Turkey's Erdogan Declares Jihad on Religious Minorities in Syria

Turkey’s irascible President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is once again infuriated with a Kurdish group and has dispatched his army into Syria to decimate them

Adjunct Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom

Turkey’s irascible President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is once again infuriated with a Kurdish group and has dispatched his army into Syria to decimate them.

On January 20, Erdogan launched what Islamists are openly calling a jihad against the Kurdish YPG faction. Thousands of Turkish soldiers, along with tanks and artillery, have blasted their way across the Turkish border into Syria.

With a cynical choice of words, the Turks have code-named their invasion, “Operation Olive Branch.”

Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey’s military is believed by some to be a threat to Middle East peace. Perhaps more alarming is that Erdogan’s troops also comprise NATO’s second largest army.

Since Operation Olive Branch was launched, Turkish soldiers have been making their way toward Afrin City. But their progress has been slower than expected.

Egypt’s Al-Ahram reported on Feb. 4, “Ankara is heightening the pitch of its chauvinistic rhetoric on Kurdish militias and U.S. policies in northern Syria, but is making painfully meagre progress in its ground offensive….”

Afrin is a canton in Syria’s northwest, populated largely by Kurds. Many in Afrin’s population belong to the YPK, a Kurdish militia that has heroically fought alongside United States forces against the Islamic State/ISIS.

In the complicated Middle East, however, one man’s hero is another man’s terrorist. In Erdogan’s narrow-eyed view, the YPK (and several other Kurdish groups) are terrorists.

So the Kurdish communities in the Afrin region — many of them civilians alongside displaced minority families who fled the Syrian war — are once again literally under the gun.

Since the fighting began on Jan. 20, Turkish fighters have slaughtered over 900 soldiers and civilians, including Christians, Yazidis, and other unarmed civilians.

Many of the displaced people in the region were originally from Aleppo, a city that has historically had a Christian community of about 250,000. Aleppo used to be the largest city in Syria. But with the rise of sectarian violence beginning in 2010, many displaced Christian families were forced to flee to Afrin, Idlib, and other northern safe havens. There they were joined by Yazidis and other minorities.

Tragically, those safe havens are now warzones.

According to UN figures, today 323,000 people are living in Afrin and nearby areas under Kurdish control. Of them, 192,000 are in need of humanitarian aid and 125,000 are what the UN terms “internally displaced persons,” or IDPs, from other parts of Syria.

As this latest fighting began to heat up, Twitter was alight with warnings from church groups in Afrin and nearby communities, pleading for help.

Some refugee parents posted online photos of their children living in tents, entirely unprotected as shells and shrapnel rained down on them. Others were photographed hiding in caves, cringing at the sound of incoming bombs and bullets.

Scores of appeals for help from trapped Christians have been tweeted and retweeted. One message from a local Pastor Hanan pleaded for international intervention and protection.

"As the Good Shepherd Church in Afrin city,” he wrote, “we demand urgent international protection for the believers in Afrin and the cease of this Turkish shelling….”

Pastor Hanan also pointed out the very real danger that the present upheaval may help ISIS or al-Qaida to make a regional comeback.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that foreign fighters are joining the battle against Turkey in support of the YPG.

One volunteer posted online, “We have fought Daesh [ISIS] before in Raqqa, in Deir ez-Zor, and now with the fascist Turkish state that we are fighting here in Afrin.”

Unrepentantly, Erdogan has threated to extend Operation Olive Branch further into Syria, and to remove all “terrorists,” so he can transport some three million refugees, presently sheltering in Turkey, back in to Syria for repatriation.

One Feb. 3 report quotes Erdogan saying that the fighting is about to end. At the same time, Hurriyet, a Turkish news source, reports that the Turkish army is getting close to the Afrin City Center. It also reports that Erdogan’s AKP party is seeking approval from Parliament, “for Turkey’s ongoing military operation into the Syrian district of Afrin.…”

Will Erdogan’s ever-expanding ambitions succeed? Will anyone — NATO, Russia, Iranian, Syrian, or any other force — stand in Erdogan’s way?

The Economist sums up the very volatile situation, and warns the conflict could spiral out of control.

“Of the 2,000 American special forces involved in the campaign against IS in Syria,” it notes, “many are based in Kurdish cantons east of Afrin. If Mr. Erdogan decides to extend his offensive against the YPG to those areas, as he has promised to do, Turkish forces might find themselves face-to-face with American troops. A single casualty on either side, and all bets are off.”