Turkish News Weekly Briefing 23rd – 31st August 2016

By Andrew Leech

The Turkish military began shelling ISIS and Kurdish militia positions early last Tuesday morning. The following day Operation Euphrates Shield was launched. This was a major military intervention involving tanks and warplanes led by Turkish forces and co-ordinated with the Free Syria Army (FSA) and allied rebel groups. It marked the first time Turkish forces have entered Syria on the ground, besides the far more limited operation to relocate the tomb of Suleyman Shah last year. The Turkish and rebel forces were met with little resistance from ISIS, who had apparently fled the city and surrounding area before the offensive had even been fully launched, and Jarabulus was taken that afternoon.

The operation came after ISIS struck a Kurdish wedding party in Gaziantep the previous weekend and Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu vowed to “completely cleanse” ISIS from Turkey’s borders. Indeed, the loss of Jarabulus, a border town where jihadis and supplies have previously flown freely between Turkey and Syria, will be a major blow to ISIS. However, Turkish officials have made no secret of the fact that they are also targeting Syria’s Kurdish militia with President Erdogan describing the targets of the operation as “Deash [ISIS] and PYD (Kurdish Democratic Union Party) groups that threaten our country in northern Syria”.

Turkey has long been opposed to the expansion of Rojava which threatens to form a contiguous landmass along Turkey’s border and officials have repeatedly warned Kurdish forces not to cross west of the Euphrates. The fear in Ankara is should Syrian Kurds be allowed to establish a state neighbouring Turkey, it would be run by the PYD, which Ankara considers terrorist organisation and an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

In fact the days following the operation saw new violence from the PKK who targeted a police headquarters in the town of Cizre near the Syrian border with a massive truck bomb on Friday. 11 people were killed and over 70 injured in the attack. The day before CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s motorcade came under attack from the PKK in Artvin province resulting in the death of one gendarme tasked with protecting the leader. The PKK later denied that Kilicdaroglu had been targeted.

Nevertheless, Turkey’s main opposition party was largely supportive of the operation though the party spokesman, Selin Sayek Boke, described it as “belated” and called on the government to engage in a sincere fight against ISIS not only in Syria but also within Turkey’s borders. The right-wing, nationalist MHP also lent its support to the operation with its leader Devlet Bahceli describing the military action as a “very positive development”. However, the pro-Kurdish HDP was critical that action had been taken without consulting parliament.

Support for the operation also came from US Vice President Joe Biden whose visit to Turkey coincided with Wednesday’s operation. Biden echoed Turkish officials’ calls for Kurdish forces to retreat across the Euphrates from Manbij, which they had captured the week before. The US, which has long pushed for greater involvement by Turkey in Syria, backed the invasion with eight airstrikes.

Joe Biden was not the only foreign official to visit Turkey last week. On Tuesday Masoud Barzani, President of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Region arrived in Ankara to discuss co-operating with Turkey against ISIS and the PYD. This was the second time Barzani has visited Turkey within a year having previously travelled to Ankara in December 2015 to sanction Turkish bombing of PKK targets in Iraqi Kurdistan. This visit was about strengthening existing political, economic and security ties between Ankara and Erbil.

In business, in the immediacy of Turkey’s invasion of Syria, it appeared as though the operation had impacted the Turkish market. Turkish stocks took a hit Wednesday morning with the Borsa Istanbul 100 Index dropping 1.6%. Turkish markets had been recovering slowly after last month’s failed coup attempt but investors now seem concerned that Turkish action in Syria could escalate risk in the region. However, the drop could also reflect concern over Turkey’s seizure of hundreds of companies alleged to have links to Fethullah Gulen who stands accused of having masterminded last month’s coup attempt.

Turkish officials hope that economic recovery will be aided by the opening of the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, Turkey’s third bridge across the Bosphorus in Istanbul. It is hoped that the bridge will ease traffic congestion in Istanbul and thereby speed the transport of goods across Turkey. The bridge has faced criticism however as its construction necessitated the destruction of last remaining forestland and the decision to name the bridge after Sultan Selim I has also been resisted by Turkey’s Alevi minority who they say murdered tens of thousands of their population.

Elsewhere this week, Turkey has lifted a ban on policewomen wearing head coverings. Turkish secularists have traditionally viewed the hijab as a sign of religious conservatism and sought to restrict it from the public sphere. However opinion has shifted in recent years such that many on the left now view the head covering as an expression of individual liberties. Thus in 2010 a law prohibiting the hijab on university campuses was overturned and in 2013 women were permitted to wear the garment in state institutions – though not the judiciary or military.

Photo credit: www.yenisafak.com