Turkey views the mostly Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria as a threat, similar to how Israel views Hezbollah, US envoy for Syria engagement James Jeffrey said last week.
However, when it comes to Turkey’s threats to carry out a major military operation in eastern Syria, countries in the international community, including the United States, have generally reacted with silence, whereas the same countries are concerned about any potential Israeli operation in southern Lebanon. Why is Turkey given the freedom to do whatever it wants in Syria, while Israel is not permitted to launch cross-border military operations without condemnation?
US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw US troops from eastern Syria on Wednesday, after four years of fighting Islamic State.
Meanwhile, Turkey says it will launch a military operation in eastern and northern Syria, similar to the one it launched in 2016 near Jarabulus and in Afrin in January.
“We are determined to turn the east of the Euphrates into a peaceful and livable place for its true owners just like the other areas we have made secure in Syria,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on December 12. On December 14 he said that “with the steps we take in Syria, we not only ensure the security of our country but also protect the dignity of the Ummah and all humanity.” Ummah means “Muslim community” and would be akin to the US saying it was operating in Syria to “protect the dignity of Christendom.”
Turkey says that its upcoming military operation is directed against the PYD and the People’s Protection units (YPG), which Ankara views as synonymous with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). It is in this context that Jeffrey compared the PYD to Israeli concerns about Hezbollah as well as to Saudi Arabia’s concerns about the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Like Turkey concerns about the PKK on its border, Israel is concerned about Hezbollah on its border. As Turkey claims that the PYD or YPG are a threat, Israel sees Hezbollah as a threat.
Turkey acted on these concerns in January, launching an operation into the Kurdish region of Afrin, in northwest Syria, which was controlled by the YPG. But this became more than a military operation. According to local reports, Turkish goods and special police went into Afrin and olives from Afrin were taken to Turkey for sale. Turkey still controls Afrin with no sign of leaving.
With the US poised to withdraw from eastern Syria, many commentators seem to accept that Turkey will launch a new incursion, backed by Syrian rebel fighters that are aligned with Turkey. In fact, the operation is largely treated in western media as if it has already happened, even among those who are concerned about its ramifications.
“The US withdrawal from Syria removes the main obstacle to a Turkish campaign to eradicate Syrian Kurdish forces and could lead to a more dangerous phase of Syria’s civil war,” writes Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In Manbij, a town in northern Syria that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of fighters which includes the YPG and which was the main partner of the US on the ground against ISIS, is awaiting Ankara’s next step. Ankara has threatened to attack Manbij before, claiming it would be returned to its “true owners.” According to reports, Turkey is already bolstering its forces along the Syrian border and in Syria, in the area near Manbij in which it already operates.
When it comes to Israeli concerns about terrorism threats from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, the United Nations cannot agree to condemn either group.
On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council refused to condemn the Hezbollah tunnels Israel exposed as part of Operation Northern Shield. The EU ambassador to Israel said that Israel has a right to safeguard the security of its citizens and territory, but he also sought to highlight UNIFIL’s role in ensuring stability and the need to “prevent escalation.”
However, during Turkey’s intervention in Afrin or the current prospect of an operation in Rojava in eastern Syria, there appears to be less concern by this body for preventing escalation.
“The religious extremists who surround the current Turkish government know perfectly well that Rojava doesn’t threaten them militarily,” said Prof. David Graeber, wondering why world leaders were nonetheless silent regarding the Afrin offensive in February. Yet Boris Johnson, then UK foreign secretary, had said Turkey has a right to want to keep its borders secure. French President Emmanuel Macron did say he was concerned about Afrin, but the EU only spoke about the “humanitarian” issue, as opposed to the military offensive itself.
The essential difference between how the international community sees Israel’s desire to keep its borders secure, and Turkey’s demands, is that Israel is condemned for any open-ended operation inside Gaza or Lebanon, while Turkey’s security desires more often give it a blank check to operate however it wants in Syria, and even in Iraq. For instance, Turkish air strikes in northern Iraq against the PKK have been met with condemnation by Baghdad, but usually not other countries.
One reason for the difference is the international hypocrisy that Israeli officials have pointed out in the past. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted on Saturday that Turkey was the “occupier of Northern Cyprus” while Turkish officials condemned Israel’s “lawless occupation of Palestinian lands.”
Israel isn’t the only country that complains about apparent double-standard in international condemnations. Russia was concerned about a UN General Assembly vote on a Ukrainian resolution condemning alleged human rights violations in Crimea by Russia. Sixty-five countries supported Ukraine while 27 voted against Kiev and 70 abstained, according to Russia’s TASS agency.
A further difference may be that the international community has given up trying to bring stability to Syria. While there is generally silence regarding a potential Turkish incursion, there is also silence regarding other human rights violations by the Syrian regime, and about Israel’s air strikes in Syria, of which Israeli officials have said there were at least 200 instances.
With the US withdrawing, the Kurdish groups in eastern Syria and their allies are trying to raise awareness, but many seem to expect that, no matter what, the Turkish operation will take place.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post’s op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.