The Turkish offensive on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in Syria, codenamed Operation Olive Branch, is heightening tensions in the already complicated Syrian conflict and threatening to further strain ties between NATO allies Turkey and the United States.
Turkish troops began crossing the border near Afrin on Sunday as a part of a campaign deemed “Operation Olive Branch.”
After over a week of cross-border shelling by Turkish artillery and then a flurry of airstrikes that allegedly took out 153 Kurdish targets, Turkey has finally begun sending ground troops across the Syrian border into Afrin. Afrin is currently under the control of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group primarily led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Turkey has framed the Operation Olive Branch as having two objectives:
- To end the threats posed to Turkey by the YPG and their allies in the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
- To aid Turkey’s allies in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in capturing territory from the Kurds.
The Turkish backed factions of the FSA began moving reinforcements towards Afrin late last week and now claim to have 25,000 fighters in the area. According to Ankara the aim of the operation is to create a safe-zone in northern Syria between the Kurds and Turkey with the FSA rebels holding the captured region.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan spoke on the operation on Sunday, saying:
Our jets took off and started bombing. And now, the ground operation is underway. Now we see how the YPG… are fleeing in Afrin,” and that the Turkish military “will chase them. God willing, we will complete this operation very quickly.”
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As of the writing of this article, Turkish forces have pushed about 5 kilometers into Kurdish territory and the YPG claims to have repelled several attacks. According to Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, this 5 km zone marks the completion of a sixth of the operation to create the aforementioned safe-zone that will stretch 30 km into Syria.
In geopolitical terms, it isn’t ideal that Turkey is leading this illegal operation, but there is a need to address the SDF presence in northern Syria, which provides a foothold for U.S. forces in the country. Just days before this operation, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that these U.S. soldiers would illegally remain in Syria for the foreseeable future, which is likely worse than a temporary Turkish presence.
Turkey has already dealt a blow to the growing illegal U.S. occupation during their bombing runs earlier this weekend when they hit Menagh Airbase, which is used by the U.S. to import arms for the SDF. Turkey also scored a public relations victory earlier today when Jaysh Al-Thuwar (a competing FSA branch), a large non-Kurdish faction of the SDF, allegedly defected to the Turkish side of the conflict. Jaysh Al-Thuwar operates in northern Aleppo province, a crucial region where most of the Turkish backed FSA’s reinforcements are moving through.
— جيش الثوار (@jeshalthowar) January 21, 2018
For their part, the YPG claim that Turkish forces aren’t doing so well despite their air superiority. This was expressed earlier today YPG official Nouri Mahmoudi issued a statement saying “All the Turkish military’s ground attacks against Afrin have been repelled so far and they have been forced to retreat,” and YPG elements claimed to have destroyed several Turkish tanks this afternoon.
In a tough position once again, thanks to Erdogan, Secretary Tillerson found himself having to go to bat on behalf of his Kurdish allies by contacting his Turkish allies Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to discuss the operation. Details of this conversation haven’t been released but it does seem that Washington knows it has no control of their NATO ally with the only official statement coming from State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert who told reporters that the U.S. urges Turkey “to exercise restraint and ensure that its military operations remain limited in scope and duration and scrupulous to avoid civilian casualties.”
Secretary Tillerson also spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to try to resolve the crisis in Afrin. Russia, whose relations with Turkey have been improving in recent months, is also somewhat unhappy with the Turkish operation but are in a better position to act as an arbiter between Damascus and Ankara which both oppose the YPG. Moscow has also urged restraint by Turkish forces but Lavrov also stated that Russia understands Erdogan’s frustration as both countries are opposed to “unilateral action” by the U.S. in Syria. Prior to the Operation Olive Branch, the U.S. was looking to integrate the SDF into a “Border Force” that would’ve both illegally split Syrian territory and put a hostile force on the border of U.S.-allied Turkey, sparking the Turkish offensive.
Syrian President Bashar Assad is the only leader that is completely opposed to the operation in his country (at least publicly), although he was also going to have to confront the SDF at some point in the future. However, the Turkish backed rebels aren’t the force Assad wanted to see rolling into Afrin since their overall ambition is not to just defeat the Kurds but eventually topple the Syrian government. For these reasons, Assad calls the Turkish offensive an operation that is in “support for terrorism,” and just “the latest move in Turkey’s attacks on Syria’s sovereignty.”
While Erdogan claims to want to stop the SDF to ensure a “terror corridor” doesn’t form on his southern border, it is also fair to say Damascus doesn’t want an FSA terror corridor which would connect the Turkish troops in Afrin with those located in Idlib monitoring the FSA in the “deconfliction zone” there. Syrian ally Iran and adversary Egypt also agreed with Assad and have called on Turkey to end their offensive in Afrin.
Rather than ending the operation, however, Turkey seems to be stepping them up. Erdogan promised that after Afrin, Turkish forces were looking to take the Kurdish controlled city of Manbij in northeast Aleppo. The latest reports indicate that Turkish troops have now entered the area with air support from Ankara, and while their objective is currently unclear, it is most likely Manbij.
Top Photo | Turkish Army soldiers prepare their tanks next to empty shells at a staging area in the outskirts of the village of Sugedigi, Turkey, on the border with Syria, Jan. 22, 2018. (AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)
James Carey is journalist and editor at Geopolitics Alert. He specializes in Middle East and Asian affairs.
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