By Adam McConnel
- The writer teaches Turkish history at Sabanci University in Istanbul. He holds an MA and PhD in history from the same university.
ISTANBUL (AA) - Last December, after President Trump announced his intention to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria and hand over security matters there to Turkey, I described the move as “70 years late.”  As it turned out, we would still need to wait ten more months because of stone-walling, stalling, and foot-dragging from all elements of the Pentagon, down to the officers on the ground in northern Syria. In the end, Turkey’s patience ended and President Trump acquiesced to more direct action. In the early hours of Oct. 7 Oct., U.S. forces began to evacuate positions on Syria’s border with Turkey; late on Oct. 9, Turkish forces, in tandem with the newly-formed Syrian National Army (SNA) forces, began to enter regions on the border to establish control.
The armed militants which the SNA and the Turkish military will eject from the border regions east of the Euphrates are, in fact, PKK terrorists despite their adoption of different monikers, such as the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), and despite the fact that a small portion of their forces are not Kurds. The PYD/YPG/PKK has imposed its Kurdish version of Baathist ideology on the regions of northern Syria that came under its domination, forcing local inhabitants to ingest its ideology and join its militias. And that is only the latest episode in the PKK’s bloody 40-year existence, after killing 40,000, recruiting soldiers (many children) through abductions and brain-washing, forcing villagers to provide food and shelter at the barrel of an AK-47, carrying out bombings against Turkish society, and many more despicable crimes. This, in reality, is the organization that the Obama administration chose to partner with in 2014, even though the PKK is designated as “terrorist” by the U.S. government. As if to prove defiantly that lessons cannot be learned from history, President Obama chose to act in exactly the same manner that President Reagan did while aiding militants in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
- First purpose: Remove PYD/YPG/PKK from border
The safe zone that Turkish and Syrian National Army forces intend to establish will stretch approximately 30 km south from the Turkish border. The purpose behind this is twofold. The first goal is to cut PYD/YPG/PKK contact with all areas on the Turkish-Syrian border. Once this is accomplished, Turkey’s domestic security situation will be further solidified. A crucial fact that foreign observers should be aware of is that since Jan. 2017, i.e. since the successful conclusion of Operation Euphrates Shield, no public violence (e.g. bombings, assassinations) of the sort that had plagued and traumatized Turkish urban areas in the previous years has occurred. The extirpation of Fetullah Gulen’s cult (FETO) from Turkish state institutions is a main reason for this development, but cutting off Daesh and the Afrin-based YPG/PKK cadres from contact with the Turkish border was another vital factor.
On the other hand, PKK violence has continued in regions near the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkish civilians and security personnel have been continually targeted in bombings or by firearms. But because the international and U.S. press do not report these incidents, few people outside of Turkey are aware of them.
An additional important development totally -- and purposefully -- ignored by the international and U.S. media is the ongoing vigil in front of the Diyarbakir headquarters of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP is the political arm of the PKK, and the vigil is being held by more than 50 families of young people abducted into the separatist organization for the purpose of using them as terrorists. Many of the abductees were minors. The reason this event is invisible outside of Turkey is that all of the families are Kurdish, and it represents a damning anti-PKK statement by Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, in the city most closely associated with Kurdish identity.
Cutting off the PKK’s contact with the border will finally enhance security in the southern and southeastern regions of Anatolia, which will benefit everyone there. Turkey’s Kurdish citizens in the region are well aware of this, and for that reason largely support Operation Peace Spring. For more than a decade now, Turkey’s Kurdish citizens have finally been treated as citizens with equal rights to participate in Turkey’s political system; now strong steps are being taken to free Turkey’s Kurdish citizens of the oppression and violence that they continued to suffer at the hands of the PKK.
- Second purpose: A safe haven for Syrian refugees
Operation Peace Spring’s other main aim is to establish a region to which large numbers of Syrians now residing in Turkey can return without being under threat from Daesh, the PYD/PKK, Russia, or the Syrian regime. Turkey has waited patiently for the international community to provide cooperation and aid in order to help take care of the nearly four million refugees that have flowed into Turkey in the past eight years. Turkey has spent tens of billions of USD towards that end, but international aid has been sparse and the EU’s promises have remained largely unfulfilled. Meanwhile, anti-Syrian sentiment, fanned intensely by unscrupulous opposition politicians, has risen in Turkish society, causing social tensions.
Because the EU and other international actors have proven unreliable, Turkey was forced, in the end, to take matters into its own hands. The bluster and weapons embargoes emanating from various EU countries elicit nothing but angry scorn from Turkish citizens and politicians, and will only serve to steel Turkish resolve. Turkish reactions to sanctions threats from Congress and -- hilariously -- the U.S. executive branch consist of eye rolls and guffaws. The EU and the U.S. have exhausted their credibility in the eyes of the vast majority of Turkish society, so no one should expect any backpedaling from the Turkish government.
- What to expect from Operation Peace Spring
Operation Peace Spring will be conducted in a manner similar to Operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch; in other words, the Turkish military and their allies will move carefully in order to minimize civilian casualties (in both previous operations civilian casualties were very few, especially in comparison to the level of civilian casualties seen in the U.S.’s various regional campaigns) and completely eradicate the PYD/PKK presence from the region.
Once order is established, Turkey will provide massive amounts of aid, begin rebuilding the region’s infrastructure, train locals to create police forces, establish local self-governing bodies, and enable Syrians to return so they can begin the long process of rebuilding their lives and communities. Turkey has even begun to open universities in the regions for which it assumed responsibility. The only important difference between this operation and the previous two is the amount of territory that Turkey is bringing under its control. But the terrain of the long Syrian-Turkish border east of the Euphrates River is considerably less challenging than that of Afrin.
- What about the naysayers?
For the past week, dire predictions of disaster for Turkey’s Peace Spring operation have flowed unabated from U.S. commentators across the political spectrum. Before and during the previous two operations, copious amounts of the same sort of rhetoric appeared in the U.S. and international press. One prediction is that, because the population’s Kurdish element will be greater than in the other two regions, the region’s population will be less amenable to Turkish control, and the consequence will be disorder and violence. However, this perception is based on two erroneous assumptions. Because Western commentators focus on the ethnic dimension of the issue, they neglect other factors that are just as, or possibly even more, important.
First, the experience that inhabitants encountered under the militants’ regime is nowhere near as utopic as many in the West imagine. The PYD/PKK engaged in demographic engineering, forced indoctrination in schools, property confiscations, and press-ganging local residents into their cadres in the regions that came under its domination. Turkey and its SNA allies will bring stability, provide aid, and help inhabitants resurrect their lives, economies, and communities. In the Operation Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch regions, residents long ago began rebuilding their lives in relative peace, and that is why serious social problems have not occurred there.
Western pundits’ second flawed assumption may be even more important. The PYD/PKK’s ideology is based on a Marxist-inspired secularism; I characterized it above as a Kurdish version of the Baathist ideology embraced by the Damascus regime. Many inhabitants of northern Syria are undoubtedly religious to varying degrees, including Kurds, so the appeal of the PYD/PKK’s ideology is far weaker than their Western fans would like to believe. If 75 years of Bolshevik suppression could not eradicate Orthodoxy or Islam from the Soviet Empire, then why should we expect several years of similar policies to eliminate religious belief east of the Euphrates? The removal of the PYD/PKK’s oppressive ideology will be welcomed by those who maintain religious beliefs, and will again create goodwill towards Turkey.
- Potential for ethnic tensions greatly exaggerated
The population in the region that Turkey will secure in the coming weeks is composed of mostly Arabs , but also many Kurds and some other smaller communities. In previous stages of the Syrian conflict, hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled from the region east of the Euphrates to Turkey, and have been living in Turkey since. Turkey intends to allow or enable large numbers of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey to settle in the new safe zone, and that will undoubtedly include a significant portion of the Kurds who took refuge north of the border. The resettlement plan is similar to what has already been carried out in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch regions.
Less than 24 hours after Trump’s withdrawal announcement, the NYT published a scare editorial on the plan to resettle refugees in the Operation Peace Spring region.  The authors claim that Turkey’s presence in the security zone will situate “… two populations against each other… a perfect recipe for enduring ethnic tensions — tensions that will continue to cause instability even after fighting between Turkish and local forces subsides” (note the authors’ use of a vague euphemism to refer to the PYD/PKK militants).
Such claims are par for the course when it comes to analyses of Turkey’s actions in Syria. When Euphrates Shield was launched, many doom-and-gloom articles predicting disaster appeared, but the operation was concluded efficiently and successfully. One of the above-mentioned NYT article’s authors predicted profound ethnic problems for the Euphrates Shield region, based on irrelevant historical arguments similar to those used in the NYT article, which have not materialized.  In that article, the author misread the situation in northern Syria -- and the relationship between the current Turkish government and the region’s Kurdish residents -- so completely that he even predicted increased violence inside Turkey. Exactly the opposite has happened.
In Afrin, despite the PYD/PKK’s demographic manipulations and influxes of both internal Syrian refugees and Syrians returning from Turkey, social and ethnic tensions have remained low-level. Reports predicting dire social problems in Afrin appeared almost immediately after the operation’s conclusion, but those fears have not been realized. This is definitely not to suggest that no ethnic strife or related security problems have emerged in Afrin; but predictions of social problems so severe that Turkey would have difficulties coping have clearly turned out to be unwarranted.
Consequently, the results of Operation Peace Spring will be similar to the previous two Turkish operations in northern Syria. The most fundamental reason for that outcome -- a key factor which is purposefully ignored and obscured by the Western purveyors of anti-Turkish rhetoric -- is that Turkey’s policies are a known quantity to the peoples of this region. Turkey is the only actor that has defended, in a principled manner, the right of this region’s peoples to democratically determine their own futures. The Turkish government is also the only actor that shows respect for the beliefs and cultures of this region’s peoples.
Turkey’s steadfast defense of democracy is the actual reason why the military dictators of Egypt, and the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., spend billions of dollars on schemes to oppose Turkey wherever they can. But those regimes are doing no more than purchasing time against a historical force that will, in the end, triumph. Because the Syrian people understand why Turkey must, in the words of Clausewitz, pursue policy through war, the region that Turkey takes under its care through Operation Peace Spring will become a safe haven where Syrian people of all identities and beliefs can rebuild their lives in peace, in stability, without the threat of state violence and oppression, and in anticipation of a more democratic future.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.
* The Turkish word translated as “spring” is pınar, which means “freshwater spring”.