Erdoğan-loyal Turkish media – does any other exist? – broke out in accordant cheer after NATO’s Madrid summit: Yeni Akıt: “Two strongholds of terrorism fall in Europe. Sweden and Finland accepted Turkey’s demands.” Milliyet: “Turkey got what it wanted at the table.”
This was all achieved “under the auspices of the NATO Secretary General”, in NATOs own words.
Everyone knew before the summit, that the NATO-expansion wasn’t president Erdoğan’s main concern. To him, Sweden and Finland’s pending applications to NATO membership were merely a tool. He had already made it public that he wanted NATO’s support for the fourth Turkish invasion in Syria. He had also made known that he first would attack Manbij and Tal Rifat and thereafter occupy northern Syria region by region. None of the heads of state of the other 29 NATO countries said a single negative word about these plans that go against international law. If he gives strike orders to the Turkish army and the Turkish-financed Syrian National Army (SNA), Erdoğan can to some extent be right in saying that a united NATO stands by him. These kinds of statements will for sure be heavily covered in the Turkish media. The saying ‘Silence is acquiescence’ does after all apply to NATO too, right?
Swedish Social Democrats subject to Erdoğan
The Social Democratic ruling party and the Swedish state has for some years, to a certain degree, given political and economic support to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). On 21 November 2021, the ruling party declared that they “support the autonomous administration’s work for democracy and respect for human rights.” Erdoğan’s answer was clear: “The autonomous administration of North and East Syria are terrorists.” The Swedish ruling party was as clear when they stated that it was unacceptable that “certain state actors” characterize the PYD (Democratic Unity Party) and their defense forces YPG [People’s Protection Units] and YPJ [Women’s Protection Units] as terrorists. This is likely the first time a European ruling party has placed Erdoğan in the category of “certain state actors”.
Before the NATO summit, there was no doubt that Erdoğan’s real objective in Syria was to destroy both the autonomous administration and the defense forces YPG and YPJ. After all, he always refers to the self-government as terrorists that threaten Turkey’s safety.
During the Madrid talks, the Swedish ruling party did a 180 degree turn and concurred with Erdoğan’s perception of terrorists in Syria. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg briefly summarized this turnaround in a press conference immediately after Sweden, Finland and Turkey had signed the nine-point agreement: “Sweden will thus not give support to YPG/PYD.”
No wonder Milliyet and other Turkish media outlets announced that “Turkey got what it wanted at the table.”
A political declaration – not a legally binding intergovernmental agreement
The nine-point agreement that Secretary General Stoltenberg put in place is not a legally binding agreement or treaty between Sweden, Finland and Turkey. It is merely a political declaration.
It contains extensible terms that can be interpreted in various ways. An example: If Sweden is still to be a rule of law, such a declaration is not equivalent to Swedish law. Such a declaration does not give the Swedish Supreme Court grounds for approving the forced return of Turkish citizens who, upon returning to their home country, may risk torture, other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In order to fulfil Erdoğan’s demands, the Swedish parliament must both adopt new laws and change Sweden’s relation to the European Convention on Human Rights.
The trilateral declaration mentions neither Erdoğan’s announced offensive in Syria nor his collaboration with jihadist groups inside and outside the SNA. Logically enough, Erdoğan came up with a new message right after the Madrid meeting: The Turkish parliament will not approve Swedish and Finnish NATO membership until both have done everything they have promised Turkey they will do. And it is on the cards that Erdoğan believes it is he who will define the content of these promises.
Erdoğan had to get Russian and American consent before the invasions of 2016, 2018 and 2019
Erdoğan is commander-in-chief of NATO’s second largest army, but in practice he is not omnipotent. Before starting the first three invasions in Syria, he had to obtain the open or tacit consent of both the United States and Russia. During the first invasion in August 2016, the US dispatched its F16s in the air, thus preventing the Syrian Air Force from attacking the invasion forces. Before the invasion of Afrin in January 2018, Russia withdrew its forces from Afrin. The Turkish army and the mercenaries of the New Syrian Army were able to move in without risking clashes with Russian soldiers.
The third invasion in October 2019 followed the same pattern. The Kurdish forces, which with American air support had defeated IS in Kobanê in 2015, liberated the border town of Tell Abyad soon afterwards. When IS was away, the situation at the border became tense. In 2016, American soldiers came to the city. They raised the American flag on several public buildings. The Department of Defense in the United States announced that this would stop Turkish harassment and firing on the city. Some American soldiers remained in Tell Abyad. A Turkish attack would thus be an attack on the United States.
Three years later, the US turned around. President Erdoğan and President Trump had a telephone conversation on Sunday, 6 October 2019. Fox News reported the day after the White House had announced Sunday evening “that Turkey will soon move forward with a planned military operation in northeastern Syria” as US troops had already begun withdraw from their positions.
The Turkish bombing started on 9 October. Four days later, Turkey announced that it was in control of central Tell Abyad.
Conclusion: Before each invasion, Erdoğan has obtained approval from the US and Russia.
The summit in Tehran was a defeat for Erdoğan
Erdoğan faced opposition when, after the NATO meeting in Madrid, he traveled to Tehran to speak with Russian President Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. With slightly different words and expressions, both said no to the next offensive in Syria. Erdoğan was visibly disappointed at the press conference after the meetings. He said he will continue the fight against terrorism and expects to receive support. As I write this – 24 July – he has not received it.
Iran’s and Russia’s no is not so strange. As the front lines are in Syria now, a Turkish advance towards Manbij, Tal Rifaat and later Kobanê will probably lead to skirmishes between the Syrian government army and the Turkish occupation force.
“We never seek permission for our military operations”
In the Turkish media, Erdoğan has not been affected by the embarrassing defeat in Tehran. Daily Sabah echoed Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s message two days after the Tehran meetings:
“We exchanged ideas, but we never asked and we never sought permission for our military operations.” Maybe some Turkish newspaper readers believe this hoax. But many will know that Erdoğan asked the US and Russia for “permission for our military operations” before each of the first three invasions in Syria.
20 July – the massacre weakens Erdoğan’s position
The tourist massacre in northern Iraq on 20 July may contribute to the international isolation of President Erdoğan. American CPT (Community Peacemakers Teams Iraq) has its headquarters in Suleymaniyah. They visited the survivors soon after the attack. Kamaran Osman from CPT tells ANF that this is not the first Turkish attack on this village:
“As I said earlier, the soldiers also came to the village in June. But the villagers of Perex resisted and refused to leave the village. They then carried out a bombardment from the same military base on 15 June. Two people were injured in this attack. One of them is named Nazir Omar and the other is Mohammad Wazir Omar. However, the villagers continued to refuse to leave the village. And, a massacre took place. We can openly call it a massacre. There are more than 30 victims of this attack.” Osman continues: “We talked to witnesses and wounded people and learned from them that four missiles were fired. They confirmed to us that all these four missiles were fired from the Turkish military base Xamtir.”
Governments and all kinds of organizations around the world have condemned the Turkish massacre. Because this attack hit a group of tourists, more and more people see that this is state terrorism, and not what you can call “normal” warfare. Even Erdoğan’s staunch supporters in the leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party are now demanding: “We call on the Republic of Turkey to respect the sovereignty of our homeland.”
The massive international condemnation of the Turkish massacre may make it more difficult for Erdoğan to get other states’ support for the next invasion of Syria. European governments must take some account of public opinion in their own country. Germany, for example, is one of the NATO countries that still don’t sell weapons to Turkey.
Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Erdoğan has promised his voters that he will accomplish what Atatürk – ‘the father of all Turks’ – failed to achieve: To create a great Turkey as described in the National Pact – Misak-i Milli – from 1920. Last autumn he said that 23 July 2023 (the 100th anniversary of the Lausanne Agreement) will be “the biggest milestone on the road to building a great and strong Turkey.”
On the way there, Erdoğan needs a helpful and supportive NATO Secretary General. A journalist from the TV channel NTV attended the NATO press conference in Madrid on 28 June. He said it like this: “President Erdoğan trusts you very well because you know each other for 25 years.”
Among heads of state who wage war against international law in their neighboring countries, Erdoğan is one of the foremost. Could he have waged such warfare so far if he had not had the continued support of NATO’s Social Democratic Secretary General?
Erling Folkvord is a former member of the Norwegian Parliament.