykes (right)

In the short-term as well as in the longer run, the Kurds appeared the only winners of the violent disruption of the Sykes-Picot map of the Middle East, success that even led to heady optimism and premature moves as witnessed in the ill-fated referendum in the KRG last September, while Syria’s Kurds aimed at solidifying and expanding their territories as well. But the KRG’s push for independence all but ended in failure and Syria’s Rojava, as a constant irritant for AKP-led Ankara, is now under a bloody and violent military attack as Turkey has now launched its ironically monikered Operation Olive Branch to curtail Kurdish advances.

On 20 January 2018, while doing what he does best in the Central Anatolian city of Kütahya – giving another speech to a crowd of followers and believers – the Prez announced to the world that Turkey would “neutralize terrorists belonging to the PKK/KCK/PYD-YPG and DAESH in the Afrin region, and save the friendly and brotherly people  of the region from the[se terrorists’] pressure and suppression.”

While Turkey’s Armed Forces (or TSK, in acronymized Turkish) echoed these words in a communique, specifying that the operation had started at five o’clock in the afternoon local time (“17:00”). In Turkey, state propaganda has so far been able to convince the bulk of the population that the AKP-led military intervention is but a necessary armed means to “pacitfy” the border regions and “neutralize” terrorist elements, that precision airstrikes and humanitarian interventions spare civilian life and infrastructure. On the ground members of the Free Syrian Army (or FSA) attacked the city, while receiving liberal air support from the Turkish airforce. The FSA has been heavily supported by Turkey, as “the AKP-led government simply allowed the FSA to set up shop on Turkish soil [from the very outset of the conflict next door]. As a result, the FSA established its headquarters in a refugee camp located in the Turkish province of Hatay, bordering Syria – namely, in the ‘military’ refugee camp known in Turkish as Apaydın Kampı located in the vicinity of Reyhanlı.” Though the Prez and his henchmen talk about the FSA as a legitimate opposition force, the reality on the ground is that these fighters form part and parcel of the Jihadi effort to unseat Assad and establish Islamic rule on the land and its population. Recently, the opposition CHP (or Republican People’s Party)’s Öztürk Yılmaz has said that this supposed legitimate opposition faction is in fact “made up by Al Qaeda Jihadi” terrorists. Following Turkey’s cross border military Operation Euphrates Shield (24 August 2016 – 29 March 2017) –  supposedly directed at the Caliph and his Merry Men (or ISIS or IS), but more importantly, at the Kurdish enclave of Rojava –  more than half of the FSA fighters were trained by Turkey in various combat skills including firing mortars, rockets and machine guns. And for good measure, on 23 January 2018, the CIA, in its The World Factbook, listed the Syria-based PYD as a PKK branch under foreign-based terrorist groups, ostensibly a sign that Washington is treating Turkey with a certain degree of circumspection and goodwill.

Operation Olive Branch:

Opposing Kurdish Nationalism to Strengthen Islamic Solidarity

On the home front, the Prez continues to stoke the fires of faith and war. Speaking at the Expanded Meeting of the AKP Provincial Heads in Ankara on Friday, 26 January 2018, Tayyip Erdoğan fine-tuned his message, or rather, he made programmatic statements to his party faithful.

The Prez: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan started his words with reprimanding the U.S. for having asked Turkey to curtail its operations in Syria, something which he claimed was ironic and rich coming from Washington, mired for years and years in Afghanistan and Iraq. He then quickly flexed the New Turkey’s military muscle by means of referring to its military bases in Somalia and Qatar, before talking directly about the Turkish attack on Afrin and Operation Olive Branch. The Prez proudly stated that following the commencement of the Operations, “and praise be to God (or Alhamdulillah), my nation has now become united, has become one, has become unified.“ Then he went on to announce to the world that the military might employed in Operation Olive Branch was aimed at terror organisations and terrorists: “[w]e are displaying all kind of sensitivity in order not to inflict harm upon civilians of the surroundings,“ before actually stating that “[w]e want to cooperate with America.“ Then adding in a sad tone of voice that he therefore could not understand why the States persisted in arming the YPG, even wondering why these weapons were given to the fighters and against whom they were supposed to be used. Before dealing with the actual meat of his message, the Prez assured his audience that Turkey is concerned about safeguarding the territorial integrity of Syria and that the operations in Afrin will continue till a satisfactory goal is reached, which will be followed by a foray to Manbij, and a further sweep towards the Iraqi border in order to ensure that terrorist elements be completely “cleansed“ from the area. Following these initial remarks, the Prez seemed to get him into the mood, and declared that Turkey’s soldiers engaged in Syria are actually “walking towards martyrdom“ (or şehadet, in Turkish), adding that the Turkish soldiers will be residing in the “eternal world.“ Underlining his words and sentiments, Tayyip Erdoğan then simply declared that “[t]oday’s Turkey . . . is a completely different Turkey,“ more than just hinting at the demise of the Kemalist status quo and the disappearance of Atatürk’s legacy.

After having framed Turkey’s military adventure in northern Syria in these religious terms, he wished a “blessed“ outcome for the Turkish soldiers’ “holy war or raid“ or Gaza, in Turkish (not to be confused with the concept of Jihad, which denotes a struggle for the sake of Allah). In other words, in this instance the Prez is actually referring to a term introduced at the end of the 1930’s by the Orientalist Paul Wittek (1894-1978) to explain the sudden and apparently inexplicable emergence of the Ottoman state at the end of the 13th century. The Austrian historian and Orientalist argued that the Ottomans, imbued with a Gazî spirit, meaning a zealous warlike attitude brimming with a glowing fervour for holy war or raids (or Gaza), necessarily carried the day at the time. Wittek thought that Ottoman Gazîs possessed a clear advantage over their contemporaries as members of a polity that had always been inspired by a fanatic enthusiasm for conquest, booty, and expansion. But rather than expanding the New Turkey into the territories of Syria, I would argue that  Tayyip Erdoğan is here now invoking a Gaza spirit that would transform the erstwhile nominally secular Kemalist Republic of Turkey into a fully-fledged Islamic state on the back of the military operations carried out next door in the lands once legitimately held by Assad. And, highlighting this aspect of the mission and Operation Olive Branch, the Prez added the following to his words directed at some of his choice party faithful, the Expanded Meeting of the AKP Provincial Heads: these terror organisations, “this PKK, this PYD, this YPG, this Daesh have no connection with Islam . . . These [terrorists] don’t know Allah, [they] don’t know Islam, [and they] don’t know Muslims.“

Though the Prez did not use the words Kurd or Kurdish in his speech, even managing to disingenuously include the Caliph’s IS in his words, his message seems clear: this terror “organisation [referring to the PKK and its Syrian branch, PYD] wants to turn the descendants of the conqueror of Jerusalem Salah ad-Din [r. 1174-93] into entity without [a religious] identity, [wants to] break their ties with their ancient history.“ Invoking the spirit of this mediaeval champion of Sunni Islam who is generally accepted to have been a Kurd, Erdoğan ends his message to his party faithful with the words that “the separatist terror organisation [referring primarily to the PKK, in this instance] is first and foremost an enemy of Islam, an adversary to Muslims.“ And given the organic links between the Turkish PKK and the Syrian PYD, as visible in the latter’s ample display of representations of the countenance of the leader of the former group, Abdullah Öçalan (aka Apo), the Prez clearly equates fighting the former with obliterating the latter. But, he clearly does not employ any words or sentiments directed against any ethnic group or nationality, as Erdoğan freely speaks about “our Arab brothers“ or “our Kurdish brothers“ . . . instead he invokes the maxim that all Muslims are brothers and swears by the principle of Islamic solidarity, while freely indulging in pseudo-Ottoman dreams (or delusions).

Martyrs Travelling to Heaven

But Erdoğan’s pseudo-Ottoman delusions do not seem easily realisable, arguably due to the dismal state of the TSK in the aftermath of the purges that have swept through Turkey’s military and civilian establishment following 2016’s Coup-that-was-no-Coup. The defending Kurds, employing the moniker Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF, held a press conference in the town of Ayn Isa in the Girê Spî Canton at the outset of this month, releasing a statement indicating that the “invading Turkish army and allied Al-Qaeda terror organisation continue their savage attacks against our people living in Afrin Canton. The invading army and its supporters are mobilizing all their military technologies and targeting civilian settlements with warplanes and tanks.

ERASING HISTORY: Turkish shelling of Syria’s Afrin region has destroyed a 3,000 year-old ancient Ain Dara Iron Age temple.

Still, they have made no remarkable progress so far. Unable to advance in the face of the resistance by our fighters, the invading Turkish army is attacking civilian population savagely. As a result of the attacks, dozens of civilians including children, women and elderly have fallen as martyrs so far. With the attacks, they aim to force the people into migration and change the demography. They are hitting and destroying historical places and damaging the most ancient temples in the Middle East.” As also reported by the news agency Reuters, the TSK did indeed hit an archaeological site north of Afrin – “Ain Dara is an iron age temple with remains of large carved basalt blocks and wall reliefs. Pictures circulating online, which Reuters could not independently verify, showed an apparent shell crater in the site.” The targeted site contains the remains of a “large urban settlement [dating to] the Neo-Hittite era.” With the remains of a temple dedicated to Ishtar-Sawuska a prominent feature that was apparently heavily damaged by the Turkish shelling. Given that, from the 1930s onwards, the Kemalist leadership of Turkey had elevated the Hittites and their remains to the status of  symbolic properties indicative of the progressive and ‘secularist’ goals aimed at by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his reform movement (known as İnkılap, in Turkish), this apparently not so wanton destruction of ancient remains appears to carry a special meaning for the Prez and his henchmen.

The SDF statement also indicates that “473 members of the Turkish army and allied terrorists were confirmed killed.” The Turkish authorities, in contrast, at the beginning of this month, indicated that only a total of 13 soldiers had been “martyred” and five injured at that stage. In spite of the losses and other difficulties, the Prez persists in his defiance of the U.S. and maintains that his troops will go to Manbij: “Turkish media outlets reported [on 7 February] that [U.S.] national security adviser H.R. McMaster will travel to Ankara this weekend and that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will follow him there next week,” as related by Amberin Zaman. At the same time, Turkey’s entanglement in Idlib since October last year and the recent downing of a Russian Su-25 jet (3 February 2018) there all but complicates the situation on the ground.

In spite of Erdoğan’s defiant words and the warlike mood amongst the wider population, Turkish soldiers on the ground do not appear to carry victory in their wake. The Slovenian writer Marko Marjanović matter-of-factly notes that the “Turks have advanced in no fewer than seven different places, yet nowhere are they more than 6 kilometers at most from where they started over two weeks ago.” Continuing that, in order to reverse his ill-fortunes against the Kurds in northern Syria, the Prez has now enlisted “the help of Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki,” a notorious Jihadi faction that rose to infamy as a result of having beheaded a Palestinian boy in Aleppo’s Handarat refugee camp. Marjanović adds that the group’s members were once hailed as exemplary “moderate rebels,” receiving liberal U.S. support, but that the movement “is now openly part of the al-Qaeda-dominated HTS (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) coalition,” a Jihadi group formerly known and reviled as Jabhat al-Nusra and very much in charge of the province of Idlib, where Turkey has also been active. Other Jihadi supporters of the as yet rather ill-fated Operation Olive Branch appear to be fighters hailing from Chechenya, Daghistan and even Afghanistan, as purportedly evidenced by a video posted on Twitter by the ‘[r]oving reporter [of the] Arabic Al Aan TV’ Jenan Moussa.

The Turkish journalist and columnist Fehim Taştekin, on the other hand, seems very sanguine about the fact that the TSK are receiving liberal support from a whole host of Jihadi terrorists opposed to Assad and other disbelievers, providing his readers with a comprehensive and apparently quite exhaustive list: “Faylaq al-Sham, Jaish al-Nasr, Jabhat al-Shamiya, Ahrar al-Sham, Nureddin Zengi Brigades, Suqour al-Jaber, Sultan Murad Brigade, Samarkand Brigade, Muntasir Billah Brigade, Sultan Mourad Division, Fatih Sultan Mehmet Brigade, Hamza Company, Northern Storm, Turkistan Islamic Party and Salahaddin Brigade.”

Tayyip Erdoğan: The Conqueror of Afrin

Domestically though,Turkey’s recent military adventures (or misadventures) in Syria have all but strengthened Tayyip Erdoğan’s position, securing him the support of most opposition parties and of the wider population that is force-fed a constant barrage of government propaganda by the media and the mosques. Since the start of the Operation, the Turkish Directorate for Religious Affairs (or Diyanet) has been supporting the effort by means of twice daily nationwide recitals of the Sūrat al-Fatḥ (or the Fetih Suresi, in Turkish, which is the 48th sura of the Qur’an, commemorating the Treaty of Hudaibiyah and containing pertinent religious advice) in the nation’s mosques for the duration of the campaign. In this way, an arguably racist enmity of the Kurds is being transformed into a religious virtue extolling a steadfast opposition to any “enemy of Islam, [and to] an[y] adversary to Muslims,” which in this context is none other than the separatist terror group known as the PKK and its Syrian ally, the PYD and its military wing the YPG.

And while Turkish soldiers and their Jihadi allies were fighting unbelievers in the northern part of Syria, the Prez flew to Italy, accompanied by his wife, daughter and son-in-law to pay a visit to the Vatican (5 February 2018). The subsequent photo-op resembled the picture taken of the Pope with the visiting Trumps and was consequently all the buzz on the Turkish internet. This was the first visit of a Turkish head of state to the Holy See in 59 years and, no doubt, Erdoğan revelled in the opportunity to meet the Pontiff, given his own caliphal ambitions and his current drive towards becoming the Champion of Sunni Islam by means of a military campaign next door in Syria. Subsequently, the Holy See Press Office released a statement indicating that the Prez and the Pope “with particular reference to the status of Jerusalem, highlight[ed] the need to promote peace and stability in the region through dialogue and negotiation, with respect for human rights and international law,” while Italian “[p]olice in riot gear blocked . . .  protesters, estimated by officers to number about 150, near Rome’s Tiber River as they tried to get closer to the Vatican,” as reported by the AP – protesters expressing solidarity with Syria’s Kurds being assaulted by the TSK and their Jihadi allies. In contrast, Turkey’s northern neighbour Russia seems to accept  Erdoğan’s assurances at face value. The Czar’s Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov even telling the Russian press that “Ankara assured us that the efforts made by the Turkish troops do not contradict the work that Turkey is conducting and will continue to conduct in the area of political settlement in Syria.”

Operation Olive Branch might throw Syria’s not-so civil war into overdrive again, with possible armed confrontations with the U.S. apparently in the offing at Manbij and also more clashes with Kurdish forces at Afrin, who are now apparently receiving SDF reinforcements from the Manbij area. But, it seems to me, the domestic implications might prove to be more important for the Prez. On the one hand, the military operation aimed at routing the “enemy of Islam, [and] adversary to Muslims” dovetails perfectly with the AKP policy of Sunnification, a long-standing concern of Tayyip Erdoğan and his henchmen. While, on the other, the upcoming presidential elections of 2019 should not be discounted either. And, if the Prez in the coming months were able present himself as the ‘Conqueror of Afin’, similar to Bülent Ecevit’s sobriquet of ‘Conqueror of Cyprus’ in 1974, his overwhelming and crashing victory at the ballot box would be all but guaranteed.

The Prez is apparently playing a high-stakes game but in the end, the future of Turkey as a Sunni Superpower in the Middle East under the aegis of the AKP is but his ultimate goal, and he appears prepared to do whatever it takes to get there.

***
21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar who was living in Istanbul for some time, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In the period 2010-11, he wrote op-eds for Today’s Zaman and in the further course of 2011 he also published a number of pieces in Hürriyet Daily News. In 2013, he was the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. He is on Twitter at @theerimtanangle

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