JERUSALEM—Turkey carried out widespread airstrikes in northern Iraq on Monday, concentrating on areas inhabited by the Yazidi minority who are still trying to recover from the genocide perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.
While Ankara claims it is bombing “terrorists,” the areas on Sinjar mountain that were struck appear to be caves and small structures and Turkey has provided no evidence linking these Yazidis to threats to Turkey.
It is yet one more example of Ankara’s increasingly brazen attempts to cultivate authoritarian rule and extreme nationalism at home while using disproportionate military force abroad, attacking and occupying portions of Iraq, Syria and Libya.
At a time when conflicts from Syria to Libya and Yemen have left countries more divided than ever and without a path to peace or method by which locals might have a say in the future, Turkey, a member of NATO, has played an increasingly destabilizing role in almost all these conflicts.
In November, Ankara signed a deal with Libya’s embattled Tripoli-based Government of the National Accord that secured Turkey claims to a wide swath of the Mediterranean. Placing itself astride Greek and Cypriot waters with talk of a “blue motherland” at sea, Turkey then sent drones to Libya and recruited thousands of poor Syrians to fight as mercenaries for Tripoli, ignoring a U.N. arms embargo. Ankara’s increased involvement had the result of increasing Russia’s support for the Libyan opposition as both sides fueled a deadly proxy war.
Then came Turkey’s decision to flood Syria’s Idlib province with its forces in February 2020 as Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups clashed with the Syrian regime. After Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib, Ankara decided to turn around and threaten Europe with a flood of refugees if more was not done to support Turkey. Once again, Turkey created a crisis and used desperate Syrians as pawns, just as in Libya.
Meanwhile Turkey has continued to occupy two areas in Syria, Tel Abyad and Afrin, now cleansed, to use a weighty but appropriate word, of hundreds of thousands of Kurds and minorities.
In March the United Nations said Turkish-backed Syrian rebels cut off water to almost 500,000 people in eastern Syria at the height of the COVID-19 crisis. In Turkish-occupied Afrin recent clashes have revealed that Syrian rebel groups target minority Kurdish and Yazidi women for kidnapping and have carried out widespread abuse against minorities. Afrin, once one of the only peaceful areas in the maelstrom of the Syrian civil war, is now dominated by armed militias backed by Turkey and minorities either fled or live in fear.
Ankara’s policies have gotten worse over time, accelerated by unchecked demagoguery at home as the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has jailed journalists and opposition politicians while threatening neighbors and refugees.
Erdogan apparently feels he’s been given license to act like this because of his close personal relations with Donald Trump. The two of them speak frequently.
Erdogan also has forged close relations with Iran and Russia, the two other authoritarian regimes that play a major role in the Middle East. Together these countries cynically carve up Syria and Libya into spheres of influence and Turkey’s military operations in northern Iraq, often bombing areas where refugees and internally displaced persons live, continues without international pushback.
So, here’s the bottom line: While the United States has focused on Iran as a source of instability in the Middle East, Turkey is rapidly becoming a much greater threat. Its NATO membership gives it a carte blanche to bomb and invade countries without criticism. It brazenly sends proxies and mercenaries to Libya, bombs the most poor and vulnerable areas of Yazidis in Iraq, illegally occupies Afrin, and threatens its neighbors and dissidents at home. To achieve the veneer of support for its operations Ankara has even hijacked social media, as a recent Twitter study with Stanford’s Internet Observatory revealed 37 million fake tweets by pro-government propagandists.
The United States and the international community need to stop reacting to every threat by Ankara and demand Turkey adhere to international laws, but the Trump administration’s increasing isolationism has emboldened aggression by Turkey, which believes it can act with impunity.
This perpetuates a decade of wars in the Middle East and has fed a vicious cycle of conflict in vulnerable areas, such as Sinjar. Instead of enabling the reconstruction of areas recently plagued by ISIS, these new rounds of conflict fed by Turkey’s ambitions are keeping the region from healing. Ankara’s spreading chaos has undermined almost everything done to achieve stability in the post-ISIS period in Syria, Iraq and the wider region.