On Feb. 24, the U.N. Security Council unanimously agreed upon a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria without delay. During a daily department press briefing on Feb. 27, U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert was asked if Turkey was “violating the U.N. ceasefire” in Afrin in northern Syria. She repeated three times that she would “encourage Turkey to go back and read the U.N. resolution.”
During a telephone call between French President Emmanuel Macron and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday, Macron was reported by Reuters and other news agencies as saying that the 30-day ceasefire “applied to all of Syria, including Afrin, and should be implemented everywhere and by all without any delay.” However, Mr. Erdogan denied these reports. “Macron did not mention anything like this. We are fighting against terror groups that pose a threat to our national security,” President Erdogan said.
On the same day when the ceasefire resolution was approved, the Turkish leader delivered a speech at the provincial congress of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the southern province of Kahramanmaras. As he exhorted Turks to support the ongoing operation against Kurds in Syria, he beckoned a little girl dressed in a miniature military uniform in the audience toward the stage to meet with him. “Her Turkish flag is in her pocket. If she becomes a martyr, God willing, she will be wrapped with it,” the New York Times quoted Mr. Erdogan as saying.
“She is ready for everything, aren’t you?” the president asked the traumatized crying girl, who was later identified by the Associated Press as Amine Tiras. Live on state television, supporters at the political rally cheered in response, “Chief, take us to Afrin.” Two days later, Turkey deployed police and gendarmerie special forces for a “new battle” against the Kurdish militants in Afrin, which is home to more than 100,000 civilians.
As the images of Mr. Erdogan with Amine under his arm and the video circulated on social media, domestic and international criticism have grown. Former government minister Yasar Okutan accused Mr. Erdogan of exploiting children at political events to increase votes ahead of 2019 presidential and local elections, according to Euronews.
Turkish President Erdogan tells a sobbing girl in military uniform that she would be honoured if killed while fighting. Glorifying children’s deaths? Promoting child soldiers? Sick. https://t.co/3PW1qKsTuT pic.twitter.com/Ua8rson2BD
— Andrew Stroehlein (@astroehlein) February 26, 2018
Andrew Stroehlein, from Human Rights Watch in Europe, tweeted, “Glorifying children’s deaths? Promoting child soldiers? Sick.” Some called Mr. Erdogan “evil” and compared him to Adolf Hitler since dictators are always using innocent children for their militarist propaganda.
It is not the first time that President Erdogan has exploited children and politicizing martyrdom. The AP reported that children dressed in military-style camouflage or reciting nationalist poems appeared in the recent events that he attended. Last month, the Turkish leader delivered a political speech in a mosque in Ankara at the funeral of a sergeant who was killed in Syria on Jan. 22. Turkey’s opposition criticized him for making politics in the mosques and using Turkey’s operation in Afrin for electioneering.
Since Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” began on Jan. 20 to clear Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants from Afrin in northwestern Syria, 41 Turkish soldiers have been killed, Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said on Friday. His remarks came after eight Turkish soldiers were killed and 13 others were wounded on March 1 during the operations in Afrin, the military stated. Erdogan stressed that a total of 2,348 YPG militants have been “neutralized” in Afrin operation. The word “neutralized” implies the militants in question either surrendered or were killed or captured.
Turkey considers the YPG a “terrorist group” which it says is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. PKK has waged guerrilla warfare against Turkish security forces for more than three decades. It is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey as well as by the U.S. and EU, and its leader Abdullah Ocalan has been kept on an island prison in Turkey since 1999, the year when he was captured and imprisoned.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Al Jazeera, “There have been YPG/PKK terrorists in Afrin region and they were sending harassment fires and rockets to Turkey … It became a serious threat to our security and to our borders.”
Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition is committed to supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against ISIS. The YPG is the lead component of SDF. The Trump administration’s new Syria strategy contained the formation of a 30,000-strong border force comprised primarily of YPG fighters. According to the Pentagon’s new defense budget, the defense department requested $550m to military activities in Syria, $300m for Syrian “train and equip activities” and $250m for “border security requirements related to the counter ISIS mission.”
The U.S-Turkish relations are at their lowest point in decades. Turkish officials have warned that the Turkish forces fighting in Afrin could push eastward to Manbij, which could bring Turkish forces into direct confrontation with U.S. troops stationed there. The commander of U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq visited Manbij and said that the U.S. would hit back if attacked. The rhetoric from Turkey has been tough. “It is obvious that those, who say they will ‘give a sharp response’ if they hit, have not been hit by the Ottoman slap,” Al Jazeera reported Mr. Erdogan as saying.
Has the U.S. experienced the Ottoman slap? On Feb. 28, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamdi Aksoy responded to the “go back and read U.N. resolution” remarks by the U.S. by urging the U.S. to focus on stopping the regime from attacking innocent civilians instead of making statements that help terrorists. He said that “Turkey is not one of the parties to the conflict in Syria,” and asserted Turkey’s right to self-defense in the “counterterrorism” operation in Syria. However, the Kurdish YPG is not designated as a terrorist group by the U.N. Security Council.
Turkish and U.S. committees will meet in Washington in the week to come. The two NATO allies have agreed to set up three special joint committees to address thorny issues. What’s next for Turkey after the Afrin operation? There may be nothing to hope on Mr. Erdogan’s adherence to what the world and the international community has agreed on the ceasefire.