The conditions surrounding the military intervention in Afrin in what is called the “Olive Branch” operation differ from those that surrounded “Euphrates Shield” operation in 2016. Although the earlier operation aimed at, among other goals, preventing the armed Kurds from linking Afrin areas with the areas under their control in the Euphrates basin, it was enlisted within the international efforts to fight Isis. The current operation in Afrin, however, witnessed a development in the Turkish stance as it targets the YPG which are supported internationally and which are the most prominent US ally in the Syrian war. They are the military arm of the PYD which Turkey considers ‘terrorist’ and an extension of the PKK.
The General Staff of Turkey announced Saturday 20 January 2018 in a statement the launch of a military operation in Afrin in Syria called “Olive Branch” in cooperation between the Turkish armed forces and free Syrian army battalions days following the artillery shelling that targeted the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in that area. The statement said: the operation aims to establish security and stability along Turkey’s borders and the region, eliminate PKK\PYD\YPG and Isis terrorists in Afrin as well as protect Syrians from terrorist oppression and cruelty.
Turkey precise decision was to protect Turkey national interests at a time of changes in the area that touch the regional and international system and at a time the Syrian arena itself is witnessing fierce battles near Afrin in Idlib and its surrounding, in addition to the ongoing international efforts to start steps in the political settlement where Turkey is considered one of its sponsors. This required Ankara to carry out diplomatic activities that are not less important than the military operations on the ground to neutralize the international stances before and after the military operations.
The operation goals and Turkey motives
Turkey prepared to intervene in Afrin some time ago. Last year, talks increased in the Turkish official means about a military operation in Afrin that could be called ‘Euphrates Sword’. Turkey tried to enter Manbij and eliminate the YPG and SDF armed groups during the “Euphrates Shield” operation, east of Euphrates. The then U.S. and Russia stances stopped the continuation of the Turkish military operations. The internal political situation in Turkey and the complexity of the Syrian scene in general contributed to delaying the Turkish operation designed earlier.
Following the failed coup attempt in 2016, the Turkish military and political institutions seemed to be more in harmony to cooperate with Russia and Iran. Turkey felt the danger of the US intentions to attack Idlib and go to the Syrian coast under the pretext of combating Jabhat al-Nusra depending on its arm YPG under the umbrella of SDF.
With Turkey deployment of 3 observation posts south of Afrin, end of last year, within the de-escalation agreement in the fourth area which resulted from Astana format, Turkey preparation for a military operation increased to remove the PYD militants from Afrin.
Turkey most important announced goal from the operation is represented in eliminating the project of establishing a Kurdish entity on its southern borders led by PYD that Ankara considers an extension of the PKK, or at least undermining the presence of this entity. Afrin is one of three areas known as “Rojava federalism” or “West of Kurdistan Federalism”, something that will reduce the chances of establishing this entity and will prevent the geographical communication among its areas.
Although Afrin area geography, contrary to the geography of east Euphrates areas, makes the missions of the participating forces in the operation difficult, Afrin test as a first step in the Turkish intervention relies on political and military considerations at the same time. This is connected to the US presence and the stances of the active powers as well as the Kurdish Units lack of the strategic depth east of Euphrates.
Since the start of the operation, Turkish officials reiterated saying that “Turkey seeks to remove the PYD/PKK militants and to hand the authority to the original people of Afrin and to secure a safe zone for the displaced Syrians in Turkey to return and that the operation will expand later to include Manbij and all Turkish borders with Syria.
Certainly, Turkey goals in “Olive Branch” exceed confronting the Kurdish threat. Turkey sees the areas in north Syria as areas of strategic influence. Turkey has a main role in any future arrangements in Syria because of its domination on the decision of major powers in the military and political Syrian opposition. Through the operation, Turkey seeks to expand the areas the Syrian opposition controls to secure an extension of its national security as it runs them indirectly. These areas extend from the areas of the Euphrates Shield to Idlib countryside and they are within Turkey direct interests at a time when Syria is undergoing an indirect division under the influence of more than one country.
Ankara seeks to complete what it started in the Euphrates Shield areas and create the safe zone it has been calling for since a long time. The aim is to have suitable conditions for the displaced Syrians in Turkey and in the bordering camps to return so that Turkey will have less burden.
Syrian opposition forces and their role in the operation
Free Syrian army factions and Euphrates Shield factions in particular are participating in “Olive Branch” operation with the Turkish forces. Although Turkey took the decision to launch the operation as it is related to its national interest, the operation will influence the opposition forces and the Syrian scene in general.
The armed opposition factions seek to benefit from the operation to expand the areas they control to extend from Aleppo northern countryside in Euphrates Shield areas to Aleppo western countryside and Idlib, gaining additional geographic areas in a difficult field situation where their control is lost to the Syrian regime in Idlib and in the countryside of Hama and Aleppo. They also aim at the return of the displaced in Aleppo northern countryside to the villages controlled by SDF in the triangle “Menagh, Tell Rifaat Sheikh Issa” if the operation succeeds.
The opposition forces do not have any chance to make any decision in the current events. They are now moving within the frame of the international understandings between Russia and Turkey. The opposition lost wide areas in Idlib which are almost equal to what it could gain from Afrin operation if it succeeds. Consequently, the new areas the opposition might control will not be a supporting factor in confronting the regime or in the Syrian war negotiations because any progress will be related militarily to the Turkish role on the ground and politically to the negotiation arenas.
International stances and reactions
The U.S. stance:
The U.S. support to the Kurds deteriorated the U.S. Turkish relations in the last two years. It seems that Ankara could not find U.S. convincing excuses concerning the Turkish security concerns about the expansion of the Kurdish Units and the increase in their armament. The U.S. controls 25% of Syria and most of the borderline with Turkey while the U.S. used to assure that the support aims only at fighting Isis and that most of the weapons will be recalled after the mission is over.
The U.S. promises to Turkey to withdraw SDF were not kept. YPG are the basic component of SDF in West Euphrates areas and in the Arab villages they controlled in Aleppo northern countryside after Euphrates Shield operation stopped last year at Manbij borders due to the Russian U.S. rejection.
Days before “Olive Branch” operation began, on 14 January, the international coalition, which is led by the U.S. announced forming and training a border force of 30 thousand members under SDF leadership; half of the fighters will be Kurds. This force will spread at Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq. This assures Turkey’s concerns that the role of these units will continue after Isis is removed, a thing that triggered Ankara’s anger.
With the start of the Turkish military operation in Afrin, the U.S. response was diplomatic and smooth as it called to self-control as Tillerson said pointing out the U.S. understanding of Turkey security interests, according to the White House spokeswoman.
The U.S. stance to contain the Turkish momentum is triggered by many considerations:
- Afrin is not a starting point for any of the coalition battles against the remaining Isis controlled areas; this is what the coalition spokesman emphasized at the beginning of the operation. Consequently, the presence of PYD militants in Afrin is no longer justified. This poses a real threat to the Turkish security.
- Afrin is located within the Russian influence areas and there are no U.S. military bases there as there are U.S. bases in the other Kurdish controlled areas. Consequently, it does not have any strategic importance for the U.S. to control the areas of oil and gas. The operation does not pose a direct danger to the U.S. soldiers in Syria.
- The U.S. officials realize that the development in the Russian Turkish relations poses a real danger on the U.S. interests in the future. Thus, it is necessary to take a step to improve the strained relations with Turkey. The Kurdish reactions laid the responsibility on Russia, not on the U.S.
But it is difficult to be sure of the U.S. stance if the Turkish military operations continue for a long time. This is in addition to the Turkish intensions and the almost daily official statements that the operation will not stop at Afrin but will expand to reach Manbij. This predicts a possible imminent clash between Turkey and the U.S. in the U.S. controlled areas in case Ankara insisted on going on.
Reading the Russian stance: is there really a deal?
The observers are of the general view that the Olive Branch operation forms the highest extent of the Russian Turkish understanding in the Syrian file. The last two years witnessed a noticeable development in the Russian Turkish relations, in the military and political sides. This became clear in the “Euphrates Shield” operation and then in the two countries sponsorship of Astana format concerning the Syrian negotiations and in the resulting agreements of “de-escalation” in addition to the importing of the air defense system transaction S400 to Turkey and the preparation for Sochi conference, not ending at “Olive Branch” operation as the developments indicate the two countries intentions to build strategic relations in the area.
Just two days before the operation, Hulusi Akar, the Turkish Chief of the General Staff and Hakan Fidan, head of Turkey’s Intelligence, visited Russia and met with Sergey Shoygu, the Russian Minister of Defense. The visit was described as putting the last touches before the start of the Turkish operation.
Hours after the announcement of the operation by the Turkish General Staff, the Russian ministry of defense issued a statement announcing the withdrawal of the operational group members of the reconciliation center and the Russian military police from Afrin surrounding. The statement laid blamed the U.S. for what is happening due to the armament of the Kurds and motivating them to adopt separatist steps.
The Russian stance triggered the Kurdish leaders’ anger. This made them accuse Russia of “treason” when the Turkish operation started. They confirmed that the operation would not take place without the “Russian complicity”.
The Kurdish Units had received Russian support at the beginning of the Russian intervention in 2015 and during the plane crisis with Turkey. Russia opened offices for PYD in Moscow and supported its militants in their operations against the Syrian opposition north of Aleppo.
In the last months, Moscow did its best, even after the start of the operation, to convince the leaders of the Kurdish Units to deliver Afrin areas to the Syrian regime to avoid a possible Turkish operation. This is what many analysts expected. But the Kurdish Units rejected the Russian proposal due to the importance of Afrin to the Kurds conscious being the most important part of “Rojava” project.
What is the relationship between Afrin operation and what is going on in Idlib?
Idlib areas and its surrounding are in the 4th area announced in the “de-escalation” agreement which resulted from “Astana” format. They are the areas witnessing battles between the regime and the opposition forces since more than two months. The regime reached Abu al-Duhur military airport and was close to “Saraqib” city. Although the areas the regime controlled were mostly under “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS) control, the consecutive quick collapse of villages and towns aroused doubt with a Turkish retreating stance which opened the door for analyses that link between what happened in Idlib and the preparations that preceded Afrin operation. This showed the symptoms of a Russian Turkish deal.
Turkey, according to the de-escalation agreement related to the 4th area signed in September 2017, was bound to deploy 12 observation posts in Idlib and its surrounding. The Turkish forces, however, deployed 3 observation posts only in Idlib and all of them were in Afrin surrounding from the south. The fourth observation post was deployed later after Afrin operation in Tal Al Eis, south of Aleppo in addition to the news about its intention to deploy a new post in “Taftanaz” military airport as a base for the Turkish forces.
Despite the talk in the last months among observers that “HTS” is the one that prevented the Turkish forces from deploying the observation posts in the 4th area, some believed that Turkey was able to coordinate with “HTS” to deploy observation posts in Afrin surrounding and it was able to deploy the rest of the observation posts to stop the progress of the regime and its allies in Idlib. The Turkish Russian arrangements, however, were organized to have the areas east of Sekka under the Russian control. Thus, “HTS” military act is within these understandings.
Whether the progress the regime forces achieved in Idlib was a result of Turkey and Russia understandings or not, the clear truth is that the Turkish stance towards the move of the regime and Russia in Idlib was characterized by hesitation, condemnation and diplomacy without real action to stop the violations of the “de-escalation” agreement as Turkey was not ready to compromise its understandings with its partners Russia and Iran.
The Iranian stance:
The Iranian responses to the operation were traditional; they warn against “infringing on Syria sovereignty”. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman “Bahram Ghasemi” emphasized the “necessity of maintaining the unity of the Syrian land and the respect of the national sovereignty and avoiding the escalation of the humanitarian crisis and the preservation of the lives of the innocent Syrians”. The Iranian foreign ministry also called Turkey on 5 February to stop its military operation in Afrin warning of causing instability.
Iran and Turkey share the opinion of considering the national moves of the Kurdish forces in the area as threatening to both of them. This was manifested in the cooperation during the Kurdistan Region referendum last year. In addition, the two countries are partners in sponsoring Astana format for the Syrian negotiations. Turkey coordination with Russia was not at a high level to stop Turkey from acting away from coordination with Iran. The Turkish General Staff phoned his Iranian counterpart in the second day of the operation.
The Turkish presence north of Syria poses a threat to the strategy Iran is trying to apply in the region, especially that the curbing of the Iranian influence is a common goal of Russia and Turkey. Iran that got a supporting Turkish stance during the protests that broke out in Iran at the end of last year looks at least in the near future to be unable to resist Turkey plans at a time the Russian decision in Syria became the base. Thus, Iran’s readiness to confront Turkey influence in related to the pivotal Russian role at a time Russia is trying to achieve a political settlement that cannot come true without Turkey.
The official stance of the Syrian regime is in the same frame. Its sovereignty is humiliated more than before after issuing threats to target the Turkish forces without any real action. It didn’t show any action when the Kurdish units issued a statement asking it to intervene to withstand the Turkish offensive.
Other international stances:
The international responses in general were characterized by self-restraint and maintaining the lives of civilians and limited condemnations. Turkey diplomacy was there on hourly basis since the operation started to keep up with the international responses, contain them and reply to them.
With the start of the military operation, the Turkish foreign ministry was quick to summon the ambassadors and the representatives of the major powers and the neighboring countries to clarify the conditions of the operation. It had an active diplomatic move including notifying the Syrian regime.
Egypt and UAE denounced the operation and considered it “a violation of the Syrian sovereignty” while France called for a meeting of the Security Council to discuss the operation but the council failed to discuss it. The French foreign ministry in a statement emphasized “the necessity that Turkey have self-restraint at a time the humanitarian conditions are deteriorating in many areas in Syria.
London showed understanding of the Olive Branch operation in Afrin and a spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office said: “We recognize that Turkey has a legitimate interest in the security of its borders”. He added “The UK is committed to working closely with Turkey and other allies to find solutions in Syria”.
The future of the operation and the potential scenarios
Experts admit the difficulty of the Turkish military operation in Afrin from the military perspective as the area consists of natural geographic barriers, in addition to the arming and fighting capabilities of the Kurdish militias and politically because of the intersection of the strategic interests of many active powers in the area although the balance of powers is in favor of the Turkish forces and their allies from the Syrian opposition.
Turkey, which depends on more than 20 thousand fighter in the operation from the Syrian opposition, seems in a hard situation and it finds it difficult to involve big numbers of the ground forces in the operation to avoid human loss that will lead to harsh criticisms from the Turkish opposition and public opinion.
Turkey seems eager to get the results of its intervention without prolonging the time of the operation via the diplomatic pressure and the repeated threats to expand the scope of the military operations to Manbij while waiting for an international intervention to end the armed Kurdish militias presence which are the enemies of Turkey in Afrin and Manbij at least without the need to continue with the operation.
Here there are three possible scenarios:
First: the operation shall stop at Afrin area paving the way to besiege it to remove the Kurdish militants either by force or by a settlement via a certain mediation and the completion of the building a 30-kilometer deep “security zone” along the Syrian border with Turkey. The Turkish forces depend on careful military tactics that need a long period to avoid human losses in the Turkish forces and the Syrian opposition factions and the attempt to avoid civilian victims that might lead to make the international public opinion against it. Turkey success in the operation will strengthen the Turkish stance and increase its influence in the arrangements of the political solution in Syria.
The second scenario: Turkey will involve more forces in the operation to end the operations in Afrin to continue towards Manbij and east Euphrates areas. This will lead to the exhaustion of the Turkish forces; leave alone the conflict of interests with the other active powers in these areas especially the U.S.
The third scenario which is more probable is that the operation will constitute an introduction to rebuild the understandings among the conflicting powers on the influence in Syria. Turkey shall get the least level of warrantees related to its national security in the Syrian north. This will lead to the Syrian regime control of Afrin and its surrounding and the entrance of the Syrian opposition forces to Aleppo countryside villages in the triangle “Menagh, Tell Rifaat Sheikh Issa” keeping Turkey in control of some mountain peaks and the areas it reached in Afrin surrounding.
There is no doubt that “olive branch” operation, regardless of the stages it will reach, will lead to an important effect in the current Syrian war in addition to social implications that cannot be ignored. This aroused discrepant responses in the Syrian community and the national forces between supporter and opponent in a state of ethnic polarization north of Syria between the Arab and the Kurdish components. There is also leakage of news about violations of some opposition forces members participating in the operation which aim at ethnic tension in the Syrian north.
It is important to remember that the exclusionary suppressive practices and the crimes of forcible displacement of Arabs by the Kurdish militias and SDF which were systematic lately north and east of Syria under the pretext of combating Isis to achieve the supposed federalism in the north and the planned mess to trigger a structural change in the Syrian entity left deep effects in the Syrian arena and the societal environment. This made eliminating the Kurdish militias and undermining their presence a common goal of the opposition forces and the regime.
Despite this, Syrians fear increases that they will be involved in the national conflicts in the area and that they will be the spearhead in influence projects that don’t fulfil the aspirations of Syrians, justice, freedom and independence. This in turn will harm the societal relations in Syria for the coming generations at a time Syrians are trying to reduce the effects of the holocaust they are undergoing. There is also the fear of diverting the attention from the daily massacres the regime and Russia are perpetrating in Ghouta and Idlib in which hundreds of Syrians were killed in the last few days.