Turkish Public Diplomacy and Operation Peace Spring
Turkey’s ability to explain itself to the world has rarely been more difficult — and it’s never been more important. Since 2015, when Turkey’s peace process with Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê — PKK) collapsed, the country has felt increasingly under threat. From the perspective of Ankara, the groups that pose the greatest danger to Turkish security are the PKK, its Syrian affiliate the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat — PYD), and the PYD’s armed wing People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel — YPG). This time period also coincided with the rise of the PYD/YPG as a key local actor in Syria in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Turkey has carried out three major military operations in Syria since 2016. In support of these cross-border campaigns, Turkish diplomacy has tried to balance the country’s ties with the United States, Russia, and the Syrian regime. This has involved managing bilateral crises with each one of these actors. Turkey’s balancing diplomacy has worked so far. However, the level and scope of international disapproval about Turkey’s most recent intervention in Syria — Operation Peace Spring — surprised Turkish policymakers and the public.
What does Turkey’s recent experience mean from a public diplomacy perspective? What can it do to avoid these kinds of problems in the future?
Although Turkey has legitimate and serious security concerns emanating from Syria, it has not been able to effectively make its case to the international community. Thus, Operation Peace Spring represented a setback for its international reputation. Going forward, Turkey needs to rethink its approach to diplomacy by being more transparent, focusing more on reaching out to civil society and not just governments, and developing relationships with national parliaments and legislatures.
Operation Euphrates Shield: Turkey’s First Military Operation into Syria
Euphrates Shield, which lasted from August 2016 to March 2017, was Turkey’s first major military operation into Syria. The objective was to eliminate the threat from ISIL to ensure Turkey’s border security. But it also aimed at preventing the Syrian Kurdish PYD and YPG from merging their three separate cantons — namely Kobane, Jazira, and Afrin — along the Syrian-Turkish border. Ankara was concerned about this possibility because of the organic links between PYD/YPG and the PKK, which is identified as a terrorist organization by Turkey as well as by the United States and the European Union.
In order to carry out Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey had to overcome a number of internal and external hurdles. First, it initiated the cross-border operation only 40 days after the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Erin Cunningham and Liz Sly made the argument that “the operation was delayed for almost one year by officers who eventually participated in the coup.” It became much easier to initiate Operation Euphrates Shield after July 15th , because the government received a high level of public support and increased its control over the military in the wake of the failed coup attempt. Second, Turkey had to get a green light from both the United States and Russia before it carried out the operation. In the summer of 2016, the Turkish government began to normalize relations with Russia, which had been disrupted due to the downing of a Russian military jet by the Turkish Air Force on Nov. 24, 2015. As for the United States, Turkey initially received its support, since Euphrates Shield was partly an anti-ISIL military operation. However, Turkish interests began to diverge with the interests of the United States and Russia as Turkey wanted to push further south during the operation. As a result, Turkey ended Operation Euphrates Shield in March 2016 before moving further south, while reserving its right for future military operations in Syria.
Operation Olive Branch: Stopping Purported YPG Plans to Build a Border Protection Unit
Turkey initiated its second major operation into Syria, Operation Olive Branch, on Jan. 20, 2018. This operation was triggered by the news that the United States-led coalition was working with the YPG to build a border protection unit of 30,000 personnel in northern Syria. Although American officials later announced that there were in fact “no plans for a formal border force,” this news caused alarm in Ankara, where there was already unease about the PKK militants’ infiltration into Turkey through the Amanos Mountains. In order to initiate a military operation into Kurdish-controlled Afrin, Turkey had to seek Moscow’s cooperation because Russia had control over western Syria’s air space.
When Turkey initiated Operation Olive Branch, Russia allowed Turkish war planes to use Syrian air space west of the Euphrates River. Furthermore, on the day the operation began, Russia declared that it had withdrawn its troops from Afrin. While the Assad regime declared before the operation that it would target the Turkish military war planes in its air space, it eventually did not take any action against Turkey. In fact, as Turkey initiated its operation in Afrin, the Syrian regime forces seized opposition-controlled Abu al-Duhur air base in Idlib without much resistance. The events surrounding the launching of Operation Olive Branch showed that there was an agreement or at least some type of a careful coordination between Turkey, Russia, and the Syrian regime on who would get what on the Syrian battlefield.
Operation Peace Spring: Turkey’s Latest Intervention
Turkey initiated its latest military operation in Syria on Oct. 9, 2019. Operation Peace Spring constituted another step in Turkey’s long-lasting efforts to militarily counter the regional dimensions of the PKK threat. With this operation, Turkey mainly aimed to establish control over the area between Syria’s Tel Abyad in the west and Ras al-Ayn in the east. From Ankara’s perspective, this was necessary to ensure Turkey’s border security and enable the safe return of Syrian refugees to their own country.
Before Operation Peace Spring, Turkey sought dialogue with the United States, since Washington has control over the Syrian airspace east of the Euphrates river. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received a green light for the military operation from President Donald Trump in a phone conversation on Oct. 6, 2019. A White House statement following this phone conversation said that “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.”
The public diplomacy front of Operation Peace Spring became much more complicated once the operation began. Despite having received support from the White House, Turkey’s operation triggered extensive criticism in Washington. Several actors ranging from Pentagon officials and Republican leaders to representatives of the Syrian Democratic Council in the United States strongly voiced their opposition to Peace Spring. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen initiated a bipartisan effort in the Senate to impose economic sanctions on Turkey. Even President Trump himself talked about destroying Turkey’s economy and imposing sanctions if the Turks “don’t play by the rules.” He then imposed sanctions on Turkey’s ministers of defense, energy, and interior, as well as on the ministries of defense and energy. Second, a number of international organizations brought Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring on to their agendas, including the United Nations, European Union, and the Arab League. The European members of the U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting after Turkey initiated Peace Spring and expressed alarm at Turkey’s move on Oct. 10. Although the European Union was not able to put into effect a joint arms embargo on Turkey, several E.U. members, including the Netherlands, France, and Germany, individually imposed their own embargos as a reaction to Operation Peace Spring. On Oct. 12, 2019, in a meeting of its foreign ministers, the Arab League condemned Operation Peace Spring and identified this operation as an “aggression” and an “invasion” against a member Arab state. In sum, Turkey found itself quite alone diplomatically as it began to carry out its military operation in northeastern Syria.
In a military operation where Turkey considers itself justified in political, legal, and moral terms, the extent of the backlash it has faced raises important questions. Turkey has been uneasy about the PYD/YPG’s control over several provinces in northern Syria and their alliance with the United States in the fight against ISIL for quite some time because of the substantial connections between the PKK and PYD/YPG. Thus, Ankara framed Peace Spring mainly as a step in Turkey’s long-lasting fight against PKK terrorism (Turkish officials argue that the operation also aims to “facilitate the safe and voluntary return of displaced Syrians”). In a letter to the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Turkey’s U.N. Permanent Representative Feridun Sinirlioğlu justified the military operation by citing article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which makes a reference to the member states’ right to individual or collective self-defense. However, Turkish policymakers have been having a difficult time explaining to the rest of the world that they are concerned about the PYD/YPG’s links to the PKK, and that the country’s recent military operation does not target the Syrian Kurds in general, but only the YPG in particular. In this process, incidents such as the “execution of female Kurdish politician Hervin Khalaf and her driver and two guards October 12 on the M4 highway by SNA [Syrian National Army] fighters” is not helping Turkey’s diplomacy and public relations efforts.
There are elements of the current diplomatic crisis that were — and remain — difficult for Turkey to understand. For example, Washington appears to care more about one ally (the YPG) than another ally (Turkey), even though one is an official treaty ally and a NATO member since 1952 while the other is not. At the same time, the past two American administrations have partnered with the YPG, an armed offshoot of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist group against which Turkey has been fighting since the early 1980s. It also strikes Ankara as hypocritical that it has seemed to have been subjected to more criticism than Saudi Arabia, which has led a years-long intervention in Yemen that “has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed the Arab world’s most impoverished country to the brink of famine.” These examples suggest that states can be rather selective about their claims to moral principles and commitments. When it comes to international politics, states behaviors can be explained primarily with near-term national interests.
On Oct. 18, 2019, as a result of negotiations between Vice President Mike Pence and President Erdoğan, Turkey agreed to pause (and later to end) Operation Peace Spring. As part of the understanding, the YPG forces would withdraw from Turkish-Syrian border areas. In the meantime, the YPG forces also reached a deal with the Syrian regime with Russia’s mediation, which allowed the Syrian regime forces to move into several provinces previously controlled by the PYD/YPG along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Why Did “Peace Spring” Get Such Bad Press Internationally?
Turkey seems to have achieved its main goal in Operation Peace Spring — it has cleared the YPG from its border areas and disrupted its partnership with the United States in Syria. But what went wrong in the area of public diplomacy? Turkey’s military operations in Syria since 2016 have always included a sensitive diplomatic dimension. Before Operation Peace Spring, Turkish policymakers were in close contact with both the United States and Russia. However, the level and scope of the negative international reaction to Turkey’s most recent military operation turned out to be much bigger compared to the previous operations. Now that Peace Spring is over, it is necessary to discuss what Ankara could have done better in terms of the public relations in order to avoid similar problems in the future.
Some have sought to pin the blame on Turkish media. One argument is that Turkey is not able to explain itself properly to the world because Turkish news outlets are not considered credible. However, the same outlets were considered sufficiently credible with regard to the disappearance (and murder) of Jamal Khashoggi after he entered the Saudi Consulate General in Istanbul in October 2018. In fact, Turkey’s media outlets played an important role in establishing key facts behind Khashoggi’s death.
In terms of public diplomacy, the key problem is that Turkey and the West prioritize threats differently. For Turkey, the PKK represents an existential threat. For the West, ISIL is undoubtedly the key threat emanating from Syria, while the PKK is only a problem to the extent Turkey cares about it. For the past few years, Western countries have perceived the YPG as the main hero of the fight against ISIL. This is one of the major reasons why Turkey’s arguments about the connections between the PYD/YPG and the PKK are overlooked to a great extent in Europe and the United States. Mazloum Kobane, leader of the Syrian Democratic Forces which is mostly made up of YPG fighters, was a high-ranking PKK member until his return to Syria in 2011. He was in fact responsible for the PKK’s European operations in the 1990s, particularly in the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. However, the West appears unmoved by Turkey’s concerns about Kobane’s role in the YPG.
Despite divergent threat perceptions, there are still a number of steps that Turkey can take in the area of traditional and public diplomacy to advance its interests internationally. First, Turkey should redouble efforts to make its case in Europe. Turkey’s relations with Western European countries have gradually deteriorated since the accession negotiations started between Turkey and the European Union in 2005. Both sides seem to have dropped the issue of Turkey’s possible full membership from their agendas. Regardless of the membership issue, both sides need to create a new working path in their relationship.
In terms of its relations with the United States, Turkey should expand its focus beyond the White House. Instead, it ought to develop closer relations with other major actors in American domestic politics, particularly Congress and think tanks. Focusing its diplomacy entirely on the president and executive branch agencies might work in some capitals, but not in Washington. In fact, in a joint press conference with President Trump after their meeting in the Oval office on November 13, 2019, President Erdoğan also stated that “we as Turkey are ready to continue our engagement with the U.S. Congress through constructive dialogue.” Congress is a key stakeholder in the defense and foreign policy process, and needs to be taken seriously. Cultivating ties with think tanks is a smart investment, given that they are a key source of information and analysis for policymakers in both the executive branch and Congress.
In the 21st century, diplomatic missions need to be more transparent to reach the societies in which they operate. As early as 1997, Sami Kohen, a Turkish journalist, stated in his column in the Milliyet daily newspaper that a new understanding was emerging in the area of diplomacy. Kohen explained that for a long time, diplomats were mainly interested in establishing high-level official contacts in their host countries. Given advances in technology, communications, and transportation, it is no longer sufficient for diplomats to work exclusively within the confines of their diplomatic missions; they need to establish contacts with the business world, become more involved with media organizations, and host events open to the public. Within this framework, Turkey’s diplomats working abroad in general, and Turkey’s press attachés in particular, must diversify their methods in explaining Turkey’s arguments to the rest of the world. Turkey needs a much better strategy in developing more effective ways of communicating with foreign publics, their official institutions, and media organizations.
Pinar Tremblay — a columnist for Al-Monitor— has recently cited a retired diplomat saying that Turkey’s weak public diplomacy record with regard to Operation Peace Spring has also been related to the country’s transition process from a parliamentary to a presidential system. In Turkey’s newly emerging political and bureaucratic structure, it is not yet clear which institution (for example the Foreign Ministry or the Directorate of Communications) is responsible for public diplomacy. An effective mechanism of public diplomacy requires an effective division of responsibilities and a working system of coordination.
The Way Ahead for Turkish Diplomacy
While Turkey has valid security concerns in Syria, the harsh and negative Western response to Operation Peace Spring represents, in part, the shortcomings of Turkish public diplomacy. The government should have been able to make its case to the international community. That it was unable to do so reflects a weakening of Ankara’s diplomatic capabilities at a moment when they are more important than ever.
In order to advance its interests more effectively going forward, Turkey needs to focus on improving relations with Western civil society, not just governments. It should also identify and incorporate more modern and diverse methods in the area of public diplomacy with an effective system of coordination among different actors involved in this endeavor. Turkey has a story to tell the world — but it needs to get better at telling it.
Ozlem Kayhan Pusane graduated from the Middle East Technical University (Ankara, Turkey) in 2002 with a B.Sc. degree in International Relations. She received her M.A. degree in Political Science from the University of Notre Dame (Indiana) in 2004, where she also received her Ph.D. degree in Political Science in 2009. She is currently an Associate Professor of International Relations at Isik University (Istanbul, Turkey). Ozlem’s research and teaching interests lie in the areas of security studies, civil-military relations, counterinsurgency, and Turkey’s security policies.
Image: Turkish Ministry of Defense