The Real Cost of Afrin
by Amir Taheri
With the Turkish flag hoisted on top of the municipal building in Afrin the other day, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his supporters are in triumphal mood.
In a sense they have the right to be, as this is the first time in almost 100 years that Turkey has scored a military victory against an adversary ready to fight. (Turkey’s occupation of part of Cyprus in 1974 was achieved without major fighting.)
However, the euphoria inspired by what Erdogan terms “an historic victory” would have to be tempered by reality. That NATO’s largest army in Europe should win a war against a ragtag band of lightly armed Kurds is no surprise. This is neither Alp Arsalan, after Malazegrd, nor Sultan Muhammad Fatih after capturing Byzantium.
The capture of Afrin represents a 19th century solution for a 21st century problem that Turkey faces.
Judging by official statements from Ankara, Erdogan is trying to create what 19th century strategists termed a cordon sanitaire or a glacis, supposedly to protect Turkey against incursions by Kurdish “terrorists”.
However, military history, at least since the debacle of the Maginot Line enterprise in 1939, shows that such concepts as cordon sanitaire and glacis are no longer relevant to modern warfare, especially of the asymmetric kind to which Turkey remains vulnerable.
The classical concepts of glacis and cordon sanitaire triggered a process that would lead either to further expansion and empire-building or ultimate irrelevance. To protect a glacis you have to create another glacis next to it, and so on, ad infinitum.
Thus, Erdogan’s glacis in Syrian-Kurdish territory would need protection from neighboring areas in the rest of Syria as well as Kurdish provinces in Iraq, not to mention Iran which could, as it has done for decades, offer the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) safe haven or even operational bases against Turkey. On a more mundane level, the Kurdish “terrorists” that pose a threat to Turkey could always cross the border with little difficulty, a practice that terrorists of all ilk excel in across the globe.
Paradoxically, sole reliance on force and a determined attempt at humiliating the adversary could help rekindle the PKK’s narrative of victimhood as a justification for violence and terror. That is especially regrettable because Turkey’s Kurdish minority has done rather well under Erdogan.
Those familiar with the situation on the ground in Turkey know that during Erdogan’s stewardship of the state, the country’s Kurdish-majority areas have come out of abject poverty and enjoy a measure of prosperity they had never known before.
Empirical and anecdotal evidence indicate that the PKK’s Marxist-Leninist ideology and its chimera of a proletarian state replacing the Turkish Republic have limited appeal among Turkey’s Kurds.
What sympathy the PKK attracts is rooted in the cluster of so-called “identity issues”, the “them against us” that feeds secessionism even in Scotland or Catalonia.
By removing many of those “identity issues”, Erdogan in the first phases of his leadership succeeded in depriving the PKK of much of its ideological fodder. That great achievement was dramatically illustrated by the public change of tone and course by a significant segment of the PKK leadership, notably its founding father the imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan.
The capture of Afrin, even supposing it will be permanent, will not solve Turkey’s Kurdish problem. But, with the law of unintended consequences being triggered, it could lead Turkey into a whole new maze of problems. Already a good part of Turk’s elite troops are bogged down in Cyprus with no end in sight. The glacis that Erdogan wants to build in Syria could end up pinning down even more of Turkey’s elite troops, provoking a strategic imbalance in the nation’s overall defense doctrine and the means needed to sustain it. And that is without mentioning economic cost of such involvements.
The Syrian glacis would also implicate Turkey in any project for recreating a new Syria out of the bits and pieces of a broken state. Other nations currently involved in the Syrian quagmire, including Russia, Iran and the United States, could easily walk away, as their presence does not have a territorial expression. Even if it decided to hang on to a base in Syria, Russia would be able to defend the enclave on the Mediterranean without seeing is own territory threatened by enemy infiltration. Iran could also withdraw its Lebanese and other mercenaries without exposing its own territory to perennial terrorist threats.
Turkey, however, could get locked in the Syrian fate as Rwanda is in Congo-Kinshasa’s interminable turmoil.
Getting entangled in Syria’s Kurdish areas could also wreck the tight relationship, built over decades, which exists between Turkey and the autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq. And that, in turn, could undermine Turkey’s grand plan for playing a leading role in Iraq’s ambitious reconstruction plans.
Over the past decade, Turkish businesses have lost major markets in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria.
The prospect of Iraq emerging as a new market is one of the few good news items Turkish businesses now cling onto — a fact illustrated by the signing of contacts worth more than $20 billion.
However, Erdogan’s new image as an enemy of the Kurds could deprive Turkey of its surest allies in Iraqi Kurdistan, while Iran will play the Shi’ite card to curb Turkish influence. Erdogan’s Kurdish adventure could also exert some pressure on Ankara’s relations with its NATO allies.
Having turned a blind eye to Turkey’s campaign against Syrian Kurds, the US is unlikely to totally abandon its Kurdish allies who helped defeat ISIS. Thus, Erdogan may soon find out that his victory in Afrin isn’t as uncontested as he wants us to believe. To be sure, no one could dislodge him by force — at least not in the near future. But the US and others could easily help raise the cost of his “great victory”.
Almost two decades ago, Erdogan told us that the Kurdish problem was a political problem with no military solution. In his first term as prime minister he showed that he can apply that vision with patience and forbearance. Now, however, that patience and forbearance seem to have evaporated. What he is offering now is a banal fast-food of ultimately hollow military victory.
The mise-en-scene of hoisting the Turkish flag in Afrin was copied from that of US Marines raising the Star-Spangled Banner in Iwo Jima. However, as every Hollywood buff knows, remakes are never as good as the original and often end up bankrupting the studio.
* Amir Taheri, formerly editor of Iran’s premier newspaper, Kayhan, before the Iranian revolution of 1979, is a prominent author based on Europe. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.