JERUSALEM, Israel - Turkey is in the sixth week of its violent campaign to establish a so-called "safe zone" in northeast Syria. But watchdog groups and eyewitnesses on the ground say Turkey has aspirations far beyond the war-torn country. Social media posts from Turkish-backed fighters and statements from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself reveal that Ankara appears to be on violent jihadist mission.
Erdogan told the international community he needs to create a safe zone in northern Syria to relocate millions of Syrian refugees there. The premier also said that "Operation Spring Peace" will eradicate Kurdish-led forces in the region, forces he regards as terrorists but the US sees as allies.
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reports that Erdogan uses very different language when speaking to his Turkish troops and the Free Syrian Army jihadist mercenaries he has recruited for the fight.
MEMRI reports that on October 25, in a speech at the Çamlica Mosque in Istanbul, President Erdoğan said: "The Lord commands us to be violent against the unbelievers. Who is that 'we'? Muhammad's ummah. But he commands us to be merciful among ourselves. We will be merciful among ourselves, and we will be violent against the unbelievers, as happened in Syria."
Eyewitnesses on the ground tell CBN News that Turkish-backed forces are targeting "the unbelievers," many of whom are Christians.
Mindy Belz of WORLD Magazine told CBN News that Free Syrian Army soldiers, who are allied with Turkey, are marking Christian homes with the Arabic letter "N" to identify them as Christian and then confiscated their belongings just like ISIS did a few years ago.
"One of the Syrian refugees that I spoke to, and this was a Muslim, went out of his way to explain to me that what he saw was targeting of Christians," Belz said.
A senior State Department official said last week that Turkey is backing forces who have the same radical ideology as ISIS.
"The problem is that the people doing the fighting are these ill-disciplined Arab militias, some of whom we've worked within the past when we were arming the opposition, but many of whom are (a) ill-disciplined, and (b) relatively radical, and their ideology is essentially Islamic ideology," the official said.
A fragile government in northern Syria called the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAA) released a statement on Tuesday saying that Erdogan seeks to subjugate them through radical Islam.
"Erdogan plans to turn are free, democratic region back into turmoil under radical Islamic occupation," the government said.
Many Turkish Twitter users praise the invasion into northeast Syria as a form of jihad.
On October 6, user @zintaniii wrote:
"When jihad knocks on your door, you will not turn and look back. It's time for holy war. #OperationPeaceFountain."
On October 7, user @mollakevseri wrote:
"An army educated by Islam will change its route to avoid harming an anthill in times of peace. In times of jihad it will show its intention to win by making its enemies' blood flow thunderously like waterfalls. #OperationPeaceFountain.
On the same day, @muradiilahi wrote:
"Our renown will increase with jihad. #OperationPeaceFountain."
Critics of Erdogan's invasion say he is trying to revive the Ottoman Empire and establish a new caliphate.
"Their open intention is to restore the original caliphate which was disbanded in 1924," said Dalton Thomas of Frontier Alliance International.
Recently Turkey's defense minister posted a map to his social media that shows portions of Greece, Syria, and Iraq as part of a greater Turkey.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar posted a message alongside the map: "We have no eyes on anyone's soil. We will only take what's ours."
The map reflects the 1920 Ottoman National Pact that includes lands Turkey believes it deserved at the end of World War I.
Charmaine Hedding of the humanitarian aid organization The Shai Fund told CBN News she sees a historical parallel with World War II.
"I think that what we have done as the West is that we have given over this so-called buffer zone to Turkey in the hope for peace in our time, just like Chamberlain did to Nazi Germany with the Sudetenland land and we know what happened after that."