As if the war in Syria could bear further complications amid repeated failure of political dialogue whether in Sochi or Geneva talks, the escalating Turkish military operation in the northern Syrian city of Afrin adds a new dimension to the crisis.
The Afrin district is part of the governorate of Aleppo, northwest of Syria, near the borders of Turkey. It is under the control of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia gathering several groups including the Women Protection Units (YPJ) and its political wing being the Kurdish opposition Democratic Union Party (PYD). The YPG is engaged in the Syrian civil war, playing a role in the fight against the Islamic State group (IS), for which it received US support, and other fundamentalist groups such as Al-Qaeda’s affiliated Al-Nusra Front.
On 20 January, the Turkish military announced its launch of Operation Olive Branch in Afrin. In a statement published by Anadolu Agency, the military said the operation aims to “establish security and stability on our borders and region, to eliminate terrorists of PKK/KCK/PYD-YPG and [IS], and to save our friends and brothers… from their oppression and cruelty,” claiming its self-defence right under the UN charter.
According to a local resident of Afrin quoted in The Guardian on Thursday, in a report shedding light on civilian losses and family displacements, the operation—believed by Turkey to be one of several days—will take “much, much longer than that” due to unexpected “fierce resistance.”
This comes as the General Staff of the Republic of Turkey said on Friday that Operation Olive Branch is “continuing successfully as planned,” adding in a statement reported by Hurriyet Daily News that it seized a large number of weapons, ammunition, and an SA-18 air defence missile belonging to YPG militants in Afrin, and that 823 militants from both the YPG and IS were “neutralised,” a term the Hurriyet said could mean “surrendered, or were killed, or captured.”
Turkey considers the YPG and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it classifies terrorists, allies and has slammed US support for the YPG. In July 2017, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu criticised the US saying “support for the PKK is not coming from the other ends of the world. It is not coming from Turkey or from unknown places. It is not Japan that is giving brand-new weapons to the PYD, which is a facelift version of the PKK. So, there are wrong choices,” Hurriyet reported.
The accusations had previously been made by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan back in 2016, to which the US Embassy in Ankara responded in December of the same year in a published statement: “The US government has not provided weapons or explosives to the YPG or the PKK—period. We repeatedly have condemned PKK terrorist attacks and the group’s reprehensible violence in Turkey,” according to Hurriyet.
Barin Kayaoglu, an assistant professor of world history at the American University of Iraq, wrote in an analysis published in Al-Monitor on 29 December 2016 that “since the rise of IS in 2014, the Barack Obama administration has cooperated with the PYD in Syria. In the run-up to the PYD’s operation at IS’ capital, Raqqa, the US gave air support as well as logistical and intelligence backing to the PYD-led Syrian Democratic Forces. With Russia’s military intervention in Syria and Russian overtures to Kurdish groups fighting IS, Washington tried hard to keep its Syrian Kurdish partners happy.”
Meanwhile, Turkey is heavily relying on the Free Syrian Army troops in this operation, which are opposed to Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian Armed Forces, backed by Russia.
The Afrin battle poses several questions regarding US-Turkey strained relations, and the extent of Turkey’s cooperation with Russia, all amid uncertain prospects for any progress towards the end of the Syrian war, which despite the shrinking power of IS, remains subject to global powers’ interests.
The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the Turkish move, considering it an attack on Syria’s sovereignty. In a statement it published on 20 January, the ministry denied any reports by Turkey that the Syrian regime was informed of the military operation in Afrin, calling on the international community to take “necessary procedures to end it.”
The YPG issued several statements against what it described as Turkey’s “aggression.” On 20 January, a statement on its official website published before the operation read: “The sudden and unjustified threats of offensive operations from Turkey into Afrin, Syria threaten to breathe new life into [IS]. Allegations that we have launched attacks across the border are false and a pretext for Turkey to bring its military forces and its extremist opposition groups onto Syrian soil.”
A second YPG statement issued after the operation was launched said: “We know that, without the permission of global forces, and mainly Russia, whose troops located in Afrin, Turkey cannot attack civilians using Afrin air space. Therefore we hold Russia as responsible as Turkey and stress that Russia is the crime partner of Turkey in massacring the civilians in the region.”
More recently, an AP report said there was growing Syrian Kurdish anger with the US, quoting a senior Kurdish politician saying “How can [the U.S.-led coalition against IS] stand by and watch? They should meet their obligations toward this force that participated with them (in the fight against terrorism). We consider their unclear and indecisive positions as a source of concern.”
Nujin Derik, the commander of the Women’s Protection Unit in Afrin, voiced the same concern in an op-ed for the New York Times in which she wrote: “Does the Trump administration now care about nothing but its immediate tactical interests?”
There has also been a wave of Kurdish protests with calls to “save Afrin” including in the UK, Sweden, France, and Germany, with the latter’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel reportedly expressing concern over the situation.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned Turkey, telling Le Figaro that if the operation would take another turn other than the purpose of combatting a potential terrorist threat on the borders and is revealed to be an act of invasion, “it would be problematic for us.”
After being criticised by Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu, who considered the statement an insult, Macron took a less harsh tone, saying the minister’s reaction without doubt meant that the operation is not more than Turkey securing its borders, by which he said he felt “reassured.”
In mid-January, reports emerged that the US-led coalition to train 30,000 border security forces mainly from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), affiliated with the YPG, thus stirring Turkey’s anger.
Cavusoglu wrote an op-ed for the New York Times where he said that the US chose the “wrong partner”, “a group that the American government itself recognises as a terrorist organisation.”
With further determination to proceed with its claimed security protection operation, Erdogan said Turkey could expand military action in the city of Manbij, where there are approximately 2,000 US troops embedded with the YPG in the context of Washington’s cooperation with the umbrella SDF against IS, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based research organisation.
Yet, the implications for the relations of the two NATO allies are uncertain as reports pointed out that both sides aimed at sending each other strong messages but at the same time trying to maintain a cooperative work frame. Although the US warned Turkey against escalation, there have been no reports of direct resistance to the operation in Afrin.
On 20 January, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement expressing concern over the Afrin operation.
But with the withdrawal of a considerable portion of Russian troops from Syria, reports say Turkey staged a deal with Russia to perform its operation in northern Syria. According to experts and Kurdish sources, it would not have otherwise been possible to enter Syria’s airspace or use the SDF in the operation, leaving Idlib at risk of Russian backed pro-Assad forces.
The question is why. According to lecturer at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Leonid Issaev’s analysis in Al-Jazeera says that Turkey is one of the co-organisers of the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in Sochi.
“By cooperating with Ankara on Afrin, Moscow has created an opportunity that would allow it to solve the situation in Idlib without military escalation. Russia knew that a military confrontation in Idlib would have been costly for Damascus and its allies, as it would have led to a new humanitarian catastrophe similar to the one that occurred a year ago in Aleppo. Not to mention that such a conflict would have exhausted the already weak Syrian army, forcing Russia to return to the Syrian war front,” the expert wrote.