Oct 15th 2019
A GROUP OF children greet a convoy of Turkish army vehicles returning from the Syrian side of the border by saluting the soldiers and raising their fingers in a victory sign. Behind them, a group of men gather by the side of a house partially destroyed by a rocket. Closer to the centre of town, Ahmet Toremen, a construction worker, walks past the broken window-frames, burnt mattresses and bloodstains covering the bottom floor of his ramshackle house. Mr Toremen had been renting the place to a Syrian refugee family. A mortar round launched from Syria, almost certainly by Kurdish fighters in response to airstrikes from Turkey, landed in the corner of the living room. The explosion blinded one woman, wounded another and killed the family’s baby. “They escaped war,” says Mr Toremen, “and war found them here.”
Since the start of Turkey’s offensive in north-east Syria on October 9th, at least 20 civilians have died in the seemingly indiscriminate shelling in Akcakale and other Turkish towns near the border, according to officials in Ankara. Support for the invasion in Turkey was high from the outset. For many Turks, and for their president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the deaths will offer a chance to show that the invasion, seen here as another chapter in the endless war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist Kurdish group in Turkey, was a matter of necessity, not choice. Turkey says it is acting in self-defence. Such claims ring hollow, however. Until the start of the fighting, the country had not suffered any cross-border attacks from the YPG, as the Kurdish armed groups in Syria are called.
For America, the YPG fighters have been indispensable partners, and heroes, in the ground war against the jihadists of Islamic State in Syria and parts of Iraq. To most Turks, they are no more than a wing of the PKK, a group responsible for dozens of deadly attacks, including a spate of suicide-bombings, across Turkey since 2015. America’s decision to team up with the group and to arm it has always been seen in Turkey as an act of betrayal.
Aside from Turkey’s biggest Kurdish party, known as the HDP, few people have opposed the offensive or expressed any sympathy with its victims. Those who do so risk ending up behind bars. In the past week at least 121 people have been detained on terrorist charges for social-media posts critical of the invasion. “People who classify this as a war”, as opposed to a counter-terrorism operation, Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, has said, “are committing treason.” Three opposition MPs have been placed under investigation. The HDP’s former leaders, including a former presidential contender, Selahattin Demirtas, have been in prison since 2016.
Turkey’s media, already squirming under Mr Erdogan’s thumb, have done their share to whip up support for the war. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, at least 71 Syrian civilians have died in the fighting so far. More than 160,000 have been displaced, says the UN. Syrian mercenaries, mostly Arab Sunni fighters operating alongside Turkish troops, have been accused of executing 11 people, including a local politician, Hevrin Khalaf. Several of them were filmed shooting prisoners by the side of a road. No main Turkish news channel has dared to report any of this, just as none could cover the army’s brutal suppression of the PKK insurgency in south-eastern Turkey a few years ago. Mr Erdogan’s government insists that no civilians have been harmed in the fighting, and dismisses suggestions to the contrary as PKK propaganda. (There has been no shortage of that either.)
Condemnation has been pouring in from all corners. Several European countries have suspended weapons exports to Turkey, the latest being Britain. America initially seemed to clear the way for the invasion, with President Donald Trump ordering the withdrawal of American forces from the border area. But amid a political outcry at home over the betrayal of the Kurds, his administration changed tack. On October 14th it imposed sanctions against Mr Soylu and two other ministers, doubled tariffs on Turkish steel and shelved negotiations on a new trade deal. Despite threats by Mr Trump to “destroy” Turkey’s economy, the sanctions lack any bite. (Turkey’s currency has barely budged since they were announced.) But more may be in store. America has warned Turkey of new measures unless it pulls back its troops. A group of US senators have said they would push forward with a bipartisan bill sanctioning Mr Erdogan, as well as Turkey’s defence and energy sectors.
America’s vice-president, Mike Pence, says he will travel to Turkey on October 17th to press for an immediate ceasefire. He will not find a receptive audience. Mr Erdogan is in no mood to compromise. Turkey will not stand down; he said a couple of days ahead of Mr Pence’s scheduled arrival, until “our objectives have been achieved”.
Original Headline: Turks rally around Erdogan’s war against Syria’s Kurds
Source: The Economist