ISTANBUL - Turkey’s military incursion into Syria against a Kurdish militia has received overwhelming support, according to a new Turkish opinion poll.
The poll conducted by A&G found Operation Olive Branch, the name of the military operation, had 90 percent support among the Turkish population.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been unwavering in his message that Operation Olive Branch is a national struggle.
“Only Allah is victorious, and faith is more important than arms. If needed, we’ll fight against the world,” he said Wednesday to an enthusiastic parliament.
Turkey’s mainstream media have all rigidly echoed Erdogan’s stance, following a patriotic line with heavy religious overtones and constant reference to Turkey’s imperial past.
Dissenting voices, particularly on social media — one of the few remaining platforms for independent and critical views —have faced arrest.On Tuesday, 24 people were arrested for postings criticizing the Syrian offensive. More than 400 have been detained.
The aggressive response to dissent is seen by some analysts as government nervousness over the resilience of public support.
“People are supporting, yes. But are the people happy? I would doubt this,” said professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. “Every day, there are coffins, with politicians running from one funeral to another. It will not be easy in the long run for them.”
Operation Olive Branch was launched more than three weeks ago to battle the YPG militia, a group Turkey has called terrorists linked to a decades-long insurgency inside the country.
“There is a national pride among Turks for this operation,” said Cengiz Aktar, a Turkish political scientist. “We can safely say today, he (Erdogan) will win all the upcoming elections this year and next year.”
By 2019, Turkey will have faced triple polls — local, general and presidential. Speculation is rife that Erdogan will call early elections to take advantage of the current nationalist euphoria.
How widespread public support is for Operation Olive Branch, and if the current national fervor automatically results in votes for Erdogan, are questions analysts say are likely weighing on him.
Recent opinion polls indicate little change in support for Erdogan or his ruling AK party, despite overwhelming public backing of the military operation. While Erdogan has a comfortable lead over his political rivals, polls show he is still short of the required 50 percent plus one vote needed to win re-election.
Retired Gen. Ilker Basbug, Turkey’s former chief of the general staff, warned Erdogan against seeking political advantage.
“Our soldiers are fighting and being killed in Afrin,” he said. “Now is not the time to discuss politics when our soldiers are fighting and being killed.”
Since the launch of Operation Olive Branch, 31 Turkish soldiers have been killed. Analysts point out that there have been few spontaneous public displays of support in Turkey’s main cities, something that has traditionally been seen in previous military operations against Kurdish militants.
“History teaches us the more the conflict lasts and the dead come every day, the government will have difficulties,” said Bagci. “This is already happening. Let’s talk about what the surveys (say) in two or three weeks.”
Opposition party leaders are now trying to distance themselves from the military operation, while being careful not to be seen as disloyal to soldiers fighting in Syria.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition CHP, called on Erdogan to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the offensive. That stance was supported by Meral Aksener, head of the newly formed right-wing iYi Party. Erdogan has dismissed both calls.
Before the launch of Operation Olive Branch, polls showed economic concerns were the priority of voters.
Potentially troubling for Erdogan was a December survey (by polling firm Metropol) that found only half of AK Party supporters considered living standards had improved since the 2015 election. Unemployment remains stubbornly in double digits, despite a surging economy fueled by cheap government loans. Inflation is also at a decade high.
With the likelihood of more casualties in Syria and the absence of a quick victory, analysts suggest Erdogan more than ever will scour the polls for any changes in public sentiment.