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Ottoman Ghosts

Imperial Memories in Turkey and Syria

Ankara’s late-August military intervention into northern Syria, officially dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield, was a moment of revelry for many in the Turkish press. A great majority of editors, columnists, and television presenters saw the Turkish army’s advance as a decisive statement of the nation’s resolve. The invasion and creation of a security buffer in Syria fulfilled two objectives vital to the country’s security. First, they forced the Islamic State (ISIS) to retreat after years of occupying towns and villages along Turkey’s southern border. Second, and perhaps most important, they were an effort to contain Syria’s most powerful Kurdish faction, the Party of Democratic Union (PYD), to areas east of the Euphrates river. From Ankara’s perspective, such moves would not only improve Turkish security, but were a natural extension of Ankara’s ongoing campaign against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist organization based in Turkey. Although the PKK and PYD identify themselves as different organizations, the Turkish government and most Turkish commentators consider them a single terrorist group. The establishment of a Syrian front, in the words of one Turkish analyst, thus opened a new phase in the country’s war on terrorism, one that equally condemns the “racist projects” of ISIS, the PKK, and the PYD to “the trash bin of history.”

Yet despite having the support of the United States and Russia, Operation Euphrates Shield has been beset by political and practical doubts. The invasion, some argue, has directed attention away from the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The operation came amid Ankara’s ongoing effort to purge the government of backers of Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based cleric whom Erdogan blames for an attempted coup in July. These purges have also called the military’s strength into question—in in the last two months, as many as half of the army’s general officers have been arrested or relieved of duty. The mass cleansing of the officer corps has led to reported shortages of trained pilots, gendarmes, and other security officials throughout the country.

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