‘Existential threat’ triggered Syrian incursion, Turkish ambassador says

Targets are ‘terrorist elements’ and ‘top priority is to protect the civilians’

Levent Murat Burhan, the Turkish Ambassador to Ireland: “We had to counter this threat. We tried diplomacy and dialogue for years.” Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

The Turkish military incursion into Syria is designed to address “an existential threat” to Turkey, its ambassador to Ireland has said.

Levent Murat Burhan said heavy weapons that were being given to the Kurdish forces in northern Syria by the US, and also "maybe" by European governments, were being smuggled into Turkey and used against the Turkish military.

“How can anyone expect us not to do anything under these circumstances?” Mr Burhan said at a briefing for journalists in Dublin.

Pleas by the Turkish government that its allies should stop arming the Kurkish militia had fallen on deaf ears.


The ambassador said that the YPG militia is associated with the Turkey-based Kurdish PKK, which the EU and others have recognised as a terrorist organisation.

The targets of Turkey’s military operation are these “terrorist elements” and their hideouts, weapons and equipment, he said.

“Our top priority is to protect the civilians,” he said. “We intend to continue this operation until all these terrorist elements are wiped out of the region and our border integrity is secured.”

The Turkish government has said approximately 350 YPG fighters have been killed since the launch of Operation Peace Spring on Wednesday.

Protracted instability

The attack, which involves warplanes and artillery as well as a ground force, has caused tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has expressed his "deep concern" that the operation could lead to further protracted instability in the region.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reacted angrily to European criticism. "If they try to describe our operation as an occupation, our work is easy. We'll open our gates and send you 3.6 million refugees," he said.

Mr Burhan did not accept that Mr Erdogan had threatened European leaders. Rather, he said, Mr Erdogan was trying to draw attention to the “huge burden” that Turkey has been carrying in terms of providing refuge for the millions of people who have fled Syria and elsewhere.

“He was trying to draw the attention of European public opinion to this issue.”

The objective of Operation Peace Spring was to “eliminate” the YPG militia. Once the area was safe from the militia, it was hoped that hundreds of thousands of people, if not up to a million, would be able to return to their homes. This would be strictly on a voluntary basis.

In 2015 Amnesty International condemned the YPG for crimes against humanity. Up to 11,000 of the militia’s fighters are believed to have died fighting Islamic State [Isis].

‘Diplomacy and dialogue’

“Maybe they [YPG] fought against Isis, but Isis is now over,” Mr Burhan said. “Trying to ally with a terrorist organisation to fight another terrorist organisation, we believe, is not a good idea.”

Mr Burhan, who worked on counter-terrorism in Turkey before coming to serve as ambassador to Ireland, said all of Turkey’s allies, including the US military, knew about the links between the YPG and PKK.

Even after the US said the fight against Isis was over, the delivery of heavy weapons to the YPG continued. “We had to counter this threat. We tried diplomacy and dialogue for years.”

Asked was the operation not just creating more instability in the region, Mr Burhan said “Yes, but at the end of it there will be hundreds of thousands, maybe a million [people] who will be ready to go back to their own lands. This will be the good result of this operation.”

The ambassador said Turkey, with a population of 82 million, is hosting approximately 4.5 million refugees, of which 3.6 million are Syrian. The EU is concerned that Syrian refugees will try get to Europe rather than be returned by Turkey to a “safe zone” in Syria that they do not come from.

While the EU has promised financial aid, it has been slow in coming. Meanwhile, supporting the refugees – who are allowed to work after being in Turkey for two years – has cost Turkey approximately $40 billion over the past eight years, Mr Burhan said.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent