Who harms NATO? Turkey or the US?

Claiming Turkey's Afrin operation harms the U.S. or NATO serve the interests only of countries like Russia and China

Operation Olive Branch has not just changed the balance of power in Syria but it has also the potential to take Turkey’s relations with the United States, Europe and NATO to a new level. By launching the current operation, Turkey effectively challenged the Western alliance’s policy of ambivalence towards the People’s Protection Units (YPG). In light of Turkey’s ground incursion, both Washington and European capitals find themselves having to reach a clear decision about the group.

Tensions between Ankara and Washington over the YPG have fueled concerns in European capitals and among NATO allies alike. The Western media has been reporting about the possibility of a confrontation and even clash between Turkey and the United States. Meanwhile, the significant differences between the readouts issued by the White House and the Turkish presidency suggest that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump had a frank and rough conversation over the phone. After all, the tensions between the two NATO allies are the result of inherent contradictions between differing existential threats and the risk of losing tactical gains. Provided that the tensions have not reached a point of no return, they must be resolved one way or another.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabrial recently called on NATO to facilitate the peaceful resolution of this disagreement, “Together with France, we agree that Turkey’s security interests must be taken into account. Efforts to bring peace and stability to Syria must not be stopped by military confrontation.” However, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg believes that the current problems are bilateral – provided that there are no NATO troops in the area. Speaking at a press conference, Mr. Stoltenberg recalled that Turkey was “the NATO ally which has suffered most from terrorist attacks over many years” and stressed that all countries had a right to self-defense. He added that this must be done “in a proportionate and measured way.”

The question is what represents a proportionate and measured response to terrorism. If it refers to the prevention of civilian casualties and the preservation of residential areas, Turkey is already doing its best to accomplish those goals. As a matter of fact, the Turks fought against Daesh with this very aim during Operation Euphrates Shield.

President Erdoğan, likewise, recently underlined his country’s careful approach, “Some people insist on recommending that the operation be limited. I told those people over the phone that this operation would be over within days – if we were to use force without restraint and run over everything with our tanks and artillery. Instead, we are taking into consideration the lives and even the properties of those innocent civilians, whom they use as human shields. We ensured that 100,000 people would be able to return to the 2,000 square kilometer area in al-Rai, Jarablus and al-Bab. We will do the same in Afrin.”

If restraint refers to Turkish troops not entering the Afrin town center or Manbij, then neither Washington nor NATO has a right to request such a thing from Turkey. As a matter of fact, NATO never publicly criticized the U.S. decision to arm the YPG militants, who represent the Syrian branch of the PKK terrorist group. It refrained from paying due attention to Turkey’s legitimate security concerns vis-à-vis the YPG militants and refused to question the support provided by a NATO ally to a group viewed by another NATO ally as a terrorist organization. Today, both the United States and NATO must take into account PKK-YPG terrorism.

The same groups that considered Turkey’s cooperation with Russia in Syria and the recent purchase of the S-400 missile defense system a violation of the NATO agreement are now trying to launch a new smear campaign with reference Operation Olive Branch. They claim that Turkey harms NATO by taking such actions. Their main argument is that the Turks launched an indirect offensive against a fellow NATO ally by targeting the U.S.-backed YPG. They add that the Turkish operation has been receiving Russian support. The Turkish president, they argue, had already suspended fundamental human rights and democracy – core values of NATO. Interestingly enough, NATO, which is essentially a defense alliance, does not consider the transformation of the PKK’s Syrian branch into a regular army as damaging to the alliance. Instead, the secretary-general makes the case that this is a bilateral issue.

Operation Olive Branch is part of a strategic vision that will contribute to the stability of Turkey and, by extension, all of Europe. It aims to remedy, at least in part, the damage inflicted by Washington’s short-sighted Syria and YPG policies to Turkish interests. Suggesting that the operation somehow damages the U.S. or NATO would only further weaken the transatlantic alliance, which is going through a period of uncertainty today. Making such accusations would only serve the interests of countries like Russia and China, who will score points without so much as lifting a finger.

[Daily Sabah, 29 January 2018]

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