Commentary, Politics

Euphrates Shield’s first anniversary

One cannot help but wonder how much more efficiently Turkey might have been able to remove Daesh from Mosul, Raqqah

“Yet time and again armies have actually had their effectiveness improved by the mass emigration, expulsion or other elimination of their senior officers — so much so that one is tempted to believe that few wars can be won unless the military leadership is first purged.”

— Eric Hobsbawm, Revolutionaries, Chapter 19, “Coup d’état”

As the first anniversary of Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation in northern Syria approaches, reflection on what the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have faced and achieved over the past year is appropriate.

Turkish citizens are generally highly aware of the Turkish military’s accomplishments. But the international community, blinded by both the hate rhetoric aimed at the Turkish government and by faulty analyses of last year’s Gulenist coup attempt, have far less understanding of the situation. So some reminders are in order.

In the aftermath of the 15 July 2016 defeated coup attempt, hand-wringing over the effects on the Turkish military’s operational capabilities immediately became a theme in the security pundit community.

The large numbers of high-ranking officers implicated in the Gulenist coup attempt, and especially the loss of most of Turkey’s F-16 pilots to either complicity in the coup attempt or ties to Gulen’s cult inspired great angst, much of it transparently phony.

From that foreign security commentary came a basic analysis, shared by most of those that Paul Krugman would term as the Very Serious People: Turkey’s military capabilities will be severely weakened for the near term, possibly even longer, and they cannot be trusted to carry out their military responsibilities.

The implied messages were clear. First, the military argument long used to underpin Turkey’s NATO membership was being attacked.

For the past several years, various commentators have assailed Turkey’s NATO membership for their own purposes. A traditional approach to supporting Turkey’s NATO role has been the military angle: Turkey is NATO’s “Eastern Fortress,” Turkey has lots of excellent soldiers, Turkey holds down the fort in a tough neighborhood, etc.

For Turkey’s detractors, the coup attempt, instead of providing an opportunity to talk about democracy and electoral processes, inspired dark insinuations about “creeping authoritarianism” and “Islamism,” which were meant to suggest that Turkey’s military capabilities were no longer dependable. In other words, they used prejudice and disinformation to blame the victim.

Second was the more specific aim of excluding Turkey from the push to take Raqqah from Daesh. Again, this was a theme taken up by various figures with multiple aims.

One tendency actually sees the PYD/PKK as a legitimate political and military actor, and wants to see that violent extremist organization thrive.

Another group is more concerned with preventing Turkey from having more influence on the ground in Syria or the region. Another attitude simply disdains the Turkish government and wants to present obstacles wherever possible. These approaches overlapped in some places and diverged in others.

Euphrates Shield

But then something unexpected happened. In the waning days of August 2016, Turkey suddenly, and unilaterally, initiated a military campaign in northern Syria aimed at clearing Daesh from the territory it occupied adjacent to the Turkish border.

The campaign was spearheaded by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and backed by Turkish training, armaments, and logistical help. Not only did the campaign go smoothly, it was rapid and casualties were low. Civilian casualties were almost nonexistent.

Within days Jarabulus had been freed, cleared of Daesh’s munitions and civilians began to return. Dabiq, which played such an important role in Daesh’s mythology, was speedily taken.

The campaign then turned to a far more difficult target, Al-Bab. Again the naysayers appeared, providing dire forecasts for the effort to overcome Daesh’s Al-Bab defenses. But after careful preparation and planned probing of Daesh’s capabilities, Al-Bab was taken through a fierce, but brief push.

In all, the active portion of Euphrates Shield lasted slightly more than seven months. Now efforts are devoted to providing security, rebuilding infrastructure, providing various supplies, such as food and medical aid, and constructing buildings like schools. Turkey bears by far the largest burden of these expenses.

Those parroting the idea that Turkey’s military would be severely, even fatally weakened by the coup attempt or by the post-coup officer purge either ignored history or purposefully picked up that theme to disparage the Turkish government.

But the intention to negatively affect international perceptions of Turkey and its military capacities was quickly deflated by Euphrates Shield. Subsequently, security pundits lapsed into silence instead of replacing their previous mistaken analysis with more objective evaluations.

There’s no doubt that many if not most of the commentators I’m referring to were motivated as much by their dislike for the Turkish government as any sort of informed knowledge of military matters.

But at least some might have either changed or tempered their claims if they had understood or taken seriously the overriding question regarding Turkish security that had emerged in the previous four years. That issue was the position of Gulen’s adherents in all aspects of Turkey’s security apparatus.

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Gulen and Turkish security

At the time of the coup attempt, the threat posed to Turkish security by Gulen’s cult was not a new problem. Since the attempted arrest of Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT) head Hakan Fidan in February 2012, questions had been mounting about exactly what was occurring in Turkey’s security agencies.

After December 2013, that Gulen’s followers were a security threat was obvious to all who cared to approach Turkish political events in an informed and objective manner. In Turkey almost everyone understood that Fetullah Gulen’s cult had declared its intention to subvert Turkey’s democratically-elected government, and the effort to remove Gulenists from positions of influence was initiated.

So after December 2013, the only question about Gulen’s infiltration of the security services was the extent to which that infiltration existed, especially in the military. But only in the wake of the coup attempt would we see clearly how broadly his reach extended. Gulen’s cult had essentially taken control of some military institutions, for example, the Turkish Air Force.

Any foreign observers objectively trying to understand Turkey’s socio-political situation over the past five years should have perceived the dangerous Gulenist reality.

Such observers then would have found the Turkish military’s performance in Euphrates Shield much easier to comprehend. Simply, the coup attempt and its aftermath made it obvious that Gulenist elements in the Turkish security forces were most likely responsible, directly or indirectly, for a number of recurring security problems over the past five years at the very least, and possibly longer. Some of those issues include:

1) The ease with which the PKK, DHKP-C, and Daesh carried out attacks in major Turkish cities in 2015-2016.

2) The porousness of Turkey’s border with Syria from 2011 until 2016.

3) The unwillingness or inability of the Turkish military to carry out operations in northern Syria in 2014-2016 (at least, possibly even earlier).

4) The ease with which the PKK carried out not only its military operations but also its smuggling and narcotic production activities across and near the Syrian and Iraqi borders, most certainly in recent years but probably further into the past.

In the past year since the foiled coup, all of those problems have been dramatically curtailed by the increased effectiveness and energy of the Turkish security forces, which now operate as if they’ve been relieved of a massive burden that was stifling their performance.

And northern Syria?

Euphrates Shield’s efficient campaign against Al-Bab also destroyed the argument that Turkey did not have the military capacity to aid the push against Raqqah.

That reality, however, was quietly ignored by the international security analysts mentioned above, as well as by the Pentagon. It was an inconvenient fact that did not help their narrative.

So the thrust of their argument turned to numbers and the supposed lack of militants that Turkey had at its disposal to aid the Raqqah campaign.

These excuses were all smokescreens, of course. The anti-Turkish arguments mentioned above were devised and propagated by various figures — academics, think-tankers, security analysts, politicians, military officers — who shared some common objectives.

One of those objectives was to prevent further Turkish involvement in Syria. The effectiveness of Turkey’s Euphrates Shield Operation is clear to all those who care to look objectively, yet great pains and rhetorical barrages have been devoted to ensuring that Turkey had no role in the Raqqah campaign.

Another aim was to continue building up the PYD/YPG as a military force that would partner with the U.S. in the campaign against Raqqah. This is despite the fact that the PYD is the Syrian branch of the PKK, an organization designated “terrorist” by the U.S. and the EU alike. If Turkey were to join the Raqqah offensive, then the PYD would cease to be a viable option.

Finally, if Turkey were to join the Raqqah operation, then Turkey would have additional forces in that region, which would undermine the PKK’s long-term intention to establish a state in northern Syria.

Beyond the fact that PYD/PKK ideology is Marxist-Leninist, which should greatly disturb any American or European decision-maker, Turkey has long declared its opposition to any state-building project carried out by the PKK or its various incarnations.

Instead, Turkey now is negotiating with Russia and Iran to carry out the removal of the PYD from the region around Afrin, in northwest Syria on the Turkish border. In fact, we have been expecting such a campaign for several months while Turkish authorities have been discussing the situation around Aleppo and Idlib with both governments. Expectations are of another efficient, effective campaign.

And Raqqah? Last we heard from U.S. authorities, 50 percent of the town had been reclaimed from Daesh, and fighting was ongoing. Reports of dozens of civilian casualties regularly emerge. The same was true during the bloody and drawn-out effort to reclaim Mosul.

So one cannot help but wonder how much more efficiently, carefully, and with more respect for human life and local culture Turkey might have been able to realize Daesh’s removal from both Mosul and Raqqah. We will never know, but responsible U.S. military and political figures should be asking themselves that question.

Despite the gloomy subject, I want to end this comment on a positive note and focus on the important aspect of Euphrates Shield: lives.

As soon as Jarabulus, Dabiq, and Al-Bab were cleared of Daesh, their residents were able to return and begin the difficult process of rebuilding their lives.

Tens of thousands of refugees have returned to the areas freed by the Turkish military and its Syrian allies. Now those residents are safe not only from Daesh’s suicide bombers and the PYD/PKK’s mortars, but also from Russian missiles, American drones, and the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons.

Security is maintained, infrastructure repaired, and schools rebuilt largely through Turkish aid. In the coming years, we will be able to contrast rebuilding processes in different areas of Syria and Iraq, and identify which efforts created more positive results. Already, the Turkish effort behind Euphrates Shield has set a high bar for the other actors.

Source: Anadolu Agency

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Adam McConnel hold an MA and PhD in History. His interests focus on 20th century Turkish history, Turkish-American relations and 19th-20th century world history. McConnel currently teaches History at Sabanci University in Istanbul.