Cloaking Strategic Interests in Morality: How Turkey Discredits Armed Humanitarianism

Oana-Cosmina Mihalache
November 24, 2019

In December 2018, President Trump rhetorically sealed the fight against ISIS by announcing his decision to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, paralleling a decision to cut by half the number of troops in Afghanistan. Fast forward to almost a year later and the military presence in Afghanistan has decreased by 2,000, down to a total of 12,000 troops. Meanwhile, in Syria, the remaining troops stationed in the northern part of the country has cleared the way for a Turkish offensive.

Neither of the two moves came as a major surprise, as the effort to cut down on foreign military entanglements was part of President Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and of America’s recent semi-isolationist turn in foreign policy. The actions echo John Quincy Adams’ 1821 address, wherein responding to pressure to intervene on the European continent he said, the U.S. "does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”   

The U.S. decision to pull out of Syria and the ensuing military aftermath sparked a fresh humanitarian crisis, which dealt a blow to the idea of humanitarian intervention. This move was another nail in the coffin for the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine. Premised on the idea of making sovereignty conditional on the respect for human rights and entrusting the international community with the responsibility to intervene when states fail to act in cases of abuse against human rights, R2P was put on trial in Libya in 2011 yet failed to stick to its mandate of protection and stabilize post-Gaddafi Libya. This time however, the U.S. decision to pull its troops out was a negation of R2P, not only strapping the Kurds of protection, but knowingly leaving the population vulnerable in the face of imminent attack.

Second, the vacuum left by the U.S. military allowed Turkey to venture into an operation that President Erdogan described as grounded in reasons of humanity – Erdogan said he would create a “safe zone” for refugees, thereby “saving them from tent camps and container camps.” The intervention in northern Syria was cloaked in humanitarian rather than strategic language. Turkey vowed to uphold territorial integrity. This is what Dominik Zaum terms the sovereign paradox, the idea of compromising sovereignty in order to consolidate a sovereign state, or more precisely compromising on the principles of non-intervention and self-governance in order to reinforce its empirical meaning.

During his speech at the 74th UN General Assembly, President Erdogan branded Turkey as “the most generous country in terms of humanitarian aid,” claiming that the country that hosts the largest number of displaced persons in the world. Erdogan also invoked the idea of “upholding justice.” Indeed, according to UNHCR, Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide, with 3.6 million Syrian refugees in addition to hundreds of thousands of refugees from other countries.

As part of the same speech, President Erdogan vowed to help uphold the territorial integrity of Syria. In fact, he went to great lengths to portray the intervention as a just one. When European leaders condemned the intervention, he warned against calling it an “invasion,” threatening to otherwise send the millions of refugees that Turkey currently hosts to Europe. He exposed the idea as one that secures a “peace corridor” for the refugees – again reiterating his “safe zone” language, hinting at humanitarian efforts.

In reality, Operation Peace Spring achieves neither of its two stated purposes, one of which is grounded in humanitarian reasons and the other in upholding sovereignty. On the contrary, there is no sugar coating of the operation’s scope: it is ethnic cleansing tout court, aimed at displacing Kurds from the territory they helped secure from ISIS in Syria. Moreover, this move disrupts the triad of “clear, hold and expand” that is rooted in classical counterinsurgency approaches. The stage of “holding” in this case refers to guarding the ISIS prisoners captured by the Kurds and maintaining control over the territory they managed to “clear.”

Another pitfall of this strategy is that it risks fueling ethnic tensions by encouraging retaliation along ethnic and sectarian lines. One example of such alienation is post-Saddam Iraq when the process of de-Baathification left former members of the Ba’ath party alienated and prone to insurgency. Another example is Rwanda under colonial Belgian rule, when the Tutsi minority was favored over the Hutus and the result was the oppressed becoming the oppressor, producing one of the largest massacres in modern history.

The population that Erdogan is planning to resettle in the safe zone includes Arabs, Kurds, and Christians, who come from Aleppo and Idlib. This is the second forced exile for the Kurds in Syria, and more importantly, the second episode of an orchestrated demographic engineering. The first took place after the attack that Turkey conducted in Afrin in March 2018, which forced  170,000 Kurds to flee their homes.

The Turkish offensive comes amidst domestic pressure for President Erdogan. Local elections in June brought a decisive victory for the main opposition party, casting a humiliating blow to Erdogan’s AKP party, especially after canceling a previous ballot on accusations of fraud and ordering a rerun. In a pas de deux, the economy is trembling and sinking, with levels of unemployment rising and inflation on the hike. Economic projections point toward a slow recovery, but time is not an asset when it comes to authoritarian leaders on the brink of losing their power.

Domestic pressure in the context of the refugee crisis and its age-old feud with the Kurds have led President Erdogan to a new military campaign in Syria. His language points to humanitarianism and morality for the sake of the refugee population, but the reality brutally contradicts this lofty rhetoric.

More than that, these U.S. and Turkish actions do immense injustice to the legacy of humanitarian intervention. During the 19th century, the idea of humanitarian intervention was equated with the protection of Christians from the Ottomans – examples include the intervention in Greece during her independence struggle between 1821 and 1827, in the Lebanon-Syria conflict of 1860-1861, and in Bulgaria in 1876-1878.

In some of these cases, the decision contravened strategic interests, as was the case of the British decision to intervene in Greece, following pressure from a growing philhellenic movement that delegitimized the cold realpolitik thinking of Castlereagh who believed in keeping the Ottoman Empire as an ally against Russian incursion in the Balkans. It was in the context of this foreign entanglement that Quincy Adams refused to go abroad for monsters to destroy.

Choosing to mingle humanitarian and strategic motives, President Erdogan might willy-nilly confirm the realist warning against injecting morality into warfare unless we want to witness never-ending crusades. His appeals to morality lack grounds and his invoking just reasons for the intervention is a misnomer for just war. In fact, his actions might lead to just that, with the certain outcome of multiplying the instances in which episodes of massacres and ethnic cleansing will gather many accomplices and “bystanders to genocide,” in the words of former US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.

Oana-Cosmina Mihalache is a current Fulbright researcher affiliated with Columbia University's Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. She is a PhD candidate in Bucharest, at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration. In her research, she focuses on military interventions and state sovereignty.