Turkey rarely gets a fair hearing in the Western press, I am reminded by Abdurrahim Boynukalin, chairman of AK Party UK, when I press him to answer questions about Ankara’s military incursion on its south-eastern border with Syria. The former deputy minister of Ankara and a member of parliament for Istanbul urged me to look at the facts about Turkey’s role in the Syrian conflict, to see if allegations of ethnic cleansing and alarm bells over Daesh regrouping under the mayhem of war, are at all justified.
Boynukalin suggests that the Western media have got the narrative totally wrong by implying that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is guilty of ethnic cleansing. “Well, I’m not going to mention 20 million Kurds in Turkey” he utters sarcastically, dismissing the allegation that the Turkish offensive is directed at the Kurdish people. It’s a “ridiculous” claim he suggests, citing the names of Kurdish prime ministers, Kurdish MPs, and famous Kurdish business personalities that have occupied institutions of power within Turkey.
Debunking the allegation of ethnic cleansing further, Boynukalin mentioned a fact that has yet to receive any media attention – the displacement of Kurds, Arabs and Christians from Syria by the Protection Units (YPG), a separatist Kurdish group which Ankara claims is a terrorist organisation. Turkey has always maintained that the YPG is an arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), another Kurdish separatist group that is also proscribed by the US and the EU as a terrorist organisation. One of the main goals of the Turkish offensive is to clear YPG from its southern border, to create what Erdoğan has called a “safe zone” allowing for the return of Syrian refugees.
Boynukalin turned the ethnic cleansing claim on its head and stressed that it was the YPG that is guilty of a policy to clear the vast territory under its control of people it has a quarrel with. “If you’re talking about ethnic cleansing, then you should know that we are hosting now 300,000 Syrian Kurdish people in Turkey, because of YPG,” explains Boynukalin. It would be tempting to dismiss these accusations if such a declaration was made only by a Turkish official. That, however, is not the case. Concerns over the rebel group’s treatment of populations in north-eastern Syria were raised as early as 2016, when the US began arming YPG fighters to recapture territory taken by Daesh. The Kurdish group consolidated its rule over north-east Syria, and imposed its one-party Marxist rule over the region.
The YPG’s conduct in the US-led assault was raised by former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, during a Senate committee hearing. Ford suggested that some Kurds were more afraid of the YPG, than they were of Daesh terrorists. “In some cases, Syrian refugees flee it and don’t go towards the Kurdish areas – they run away from them and into Islamic State territory,” Ford informed a Senate committee hearing. Amnesty International has also questioned the conduct of the YPG. An October 2015 report uncovered “a wave of forced displacement and home demolitions” by Kurdish militants, which “amounted to war crimes”. The majority of residents affected by these unlawful practices were reported as Arabs and Turkmen, but in some cases Kurdish residents suffered the same fate as their Arab neighbours.
In stark contrast, the Turkish ground force, Boynukalin imparts, has shown greater respect for minorities than the YPG, pointing to the re-constitution of Syrian fighters allied to Turkey. What was known previously as the Free Syria Army (FSA) has been re-purposed as the Syrian National Army (SNA). The umbrella group with elements from Syrian Kurds, Christians and Arabs, is being deployed alongside the Turkish military, to remove YPG fighters and create the safe zone needed to allow for the safe return of some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkey.
Boynukalin suggested that Turkey’s critics are not being consistent or honest about Ankara’s conduct. He pointed out that Turkish forces had killed thousands of Daesh fighters during its campaign to drive the terrorist group out of Syria, and that such a campaign could have opened Turkey to the criticism that it was ethnically cleansing Muslims from the territory. He continued to expose what he believes is a logical fallacy amongst Turkey’s critics, by insisting that equating the YPG with the Kurdish people, is like equating Daesh to Muslims.
This logic is unlikely to sway Erdoğan’s critics but as I found out, Ankara makes no distinction between Daesh and the YPG. “We are the only country who has been attacked by both of them,” Boynukalin responds to my question about the danger of Ankara isolating itself from the international community, over its assault on the Kurdish militant group. “We are the only country to have countless civilians killed by Daesh, PKK and the YPG.” He cited a number of recent terrorist attacks carried out by the groups in Turkey and mentioned the fact that the PKK, designated a terrorist group by the US and EU, is responsible for over 40,000 deaths.
Boynukalin believes that the 35-year hostility with the PKK could have ended through Kurdish-Turkish negotiations in 2016, but the Syrian civil war derailed the entire peace process. He suspects that the main reason for collapse was the YPG take-over of territory in northern Syria, which he explained, boosted the PKK’s ambition for a state of their own by connecting four regions of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey that are populated by Kurds. Given the separatist agenda of the YPG, Obama’s decision to arm the militants, stated Boynukalin, was met with dismay. He recollected that the Turks had warned the US of the possible disaster of its policy and the dangers of arming one terrorist group to beat back another terrorist group, when it could work with a NATO ally to achieve the same end.
Turkey’s security concerns, as genuine as they are, are unlikely to garner sympathy, I asserted, and that the eyes of the world will be on Erdoğan who will be judged on his ability to keep Daesh at bay and keep civilian casualties to a minimum. Once again, Boynukalin cited Turkey’s record. He urged me to compare Turkey’s conduct in the two military operations it carried out in northern Syria – Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield – with the military campaigns of the US and its YPG ally. A combination of US air power and YPG ground forces reduced Daesh-held Raqqa in 2017 to rubbles. 80 per cent of the town was decimated according to Amnesty International, while YGP fighters killed more than 1,600 civilians. Turkey’s track record of clearing out militants from towns with similar populations, Boynukalin recounts, was more successful. In Afrin for example, Turkish forces cleared the town during Operation Olive Branch in 2018, in a manner that has allowed life to return to the city with markets, bazaars and cafés reopening.
As for Daesh prisoners, Boynukalin stressed that the situation left by the US with YPG overseeing violent militants was unsustainable. Over 70,000 people are currently being held in prison, of which 10,000 are estimated to be Daesh fighters. Boynukalin insists that while Turkey intends to take responsibility for the care of prisoners, an international solution which compels governments around the world to take back Daesh fighters was needed. Their refusal to do so not only violates international law, but it also puts unbearable burdens on a region that is already buckling under pressure. As for the vast majority of non-Daesh prisoners, they would be entered into a rehabilitation programme that would allow them to return back to normal life.
Anti-Erdoğan sentiment in the west is such – understandably, some would say – that it is preventing people from appreciating the humanitarian objective of his plan to find a sustainable solution for the refugees. Boynukalin asserts that while the EU has given around $6 billion for refugee programmes, Ankara has spent tens of billions on the 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Their presence, eight years after the war, has reached a crisis point, which he warned, is being exploited as parties try to cash in on growing populist resentment. He challenged my claim that this was a way for Erdoğan to remain in power, by reasoning that if that were the case, the Turkish President would have adopted an anti-refugee campaign like his opponents, and not risk losing Istanbul in the recent mayoral elections. The policy of Turkey’s ruling party, he maintains, has always been to find a solution that is moral, humanitarian, practical and sustainable for everyone in the region.