Turkey goes to war in Syria by flying under the radar

Information vacuum means the goals of Operation Euphrates Shield are unclear

Recep Tayyip Erdogan: the Turkish president has indicated that his country’s forces and their Syrian rebel allies could eventually take control of 7,500sq km of northern Syria. Photograph: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Since late August, Turkey has been an active participant in Syria's civil war, a fact that has elicited remarkably little public discussion at home.

Turkey’s intervention – “Operation Euphrates Shield” – is officially aimed at supporting Syrian rebel groups fighting to take back territory from Islamic State, which is also known as Isis.

Both pro-government and independent media outlets have been slow to offer serious critical analysis of whether the incursion is justified or what road its implications might be for Turkey. However, a sliver of mainstream voices have begun to voice concern about the operation.

Protesters in Istanbul hold placards reading, ‘Massacre in Aleppo, theatre in the UN’, as they pray for victims of Russian air strikes in Syria. Photograph: EPA/Sedat Suna

"We are witnessing the most under-reported cross-border operation in Turkish military history with no clear aim, no clear strategy and no end in sight," journalist Ahu Ozyurt recently wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News.


The information vacuum is in large part down to the silencing of independent and critical conversation in the crackdown following the failed military coup of July 15th, an event that continues to dominate almost all news and current affairs narratives.

That, combined with rising nationalism in the wake of the defeated coup, has bolstered the authorities' legitimacy to act in Syria.

Isis targets

According to state media, Operation Euphrates Shield has destroyed 1,900 Islamic State targets, and Turkish president

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

has indicated that the country’s forces along with their Syrian rebel allies could eventually take control of 7,500sq km in northern Syria.

Ankara maintains that the intervention is an act of self-defence merited by the series of Islamic State bombings that have killed more than 150 civilians in Ankara, Istanbul and elsewhere over the past 18 months.

Officials have also said the threat of Syrian Kurds expanding their influence west across northern Syria is something Turkey would act against.

The incursion has come at a cost. At least 11 Turkish soldiers have been killed in six weeks, while reports have emerged of at least two air strikes by Turkish jets killing dozens of Syrian civilians close to the border.

A bomb attack by Islamic State in the Atmeh district of northwestern Syria on October 6th killed at least 35 rebels fighting alongside Turkish forces.

Ertugrul Kurkcu, a member of parliament from the opposition Peoples' Democratic Party, narrowly escaped injury when Islamic State affiliates killed 103 peace marchers in Ankara in a suicide attack last October.

He said the government’s stated aim of rooting out Isis from the border areas may be overplayed.

Police control

“The [Islamic State] attacks in Turkey have originated inside Turkey, not outside. All the attackers were Turkish,” Kurkcu said. “Some were under police control but were not stopped, and so the Syria operation has nothing to do with stopping Isis.”

Rather, he argues, it is designed to deny territory to Syrian Kurds.

Can, an Istanbul-based architect who asked not to be fully identified in order to speak freely, says the “general talk” among friends and contacts regarding the state’s motivation for entering Syria centres more on securing energy supplies than defeating jihadists.

Kurkcu says he thinks most ordinary Turks are unhappy with what’s going on, and they don’t want “adventures” outside Turkish territory.

"Day by day, they are growing more concerned," he said. "Turkey has difficulties in Iraq and Cyprus, and now Syria.

“Of course, there has been nationalist agitation by the AK Party government with claims to former Ottoman territory,” he added. “But I don’t think families who have children in the military would like to see Turkey in another war and the possibility that their sons may return in coffins.”

An official at the ministry of foreign affairs refused to confirm the number of Turkish troops in Syria, or whether the operation has yet achieved its goals or is close to doing so.

Foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, however, told French television last month that "initially, we may move at least 45km down [south] . . . Then, a 5,000km de facto safe zone can be established."