Europe must stand up to Turkey’s Invasion of Northeastern Syria and campaign against the Kurds or risk losing its credibility as a guardian of human rights and international law.

Copenhagen — Following Trump’s announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from parts of Syria, Turkey launched a military operation on Kurdish forces in Northeastern Syria. The area is controlled by the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG), a major defense force allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS and the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Pyd party. Turkey’s declared goal is the removal of all Kurdish forces from its border to quash any organized plans to create an independent Kurdish state. 

After just a few days of what is essentially a military invasion, and thus a violation of international law, the Turkish army has established a fortified position in the Syrian territory between the border towns of Tell Abyad and Suluk in the Northern Syrian province of Raqqa and controls several villages and locations in the Western part of Tal Abyad. The Turkish Defense Ministry has announced that Turkey’s military operation against Kurdish militias in the north-east of Syria “successfully continues according to plan”, and published a video in which it claims that Turkey has hit 181 targets since the start of the operation. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Turkish army has also extrajudicially executed nine civilians — a violation of  international humanitarian law.  

The Turkish intervention will have incredibly destabilizing effects in a volatile area of the Middle East, where – thanks in part to the key role the Kurds played in the combatting ISIS – a fragile partial stability had only recently been achieved. From a geopolitical standpoint, Turkey’s behaviour will likely bring about the further escalation of hostilities in the Middle East and enable the resurgence of ISIS.

Uneasy Allies
In order to understand the ongoing Turkish assault on the Kurds in Northern Syria and its underlying motives, it is critical to understand the regional context. Kurdistan is one of the most volatile regions in the world. Without a state of its own, the Kurdish people have suffered decades of sectarian persecution and violence. Spread out over a vast territory across principally five nations — Syria, Iran, Iraq, Armenia, and Turkey, which has the highest Kurdish population — Kurds have long aspired to the creation of an independent Kurdistan. As Ankara is one of the biggest opponents to the creation of an independent Kurdish state and sees its Kurdish minority population as a threat to its territorial integrity, the Kurdish population in Eastern Turkey has continuously suffered from ethnic and cultural repression and political and societal exclusion. 

Following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, as government forces withdrew from the North to focus on fighting rebel groups elsewhere, Kurdish groups took control of the territory. In January 2014, Kurdish parties — including the confederalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) — declared the creation of “autonomous administrations” in the three “cantons” of Afrin, Kobane and Jazira. In March 2016, Kurdish authorities announced the establishment of a “federal system”, known as Rojava, which mainly included Arab and Turkmen areas captured from ISIS. The declaration was rejected by the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition, Turkey and the United States.

In the same year, the United States began its campaign against ISIS, which at that time controlled a large part of Syria. The Obama administration, reluctant to put boots on the ground, allied with the Syrian Kurds, which were not only highly skilled, but more familiar with the terrain and culture. The Kurds, interested in recovering the territories of northern Syria inhabited mainly by Syrian Kurdish minorities, decided to work with the United States to drive ISIS out of Northern Syria. They also hoped that supporting the U.S. — a Turkish ally — might help them in their cause for the creation of a Kurdish state, or at least help them win greater autonomy from the Syrian government. 

The Kurdish-American alliance immediately caused a split in relations between Turkey and the United States — both allied members of NATO. Turkey was in fact fighting the group that had become indispensable in the U.S. war against ISIS. Consequently, though seemingly at odds with its own national interests, Turkey slowly began to pivot to Russia, which in turn is invested in supporting the Assad regime in Syria, with whom Turkey had previously vied with in pursuit of new Sunni regional leadership. 

Despite strong conflicting interests, in August 2019 the United States and Turkey signed an agreement to stabilize the Southern Turkish border, which involved the creation of a buffer zone to separate the Turkish and Kurdish forces, presumably to prevent conflict between U.S. allies. Among other things, the agreement provided for the withdrawal of Syrian Kurdish forces from outposts along Turkey’s border, effectively surrendering an important line of defense in the event of a Turkish attack. In return, the U.S. government would guarantee the Kurds protection and security by stationing interposition forces to deter a Turkish assault. 

By the end of August, the Kurds had begun to withdraw. However, on the 6th of October, Trump announced the withdrawal of their interposition troops from border region in Northern Syria, removing the deterrent to a possible Turkish invasion and leaving Kurdish forces undefended. Turkey announced and launched an invasion less than 48 hours after the American withdrawal.  Unsurprisingly, the word most frequently chosen to describe America’s actions is “betrayal”.  

From the Turkish standpoint, the operation is nothing more than the rational pursuit of its strategic interests. In particular, as security and strategy expert Paolo Quercia argues, Turkey is pursuing four  main strategic objectives through its military offensive in Syria: the protection of its border by creating its own buffer zone against the Kurds; the dispersal of Kurdish forces to prevent the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria; the strengthening of its negotiating power in Syria vis-à-vis Iran and Russia; and the disposal of millions of Arab-Syrian refugees by resettling them in Northern Syria to displace Kurds as the regional ethnic majority and upset Kurdish political structures. 

However, perhaps the gravest consequence of the Turkish invasion of Northeastern Syria may be the potential rebirth of ISIS, which has not yet been completely defeated, either in Iraq or in Syria. Around 12,000 ISIS fighters — a third of them foreign nationals — were detained by the Kurdish PYG in seven prisons South of the city of Raqqa, where reports of a series of attacks emerged shortly after Turkey invaded. Predictably, Kurdish forces announced that they could no longer prioritize guarding the prisons, and moved their troops to meet the Turkish forces at the border. The world in general — and in particular, Europe — cannot afford a revival of ISIS.

As these developments and the deteriorating stability of the region is of critical importance to Europe, one would have expected a strong, immediate, and proactive response to Turkey from the European Union and its member states — many of whom are NATO allies of Turkey. Yet Brussels’ coordinated response has been weak and underplayed. This is a non sequitur as the assault on one of the few pockets in the region which has managed to establish some semblance of functioning local communities — which operate on democratic and egalitarian principles — is both a serious threat and an affront to Europe. By violating international law, assaulting civilians, and extrajudicially executing Kurds in Northeast Syria, Erdoğan is not “simply” carrying out an invasion of the Northern reaches of Syria, he is also bombarding the values on which the European Union is founded.

Despite the tepid nature of European leaders’ criticism of Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring”, Erdoğan issued Europe a harsh warning, threatening to allow millions of migrants across Turkey’s border with Europe if they continue to criticize or take action against Turkey over its operation in Syria.  Speaking directly to the EU during a speech at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara, the Turkish President warned,

“Hey EU, wake up. I’ll tell you again: if you try to present our operation there as an invasion, we will open the doors and send you 3.6 million migrants.”

It is not the first time that Ankara has threatened to break its 2016 agreement with Brussels to halt the flow of refugees — in exchange for much-needed economic aid to support the increasingly fragile Turkish economy — and allow millions of Syrian refugees pass into Europe. The last episode occurred just a two months ago, when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu issued Europe the same threat – in retaliation for EU sanctions imposed after Turkey dispatched ships to marine oil and gas fields off the coast of Cyprus.  

Despite its status as an economic giant and Turkey’s largest trade partner — and therefore disposed of an array of economic and diplomatic tools with which to influence Turkish foreign policy — the EU is behaving as if it were at Turkey’s mercy.Erdoğan knows that reigniting the “refugee crisis” in Europe is tantamount to political armageddon in many EU member states — some of which have seen a determined rise of anti-immigration populism even as the issue has waned in the wake of the 2016 agreement. At a time when Europe appears to be finally returning to more substantial domestic policy issues and confirms a new Commission following the 2019 European Elections in May, few European leaders would welcome a return to an agenda dominated by a renewed migration crisis. But how did Erdoğan come to have such a negotiating power? 

A Foreign Policy at Ransom
Following a sharp increase in migratory pressure on the EU’s Southern borders — which reached its peak in 2014 — the EU Commission launched an unsuccessful campaign to convince member states to implement a “burden-sharing” system in order to lighten the pressure on individual countries. The Commission’s inability to build a consensus and the subsequent increase in tensions between member states and the urgent need to find a functional solution led EU Heads of State to sign a controversial agreement with Turkey in March of 2016 concerning the redistribution of “irregular migrants” arriving to Europe via Turkey. 

Ankara agreed to receive any and all migrants who had previously entered the EU via Turkey provided that they had not already qualified for asylum or refugee status in an EU member state. In exchange, the EU granted visa-free travel to Turkish citizens and, on a political and informal level, the two parties also pledged to reopen negotiations on the accession of Turkey to the EU. As the  specific implementation of the agreement required Turkey to assume significant financial burdens, the EU agreed to mobilise €3 billion in aid to Turkey, focused on 72 specific projects. According to the agreement, once these resources had been used in full, the EU would mobilise additional funding up to €3 billion before the end of 2018. 

The decision to close its door to millions of people fleeing war and persecution for purely domestic political gain jeopardizes the EU’s credibility as a guardian of human rights in the world.

Insofar as the agreement has stemmed the flow of Syrian migrants to Europe, it has been largely successful; since the agreement, the number of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea into Greece has remained 97% lower than pre-agreement levels. However, the implications of the agreement that the EU either ignored, or simply failed to consider, was that it gave unprecedented negotiating power to Turkey in bilateral relations. Prior to the agreement, the EU had always been able to dictate the terms around Turkey’s accession negotiations while Turkey worked diligently to demonstrate progress and good faith in order to join the Union. Now the tables have turned, and Turkey is able to hold the EU at ransom over the issue of migration in order to force concessions.

Yet there is more at stake than the balance of power in the EU’s relationship with Turkey. The decision to close its door to millions of people fleeing war and persecution for purely domestic political gain jeopardizes the EU’s credibility as a guardian of human rights in the world. With its reputation scarred, the EU will most likely experience a long-lasting erosion of what has always been the EU’s most powerful foreign policy instrument: its soft power. 

In Brief: The Souring of Turkish-European Relations

Several factors have contributed to the souring of relations. The United States’ increasingly adversarial stance towards Turkey over the last decade has slowly pushed Ankara away from treating Russia as an adversary in the conflict in Syria and instead treating it as a partner with shared interests. 

Meanwhile, Europe continues to see Russia as the primary threat to Europe’s Eastern neighbourhood — especially following Russia’s the annexation of Crimea. However, while Turkish-EU relations have always been testy over disputed territory in Cyprus, these differences alone were insufficient to cause a complete breakdown in relations.

The real breaking point between Brussels and Ankara came in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Turkish military coup which aimed to “restore Turkish democracy” on the 16th of July, 2016. Although the EU formally condemned the coup, it became apparent by their lack of action and delayed response that few European leaders would have been sorry to see Erdoğan dismissed. 

Ankara expressed great disappointment over the perceived lack of support from its EU and NATO allies during the coup attempt. Erdoğan’s ensuing purge of dissenters from military posts and governmental offices and incarceration of journalists and suspected coup sympathizers were also strongly condemned by EU leaders, and was widely seen as an authoritarian gesture to seize power. 

Europe was further dismayed when Erdoğan held and won a constitutional referendum to eliminate the post of Prime Minister and grant the President expanded powers. After the European Parliament’s recent vote in favour of suspending Turkey’s accession negotiations, Turkey’s aspirations of EU membership appear even further away, and bilateral relations even colder.

Restoring Balance
If the EU remains committed to upholding democratic principles, international law, and human rights abroad, then it is high time to take a tack in its relations with Turkey and its foreign policy in the Middle East in general. The atrocities committed by Turkish forces on Kurdish civilians are unacceptable and —– unless Europe wants to leave another sad stain in its history – it must raise its voice and take action.

Although the migration agreement between Brussels and Ankara was signed just three years ago, the state of Turkish-EU relations and the regional dynamic have fundamentally changed since then. Simply put: the EU and Turkey no longer trust one another and are partners on paper only.  

If the events that followed the failed Turkish coup in July of 2016 put Turkish-EU relations on ice, Turkey’s invasion of Syria has frozen them solid. The question is no longer if Turkey is a de facto adversary, but how to deal with it. Erdoğan is perfectly aware that the one of migration is currently the most sensitive issue among the EU populace. In fact, according to Dr. Can Baydarol — an expert on Turkey-EU relations at Kütür University — the issue of migration is the only object over which Brussels will avoid taking risks at any cost. “In that sense, Turkey has important leverage in its hand”. What the EU must now decide is whether, despite its undeniable success at preventing greater migration from Syria, the maintenance of the migrant agreement with Ankara is of greater concern to EU interests than supporting its values and long-term foreign policy goals vis-à-vis Turkey.

In doing so, the EU must also bear in mind the risks to its long-lasting reputation as a guardian of human rights. Given the fact that Erdoğan has not only violated international law by invading Northern Syria and executing the Kurds, but is planning the illegal resettlement of Syrian refugees in a new “safe zone” within the newly occupied territories — essentially using the civilians as a shield to deter counter-strikes on Turkish forces — Europe’s lackluster response to the crisis is all the worse. Maintaining a migration policy with Turkey to keep Syrians out of Europe in exchange for economic and diplomatic incentives on one hand while looking the other way when Kurds massacred at the hands of Turkish forces on the other is, to put it mildly, a bad look for Brussels. If the EU fails to act swiftly and decisively in the face of Turkey’s invasion of Northern Syria, it could irredeemably undermine Europe’s credibility as a champion of human rights for the next decade.

The question is no longer if Turkey is a de facto adversary, but how to deal with it.

In Brief: The Securitization of European Migration

In recent years, a successful process of securitization of the issue of migration to Europe has taken place. 

The notion of securitization represents one of the most significant innovations in the field of security studies in recent decades and is primarily accredited to a group of scholars at Copenhagen School, the most prominent exponents of which are Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver. The two authors define securitization as the process through which political rhetoric generates a societal shift in thinking about issues to a special category of “emergency politics,” changing the nature of the debate from the issue to one of security (Buzan et al, 1998). 

In securitizing an issue, a speaker presents the issue as an existential threat to the audience. If successful in convincing the audience, the implementation of exceptional political measures is given legitimacy, presenting decisionmakers with a virtual carte blanche to address the threat (Zedner, 2009). 

The last step of this process requires the audience to be convinced of the necessity of those measures. Buzan et al. argue that this transition can be seen also as a spectrum of shifts that runs from non-politicised, to politicised, and finally to securitised. 

In the context of the European migration “crisis”, the referent object is represented by the cultural integrity of member states which, in turn, affects the EU in its entirety; the external threat derives from the migratory flows to Europe; finally, the extraordinary measure is constituted by the perceived necessity of the adoption of the agreement with Turkey as previously illustrated, despite the pursuit of autonomous solutions.

For starters, it is high time the EU publicly recognize that – for a continent of around 500 million people – the real threat of opening the doors to 3 million desperate asylum-seekers is minimal and that sitting on its hands in the face of that threat is unacceptable.  While it is difficult to ascertain whether or not Erdoğan is bluffing, the EU must nonetheless convey that it is not afraid of Turkish reprisals. To accomplish that, the EU leadership must acknowledge that the issue of accepting the Syrian refugees in question is not an actual threat to the security of the EU, but rather one constructed through the securitization of the issue of immigration.

Therefore, starting from the assumption that the migration threat is much more constructed than real, the EU should undertake a public information campaign designed to “desecuritize” the issue of Migration by first emphasizing the facts around migration, in particular by highlighting that when granted the opportunity to work migrants contribute greatly to European economies. Following that argument, the EU should focus on more substantive issues to return the debate to the realm of normal political and technical discussion.  

The desecuritization of the European migration debate is an undoubtedly more arduous challenge for the EU to undertake now than just five years prior — a fortiori given the recent spread of anti-immigrant populism across the continent in that time. Nevertheless, it is a de facto precondition to allowing the EU to amend the Dublin regulation to create a more comprehensive and functional responsibility-sharing migration policy without relying on third parties like Turkey. This would also nullify Turkey’s leverage over Europe, and restore the EU’s economic and diplomatic leverage in bilateral relations. 

Nevertheless, while restoring the migration debate to the subject of migration is an important and necessary long-term goal, the European Union must also take concrete action in the short-term in defense of the Kurdish people. In this regard, recent condemnation by the EU of over Turkey’s invasion are important signals, but insufficient to alter Turkish behavior.

If the EU fails to act swiftly and decisively in the face of Turkey’s invasion of Northern Syria, it could irredeemably undermine Europe’s credibility as a champion of human rights for the next decade.

In order to halt the invasion and effect a Turkish withdrawal from Syria, Europe’s words must be followed by action. After all, simply issuing public statements will not change the facts on the ground nor alter Turkey’s plans — something Ankara has made abundantly clear. To start, the EU should quickly enact new economic sanctions against Turkey which are at least as firm as those imposed on Russia following the annexation of Crimea.

Second, a new European law should prohibit each member state from selling weapons of any kind to Ankara until it withdraws its troops from Syria and allows its Syrian refugees to remain in Turkey. Although the EU does not have exclusive competence in the field of security and defense, an agreement of this sort is possible with unanimous consent — as provided for in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). At the same time, the EU should offer defensive weapons and logistical assistance to YPG. The EU should also consider the deployment of small and symbolic contingents to the region, which would immediately function as interposition forces to replace those withdrawn by the Trump administration. Although it would send a powerful message to Turkey and to the world, the decision to send European armed forces to the region should be carefully considered and implemented only if tensions with Turkey do not escalate to a level that would make retaliation against European soldiers a likely outcome. 

Simply issuing public statements will not change the facts on the ground nor alter Turkey’s plans — something Ankara has made abundantly clear.

Finally, EU members of NATO should, at a minimum, motion to suspend Turkey as a member of NATO if Turkey does not immediately cease hostilities against the Kurds. If these steps are taken and effect a cessation of hostilities, the EU should use soft power instruments, including diplomatic and humanitarian outreach, to encourage the stabilization and development of a peace process in the region. In particular, the EU should undertake a mediating role towards a long-term peace agreement between Turkish government and Rojava.

More broadly it is high time for Europe to acknowledge that it is not only faced with a great moral responsibility, but also with a great opportunity. As the United States continues to isolate itself and accelerate the creation of a new multipolar world order, Europe can no longer afford to remain a bystander. It is incumbent upon Europe to assume the global role afforded to it and, through adherence to its values and principles, become a leading player in the promotion of peace, democracy, and human rights throughout the world. The United States is slowly relinquishing its influence in the Middle East and the wider world. If Europe does immediately take its place, others will, and the consequences could be devastating. 

This course of action would no doubt require a great deal of leadership and determination, a strong sense of unity and common cause, and a great deal of courage from all EU members — none of which is at present guaranteed. Yet the fact remains, if the EU fails to act in support of the Kurds, they will seek allies elsewhere. Having agreed to cooperate with the Assad regime against ISIS and in defense of Syria’s borders — and therefore almost by default, with Russia and Iran — the Kurds are already turning from the West in pursuit of security elsewhere. 

Not only is Europe’s future relationship with Turkey at risk, but its relations with the wider Middle East, its reputation and credibility as a defender of human rights and democracy, and its geopolitical interests are all at stake. If the EU does not intervene, the final outcome of the current Turkish offensive may be to permanently drive the Kurds into the hands of Assad and Putin, and worsen the migration crisis even further by stirring up a conflict between Turkey and Syria, and perhaps other regional actors, causing more refugees to flee to Europe. It is for these reasons that it is imperative that Europe demonstrate that at least one side of the Atlantic have in mind and keep in heart the fate of the Kurdish people. In the long run, if Europe fails to stand up for its values, it will most certainly fall.


Principal Author

Davide Broll.jpeg

Davide Broll

– International Scholar
– LinkedIn: Davide Broll