On December 3, 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Turkey will definitely build a “safe zone” 30 kilometers deep along its southern border, and that terrorist organizations’ attacks on Turkish civilians and armed forces will not shake its determination. Previously, on November 20, 2022, Turkey launched an air military operation code-named “Claw Sword” to attack Kurdish armed forces in Iraq and northern Syria. The Syrian Kurdish “People’s Protection Forces”, which Turkey has designated as a “branch” of the PKK. The operation was a response to the November 13 bomb attack on Istiklal Street in the center of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. The Turkish government claimed that “Kurdish terrorists” were responsible for the explosion and would not let “the blood of the victims be left to dry on the ground.” “.
Erdogan also said the airstrikes were just “the beginning of a larger military operation”. Considering that Turkey has launched three military operations in northern Syria since 2016, “Euphrates Shield”, “Olive Branch” and “Fountain of Peace”, this threat is by no means a bluff. The Syrian Kurdish armed forces vowed to fight back if they were attacked, and would not hesitate to carry out a “long-term war.” The situation in northern Syria is once again tense.
“Anti-terrorism” means “Anne”
However, for Erdogan, as the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections are approaching, the purpose of combating Kurdish armed forces is no longer limited to “counter-terrorism”. The Electoral Prospects and Political Life of the Development Party (AKP).
Since the AKP came to power in 2002, it has been in power for 20 consecutive years, creating the myth of “consecutive election wins”. However, in recent years, the Turkish economy has fallen into a chronic crisis. The currency has continued to depreciate, and the inflation and unemployment rates have repeatedly hit new highs. Coupled with the repeated outbreaks of the new crown epidemic and the deterioration of the global economic environment, the crisis facing Turkey is not only difficult to see signs of easing, but it is getting worse. The dissatisfaction among the Turkish people has been accumulating, and the opposition party took the opportunity to attack. Erdogan and the AK Party’s approval ratings have fallen to historical lows, and measures must be taken to restore the decline before the general election.
Hyping up the security issue of “anti-terrorism” is its primary choice. Erdoğan usually uses strong anti-terrorism to portray himself as a “guardian of the country” in order to demonstrate his sense of responsibility and unite public opinion. Targeting Kurdish extremist organizations and overseas Kurdish armed forces in anti-terrorism can also greatly mobilize the emotions of domestic nationalists and thus gain their votes. This is not the first time he has done this. In June 2015, the AKP suffered setbacks in the parliamentary elections, and the independent ruling status of the “one-party government” was in danger. Erdoğan delayed the process of forming a coalition government while focusing on anti-terrorism and security issues. On the one hand, he attacked the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, and on the other hand, he wooed the National Action Party, which pursues extreme Turkish nationalism, to divert its voters. Successful comeback in the “early election” in July.
Erdogan’s attack on Kurdish armed forces under the banner of anti-terrorism can also hinder the further growth of the opposition alliance. Since the 2018 general election, the Turkish opposition party has adopted an alliance to compete with the AKP. At present, the two major political party alliances in Turkey are the “People’s Union” led by the AKP, and the Turkish Republican People’s Party, Good Party, and Happiness Party. and other joint formation of the “National Union”. According to data from the Turkish polling agency in September 2022, the support rate of the “People’s League” is 30.8%, and that of the “National League” is 30%. The two sides are evenly matched. Considering that the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party enjoys a support rate of about 9.1%, and has always been opposed to the AK Party, if it chooses to support the opposition alliance at the last minute, it will change the tilt of the election balance in one fell swoop. Therefore, the Turkish government took advantage of the opportunity to combat Kurdish terrorism. On the one hand, it identified the People’s Democratic Party as the “interest representative” of the PKK in the political field, tied it with terrorism, and weakened its voter base; And sued hundreds of politicians of the People’s Democratic Party to suppress their ability to stand for election. Under such circumstances, if the opposition party seeks to win over the People’s Democratic Party, it will not only anger the huge nationalist groups in the country, but will also be labeled as “supporting terrorism”.
The urgency of establishing a “safe zone”
The Turkish government’s attack on the Kurdish armed forces in northern Syria will also help to speed up the construction of a “safe zone” on the Turkish-Syrian border and realize Erdogan’s plan to repatriate and resettle Syrian refugees as soon as possible. The refugee issue is one of the focal issues next to economic issues in Turkey’s 2023 general election. At present, Turkey is the largest refugee-hosting country in the world, having accommodated more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees. The huge refugee group has brought heavy economic and social burdens to the soil, which not only affects the local population structure, but also gradually evolves into a serious political problem. Especially after the Turkish economy fell into recession, people’s sense of rejection of refugees has been rising, and criticism of the government has been heard endlessly. In March 2022, a survey by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that about 48% of Turkish people hope that the government can repatriate Syrian refugees as soon as possible. The opposition party also took advantage of the issue. On the one hand, it accused the government of its refugee policy and asked Erdogan to be responsible for the current “chaotic situation”; on the other hand, it promised voters to solve the refugee problem in order to win more votes. Erdogan and the AK Party must prove to their supporters that they are able and willing to repatriate Syrian refugees. The establishment of a “safe zone” is Erdogan’s roadmap for action.
Since 2016, Erdogan has been committed to opening a 30-kilometer-deep “safe zone” in Syria and along the Turkish-Syrian border through military operations, eliminating all the Kurdish forces that originally controlled this area, so as to resettle Syria. Arab refugees. The project is currently underway, but it is widely believed that Erdogan may try to launch a new military operation to speed up the process. As the Turkish general election approaches, the competition between the ruling party and the opposition will become increasingly fierce, and the refugee issue will become more prominent. Erdogan’s need for the establishment of a “safe zone” may become more urgent.
Relatively comfortable “window period”
While attacking the Kurdish armed forces in northern Syria, Erdogan is not without scruples in diplomacy. The Syrian Kurdish armed forces are still allies of the United States in fighting the extremist organization “Islamic State” in the Middle East. The United States still has about 900 armed personnel participating in joint patrols in Syria and sharing military bases with the Kurdish armed forces. If Turkey launches an offensive, it will inevitably endanger the periphery of the US military and bring new problems to the already tense Turkey-US relations. In addition, Erdogan claimed to completely eliminate Kurdish armed forces west of the Euphrates River, which means that the targets of his military operations will include places such as Tal Rifat and Manbij, where not only Kurdish armed forces are stationed, but also some The presence of Syrian government forces may cause a head-on collision between Turkey and Syria if there is a conflict. Given that Russia is generally believed to be the “backer” behind the Syrian government, Turkey may also need to be prepared to face fluctuations in Turkey-Russia relations.
But Erdogan doesn’t seem overly concerned. In the context of the escalating crisis in Ukraine, Turkey’s strategic value to the United States and Russia has increased. Although the United States did not personally end in Ukraine, it needs to unite the unity of the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to maintain strategic balance, and intends to take this opportunity to promote the expansion of NATO, and these are inseparable from the cooperation of Turkey, a member of NATO At the same time, Russia is under comprehensive sanctions from Western countries and relies on Turkey as its “external channel” on issues such as food transportation and energy exports. Therefore, under the current situation, it is difficult for the United States and Russia to conflict with Turkey for the Kurds or Syrians. Erdogan has found a relatively comfortable window period for his “Kurdish War”. In the future, even if the United States and Russia ask Turkey to sit down for negotiations on the North Syrian issue, that would be a good thing for Erdogan. He will have a greater chance to strive for more interests at the negotiating table.