Ankara, Turkey – The Turkish public and political elite have largely thrown their support behind the country’s forces fighting in northern Syria, standing in defiance against voices in the international community condemning Ankara’s operation in the region.
The attack on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was widely praised on the front pages of Turkish newspapers on Thursday, with TV stations showing soldiers heading for the border being cheered by flag-waving crowds.
Special prayers for the operation’s success were read in 90,000 mosques across Turkey, the pro-government Sabah newspaper reported.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council was due to meet later on Thursday to discuss the Turkish operation.
The meeting, called by the council’s European members, came after France said it was preparing a statement with the United Kingdom and Germany that would “condemn very strongly and firmly” Turkey’s actions. The European Union also called on Ankara to halt the operation.
“If you attempt to call our operation an invasion, our job is easy. We’ll open our doors and send you the 3.6 million refugees,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday, in comments aimed at European leaders.
Foreign criticism was dismissed by people in Ankara, where the operation against the SDF is widely viewed as an attack on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 35-year fight inside Turkey that has left tens of thousands dead and is listed as a “terrorist” organisation by most of the West.
“We have waited a long time to confront the PKK in Syria, we have been very patient,” said barber Ferhat Unal, 45.
“America armed these terrorists and now we have to go there and deal with them. The president is right to send the army to fight the PKK.”
The United States has armed and trained the SDF, its ally in combating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group in Syria over the past five years. However, the group was built around cadres from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which have ties to the PKK.
“Most Turks read the US arming of the YPG as a direct betrayal of Turkey and undermining their security,” said Ziya Meral, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. “Thus many welcome Ankara intervening against the wishes of the US.”
Arda Mevlutoglu, an independent defence analyst, agreed the public felt “betrayed” by the US’s alliance with the YPG, which had “created enormous fury among all levels of the Turkish public”.
The Kurdish enclave in Syria is seen as a move towards an independent Kurdish state that directly threatens Turkish sovereignty, he added.
Halil Korkmaz, a 37-year-old cafe manager in Ankara, said the links between the YPG and the PKK were obvious. “When they took towns from ISIS they put up [PKK leader Abdullah] Ocalan’s flag and their commanders are all from Qandil,” he added, referring to the PKK’s base in northern Iraq.
In response to the operation, the PKK leadership called for its fighters to intensify “actions” inside Turkey, Firat news agency, which has links to the group, reported on Thursday.
Bolstering public support for the operation are the strong ties between society and the military in Turkey, where national service is compulsory.
“The army always has always represented the state, its hand and will power,” Mevlutoglu said. “Conscription has been seen as both a duty or a service and also a test and proof of manhood.”
Support in the street was mirrored among politicians. On Tuesday, the day before the launch of the offensive, parliament voted to extend the military’s mandate to carry out cross-border operations. The leftist, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) opposed the motion.
Party leaders from across the spectrum have lent their support to the push, dubbed Operation Peace Spring. “May Allah bless and bestow triumph on our children,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), said on Twitter.
Meral Aksener, leader of the nationalist Iyi Party, wished “the Turkish troops success as soon as possible”.
In a statement, the Kurdish Islamist Free Cause Party said the operation was “not a Turkish-Kurdish war”, adding: “The PKK/YPG has never fought for Kurds.”
Prosecutors, meanwhile, launched an investigation into the joint heads of the HDP – Pervin Buldan and Sezai Temelli – over comments that the operation was “unlawful and illegitimate”. Two newspaper executives were among around 20 people arrested while dozens are being investigated over social media posts criticising the operation.
The RUSI’s Meral said international pressure “will not stop Turkey’s insistence of denying PKK-related groups territorial control on its borders, only the scope and reach of the operation”.
“For the majority of Turks, while the defeat of ISIS is very welcome, the fight against PKK has been a 40-year-long conflict and unless the PKK declares an end to its fight against Turkey, military operations against it in Turkey or in the region will be supported,” Meral added.
The conflict with the PKK inside Turkey and the YPG’s presence on Turkey’s southern border was a “deeper and existential question on security,” he added.
Recent polls indicate another possible reason for public support. One of the operation’s goals is to resettle up to two million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
In recent months, hostility towards the refugee population has risen in Turkey, as the country’s economy has been emerging from a recession. In an August survey by MetroPoll, 73 percent of Turks described Syrian refugees as a security threat to Turkey while 78 percent said they should be sent back.