Ankara has invaded Syria to keep "Islamic State" fighters out of its own territory and prevent Kurdish territorial gains. In Turkey, the dual strategy was not only met with approval: critical voices are growing louder.
Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu left no doubts about his patriotic leanings. "It is our duty to fight the terrorist organization, ["Islamic State"] (IS), that is threatening our country," tweeted the chairman of the center-left Republican People's Party, CHP.
Even the opposition parties largely approved when Turkish tanks crossed the northern Syrian border on Wednesday to drive away IS fighters from the border city of Jarablus. The Nationalist Movement Party, MHP, wished the soldiers much success "with our hearts and our prayers." After the alleged IS attack on a Kurdish wedding in southeastern Turkey that left 54 dead, it seemed like the right time deploy the country's troops in war-torn Syria.
However, the political solidarity did not last long. Deputy CHP chairwoman Selin Sayek Boke reprimanded the ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP, for not taking the fight against IS seriously. "What a pity that the AKP is among those who have turned a blind eye to the growing monster, instead of fighting IS comprehensively," Boke said. She added that the government was not doing enough to fight the terror cells within the country and that it did not suffice to send soldiers across the border while IS was having picnics in the center of Istanbul.
The advance on Jarablus was not only launched to battle IS fighters, who pose a threat to NATO member Turkey. The government in Ankara wants, at all costs, to prevent the Kurds from controlling a contiguous area along its southern border with Syria. The Kurdish-held territories in northeastern and northwestern Syria have grown enormously since 2015. However, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, PYD, is considered to be a branch of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK. Ankara believes that the PKK is almost as great a threat as IS. Hundreds of people have been killed in a war that has been raging for months between the PKK and the Turkish army. Even the devastating attack on a police station in Cizre on Friday was immediately attributed to the PKK.
Fear of ideas spreading among Turkish Kurds
A contiguous Kurdish territory in northern Syria would block Turkey's direct access to the country. Ankara fears it would offer the PKK a huge area to retreat to and perhaps incite Turkish Kurds to strive for independence. That is why Turkish government representatives left no doubts about the double offensive – against IS and the Kurds who work with the PKK.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, HDP, protested against the combination of the two strategic objections: "The government's new Syria policy is as wrong as the old one." The HDP believes that in Jarablus, room for a new "gang" is being created to replace IS. The HDP feels that the invasion neither serves the Turkish people, nor those living in Syria.
HDP parliamentarians also denounced the fact that the command to invade was issued during a parliamentary recess. They claim that the government has involved the country in a war without asking the people's representatives. Furthermore, the opposition party urged Ankara to immediately revise its "anti-Kurdish stance in Syria."
Northern Iraq as a possible model
Harsh words were expected from the pro-Kurdish HDP, which has been repeatedly accused of sympathizing with the PKK. But even newspaper pundits view the consequences of the invasion critically with regard to the Kurdish issue. "Hurriyet" journalist Mehmet Yilmaz recalled that Turkey was once against an independent Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq but that now, they enjoy the best of relations with the northern Iraqi Kurds. The Iraqi Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, was received in Ankara like a statesman on the same day tanks rolled into Syria. Yilmaz encourages the government to seek dialogue with the Syrian Kurds as well. "The two million Kurds living there are not our enemies," Yilmaz wrote.
Other political analysts are concerned that the invasion might end up being an unpredictable military adventure. Yusuf Kanli from the English-language "Hurriyet Daily News" fears that the army will become more deeply involved in the complicated war in the neighboring country, just as the US had in the costly Vietnam War. "If Turkey expands its operational radius and misses the right moment to withdraw, then Syria could become Turkey's Vietnam."