The gloomy portrait of the Middle East today should not obscure that peace is achievable. The basic premise for any such peace must be to preserve the territorial integrity of states. This means countering all forces that exist only to pursue their dystopias at the expense of others and with the help of outsiders, including Daesh (also known as the Islamic State) and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) terrorists. Their vision of endless bloodshed must be countered and defeated.
Daesh has largely been militarily defeated, but that’s not only because groups trained and armed by the United States dealt it a final blow. They were defeated due to the dedicated work of the Iraqi Army and a global coalition operating from Turkey. The weaknesses of Daesh were most clearly exposed after Turkey became the only NATO army to directly engage — and unsurprisingly crush — it in Jarablus in northern Syria. A prospective regrouping of Daesh is now being prevented by the dedicated work of a coalition that includes Turkey, which maintains the largest no-entry list of foreign terrorist fighters and runs the world’s biggest civilian anti-Daesh security operation.
The appeal of the ideology of Daesh, al Qaeda, and other affiliates will not easily go away. Terrorist acts on our streets were carried out before Daesh and would continue independently of its armed operations in the Middle East. The fight against terrorism must continue with full vigor but with greater emphasis on timely intelligence gathering, financial measures, and anti-recruitment and radicalization measures.
A point of discord with the United States is its policy of arming the PKK and YPG to act as foot soldiers, even as they have a history of terrorism. This is a legally and morally questionable policy that was prepared by the Obama administration in its waning days and somehow crept into the Trump administration. The United States has played into the hands of all its critics and opponents by deciding to form an alliance with terrorists despite its own values and its 66-year-old alliance with one of their primary targets, Turkey.
I have been pleased to see many NATO allies distance themselves from this U.S. policy, which flies in the face of our alliance’s values. It also runs against our common interests in the region and beyond. I hope that my designated counterpart, incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton would see it a priority to correct the course.
Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and other countries in the Middle East face destructive pressure from transnational forces that threaten their survival. Their difficulties in turn provide an excuse and opportunity for all sorts of interventions by all sorts of countries and nonstate actors. The result isn’t just a blood bath but massive migration and terrorist pressure against Turkey and the rest of Europe, which is at its doorstep. Their chaos also acts as an incubator of hatreds and threats against the United States. Resilient nation-states must form the basis of any order and stability in the Middle East. The vision of Bashar al-Assad will eventually lose, but a united Syria must ultimately win the long war.
Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, which has involved a military incursion into Syria, is above all an act of self-defense against a build-up of terrorists who have already proved aggressive against our population centers. As host to 3.5 million Syrians, Turkey also intends Olive Branch to clear roadblocks to peace in Syria posed by opponents of the country’s unitary future. The massive PKK and YPG terrorist encampments across our borders served a double purpose. One was to open a supplementary front for PKK terrorist operations, in addition to the one in northern Iraq and unite them to form a continuous terrorist belt. The weapons and military infrastructure we have seized in Afrin decisively prove this assessment. The second purpose of the terrorists’ encampments was to form territorial beach-heads for their own statelet to be built upon the carcasses of Syria and Iraq on the areas vacated by Daesh. Olive Branch stops the descent into a broader war and soaring terrorism that would engulf Europe and the United States. Instead, it opens an artery toward peace.
I know that in the age of post-truth there is a broad campaign to cast shadows over Olive Branch. Not a day passes without us encountering calumnies. The truth is that we have taken utmost care to avoid civilian casualties and this has become one of the most successful operations the world has seen anywhere anytime in that regard.
It has been alleged that our operation impedes the fight against Daesh because the YPG terrorists are now focused on resisting the Turkish military’s advances. I think that this choice by the YPG demonstrates the folly of any strategy that involved relying on the group in the first place. But, rest assured, Turkey will not allow Daesh to regroup one way or the other and shall work with the United States to that effect.
We should also resist any framing that portrays Olive Branch as a fight of Kurds against the Turks. It should be obvious that the PKK and YPG terrorists do not represent the Kurds. The YPG has expelled some 400,000 Kurds from the territory it seized in Syria. Turkey wants all Kurds to live in peace and prosperity in all the countries they straddle. The PKK’s micronationalism and terrorism are a disservice to everyone including the Kurds.
An equally important point is to find a way to put the Middle East on the path of development. Central to this vision must be a peaceful, stable, prosperous Iraq thriving under its current constitutional order. In February, the international community made a start at a donors’ conference in Kuwait, pledging $30 billion to Iraq, one-sixth of which was provided by Turkey alone. But Iraq needs much more in aid; I call on all my counterparts, in recognition of the benefits of a healthy and friendly Iraq, to help fund a major reconstruction effort. It would be no less instrumental in building peace than the Marshall Plan was for Europe.
The Middle East must be kept safe from the threat of sectarianism, spheres of influence, resurgent imperialisms, royal family feuds, and extremism of all sorts, religious and otherwise. The states and peoples of the region — and those affected by it — have suffered enough. A road map toward such a successful future may already be emerging, with Turkey’s resolute leadership. I hope the United States chooses to seize the moment and support that vision of peace.
Reprinted with the permission of the author.
First published in Article Foreign Policy on 5 April 2018