In the 19th century, Britain, France, and Russia occupied or fostered the independence of Greece, Serbia, Romania, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Tunisia, and Egypt—each one part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1920, the victors of World War I forced the Ottomans to sign the Treaty of Sèvres, which detached what would become Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel from the House of Osman. The agreement also granted the French a zone of influence in the southeastern portion of Anatolia, adjacent to its Mandate for Lebanon and Syria, while the Italians were ceded an area that included southern and central parts of Anatolian territory, including Antalya and Konya. The Greeks established a protectorate in Smyrna, now known as Izmir.
In response, an Ottoman officer named Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, and a cadre of nationalist collaborators, raised an army and drove the Allies out of what became the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 1923. Despite Atatürk’s triumph and Turkey’s subsequent growth into a regional power, the dissection of the empire and the attempted division of its remnant has sowed a profound and pronounced mistrust of foreign powers—even allies—in Turkey’s political culture.
Through 94 years of independence, Turkish leaders have made clear that the nightmare of post-World-War-I dismemberment can never repeat itself. But it has, despite their best efforts—albeit in an updated form, involving the United States and Syrian territory that the Kurds call Rojava, or Western Kurdistan. This explains why, last weekend, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered his army to attack a district in northwestern Syria called Afrin. The area is under the control of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its affiliated fighting force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). This force has been an effective partner of the United States in the fight against the self-declared Islamic State, but it is also a creature of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—a Turkish Kurdish group that both the United States and Turkey identify as a terrorist organization.
While Turkish officials portray this campaign as an anti-terrorism operation (awkwardly named Operation Olive Branch), Turkey has much to answer for in this department. Over the course of the conflict in Syria, the Turkish government turned a blind eye to jihadists, enabled al-Qaeda affiliates, and was (at best) ambivalent about fighting the Islamic State. Let us also stipulate that Turkey would likely be better off if it approached the grievances of many of its Kurdish citizens with an open hand rather than a clenched fist. It is also true that the rhetoric of Turkish leaders at rallies in support of Turkey’s incursion is blood curdling.
And yet the Turkish operation is entirely rational—not only in terms of how the Turks view the war in Syria and its impact on their own security, but also in terms of Turkey’s geography, identity, and problematic history with great powers. Policymakers in Washington often justify Turkey’s strategic importance based on location. The country’s capital, Ankara, sits roughly at the geographic center of many U.S. foreign policy concerns in the Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. This geography also has its disadvantages for Turks. As a rump state of the Ottoman Empire, it shares long borders with threatening, unstable, or warring countries, a fact the Turks recognize. It is hard to have, in Atatürk’s famous words, “peace at home, peace in the world” when the fragmentation of countries on one’s borders threatens one’s own unity. Observers were shocked when, in October 2016, Erdogan questioned the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that defined the Republic of Turkey’s borders. At the time, the Turks were facing the possibility that Iraq’s Kurds would declare their independence at the same time their Syrian cousins were leveraging battlefield success and American support to do the same.
This geographical fate accentuates the unresolved problem of identity within Turkey’s ethno-national state. It is true that there are many Kurds who have prospered and participate in the political, social, and economic life of the country. But there are also a large number of Turkey’s approximately 15 million Kurdish citizens who are alienated from a society that, over the course of the republic’s history, has denied their identity or made it difficult to express their “Kurdishness.” These circumstances spawned separatists in the form of the PKK, raising fears among Turks that, should this group prevail in battle, it would shear off a large piece of Turkey’s southeast territory. What, from the perspective of Turks, would this mean for Armenian and Greek claims on current Turkish land? All three Anatolian minorities have strong support in the West, raising fears in Turkey—that seem unreasonable and even conspiratorial to Westerners, but reasonable to Turks—about the country’s dissolution.
Every Turkish worry about its geographic vulnerability and the ceaseless struggle over identity is wrapped up in Turkey’s unhappy history with the great powers and the current conflict in Syria. The unwillingness of the Americans to intervene in the slaughter in Syria for more than fours years posed a threat to Turkish security, and then, when the United States finally intervened after Kobani, it did so in a manner that threatened Turkish security. As the YPG rolled up the Islamic State with American help, it controlled more and more territory along the Syrian-Turkish border. Of course, Turkish reluctance to fight the Islamic State drove the United States to work with the YPG, but this point is almost always lost on the Turkish leadership, which has watched the developing relationship between its alleged strategic partner and its bitterest enemy with growing alarm.
Unlike American policymakers, the Turks (quite rightly) make no distinction between the YPG and the PKK. After working with the Syrian Kurds to defeat the Islamic State and announcing that the YPG will be part of the American military commitment in the form of some sort of “border force,” the Turks are drawing the not-unreasonable conclusion that U.S. policymakers support Kurdish territorial claims in Syria—which, from the Turkish perspective, would be a “terrorist state.”
The twists and turns in the Syrian civil war and the American determination not to get sucked into it, but to still defeat the Islamic State, have created a slew of inconsistencies in Washington’s approach to those two goals. Being the friend of your friend’s enemy contributes to outcomes like Turkey’s Afrin incursion, which both the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Trump administration oppose. It is true that Afrin is located in the northwest, far from the area east of the Euphrates that is of most concern to the Pentagon, but Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s declaration in response to Operation Olive Branch that “we’ll work this out” with the Turks are the words of a man—no matter how smart and learned—with little in the way of leverage. The United States is likely to accommodate itself to Turkey’s 20-mile security zone in Afrin, but the Turks do not trust (perhaps irreparably) the United States. Washington plays a central role in their century-old nightmare.
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