The Global War on Terror (GWOT) was designed to allow the American military to intervene abroad to fight terrorism. The doctrine is now widely used by US adversaries to justify controversial strategic military operations.

By Adrien Morin

On 20 January 2018, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch, targeting Kurds gathered under the banner of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Northwestern Syria, and in the district of Afrin more specifically. The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish political movement whose political philosophy is based on the one developed by Abdullah Ocalan and aims to create a Kurdish federation in Northern Syria (referred to as the Northern Syrian Federation, or Rojava).

Global War on Terror: Operation Olive Branch in Afrin District, Syria - The Foreign Analyst
Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin District, yellow represents Kurdish-controlled territories (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As Steven A. Cook explains, Turkey’s latest intervention in Syria against Kurdish populations is entirely rational. Indeed, Turkey is bordering numerous unstable and/or warring countries such as Syria, Iraq and Iran, all posing their own threat to the Turkish border. In addition, Ankara has long nurtured an ambivalent relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish minority, alienating an important part of the country’s 15 million Kurds and leading to the creation of separatist movements such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The war against the Islamic State (IS) initiated in 2014 saw Kurdish fighters play an important role in combating the terrorist group. The YPG was thus chosen as the US’ privileged partner in the region to defeat IS and played a decisive role in recapturing cities from jihadists in Northern Syria. The US supplied the YPG with weapons and military training, turning the Kurdish armed group into a powerful, battle-hardened military actor in the region.

The challenges posed by Turkey’s intervention against Kurdish groups

For Ankara, the empowerment of the YPG/PYD at its southern border along with the persistent threat posed domestically by the PKK raises the alarming perspective of the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state that would challenge Turkey’s territorial integrity and national security.

To avoid this scenario, Turkey decided to intervene in Northern Syria, against the will of Damascus, Washington and most European Union (EU) countries. The key element to justify this controversial intervention lays in the classification of the PKK as a terrorist organization (by Turkey, the US and the EU) and in the designation (by Turkey) of the YPG/PYD as its Syrian offshoot (quite rightly according to most analysts). From this perspective, despite the violation of Syria’s territorial integrity and the absence of international consensus on a military operation, Turkey is “rightfully” intervening in its neighbor’s northwestern province to combat and prevent the spread of terrorism.

Turkey’s unilateral military intervention in Afrin district is causing severe strategic challenges to the US and its NATO allies (Turkey also being a NATO member). While Turkey played a very minor role in defeating IS and had an overall ambiguous policy on the Syrian crisis (Ankara has been repeatedly accused of complacency towards terrorists operating at its southern border as a way to help the destabilization of its Syrian rival and to preserve Turkey from terrorist attacks), Kurdish fighters have been the most efficient regional fighting force involved against the terrorist group. The US and its allies are thus witnessing the aggression against one of their main regional partners – a partner in which they invested significant resources – by a fellow NATO member. Despite Turkey’s military operation going against American and most NATO member countries’ strategic interests, it remains incredibly difficult to prevent Ankara from implementing counterterrorism policies in the regions bordering its national territory.  More generally, in the context of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), how can one country be refrained from implementing the counterterrorism policies it deems necessary to preserve its national security?

The Global War on Terror: an American invention easily recyclable

The GWOT was launched by the US shortly after 9/11 and materialized  in both military doctrines and operations on the ground (Afghanistan and Iraq, along with a worldwide deployment of special forces). At the doctrinal level, the GWOT’s goal is defined as the national strategy seeking “to defeat violent extremism as a threat to [the American] way of life as a free and open society; and create a global environment inhospitable to violent extremists and all who support them.” More specifically, the GWOT doctrine incorporates fundamental strategic goals providing a justification for international operations. Among the main missions of the GWOT are the following:

  • thwart or defeat terrorist attacks against the United States, its allies, and interests;
  • attack and disrupt terrorist networks abroad so as to cause the enemies to be incapable or unwilling to attack the US homeland, allies, or interests;
  • contribute to the establishment and maintenance of a global environment inhospitable to violent extremists and all who support them.

With the GWOT framework, the US positioned itself as the frontrunner of an all-out international war against groups and individuals dubbed as terrorists, legitimizing any means deemed necessary to eradicate terrorism, even those going against international norms and conventions. The 2003 Iraq war was launched by Washington against any form of international consensus and despite the strong disapproval of UNSC permanent members such as France and Russia. As a consequence, the Bush administration established a precedent in the post-Cold War era, by ignoring international conventions established within the framework of the UN, and opened the way to future unilateral military operations such as the ongoing Olive Branch Operation.

This breach of international cooperation has since been instrumentalized by numerous governments to justify controversial security policies. From China’s anti-separatism measures in Xinjiang to Turkey’s current military campaign against US-backed groups in Syria, the GWOT has become more of a moral justification for state actors rather than a precise security doctrine.

The Pentagon’s decision to create a 30,000-strong security force along the Turkish-Syrian border, made of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF – dominated by YPG fighters), has naturally alarmed Turkey which dubbed it a “terror army.” The complexity of the Syrian crisis along with the presence of military powers such as Russia and Turkey is leaving NATO with very limited options to effectively preserve its SDF partner against Turkish, Syrian or Russian aggression.

Blurring the line between counterterrorism operations and strategic military maneuvers may have brought short-term benefits to the US at a time where it could still act as the hegemonic superpower but Washington is no longer the mastermind of realpolitik. In an increasingly multipolar world, the US and its allies should probably keep that in mind for the future, and stop undermining international norms and conventions.

Cover Picture: Kurdish YPG Fighters, © Kurdishstruggle / flickr