Turkish troops crossed into northern Syria today, a day after Turkish air force jets pounded Kurdish targets in the Afrin region in a move that will further inflame the nearly 7-year-old Syrian conflict, deepen ethnic tensions between Arabs, Turks and Kurds and complicate the US-led battle against the Islamic State (IS).
The operation codenamed Olive Branch is serving as a balm for wounded Turkish pride, showing that Turkey can defend itself against its enemies even in the face of resistance from global powers, namely the United States. And if Turkey can extract itself with minimum casualties, the gambit will likely further consolidate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s march toward one-man rule.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the aim of the operation, which is being backed by rebels operating under the Free Syria Army umbrella, was to establish a 30-kilometer (19-mile) cordon deep inside Syria. Turkish troops have advanced some 5 kilometers (3 miles) into Syrian territory, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported. The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the target of the Turkish attacks, said at least four Turkish soldiers and 10 Syrian rebel fighters were killed in clashes this morning. Syrian Kurdish officials also said at least 7 civilians had died as a result of the Turkish bombing. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
Erdogan said the operation would be completed in a very short time and threatened to punish anyone who dared oppose it as citizens gathered in mosques across the country to pray for Operation Olive Branch’s success. Even as Erdogan delivered his threats, prosecutors in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir began investigating a pair of lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party for criticizing the Turkish incursion in their Twitter posts.
Chafing under emergency rule that was renewed last week for a sixth time since the failed 2016 coup, nationalist Kurds who would normally take to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to protest Turkish aggression have stayed at home so far.
Erdogan has been threatening a major incursion against the YPG, which is the United States’ top partner in the battle against IS in Syria, for well over a year.
US support for the group, which is tightly intermeshed with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish rebel group that has been fighting the Turkish army for the past 33 years, has thrust US-Turkish relations over the cliff. In an ironic coincidence, the US presidential envoy to the coalition against IS, Brett McGurk, whom Turkey blames for Washington’s continued support for the YPG, happened to be in northern Syria for routine meetings with Syrian Kurdish and other coalition allies when the Turkish airstrikes began.
The United States has long maintained that the alliance would end once the battle against IS is completed. Thus, when a spokesman for the coalition last week said it was overseeing the establishment of a 30,000-strong border protection force, including YPG elements, that would patrol the Syrian-Turkish border, all hell broke loose.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hastily intervened to downplay the significance of what Erdogan labeled a “terror army” but the damage was already done. Tillerson’s rebuttals clearly did not chime with his speech at Stanford University last week laying out the case for a continued US presence in northern Syria, which the Syrian regime and its top allies, Iran and Russia, bitterly oppose.
Senior Syrian Kurdish officials believe that the coalition’s initial statements to the media about the border protection force may well have fed into Russia’s decision to let Turkey mount its attack on Afrin. Russian acquiescence is widely seen as a condition for any Turkish moves against Afrin; Russian forces are present on the ground and Russia controls the skies over the region. The Turkish offensive began after Turkey’s army and intelligence chiefs traveled to Moscow on Thursday.
The Syrian Kurds believe the decision to allow the Turkish attack is part of a finely choreographed plan by Moscow to help the Syrian regime win back territory, thin US influence by weakening its Kurdish partners and deepen the chasm between Washington and Ankara.
Accordingly, once Turkey softens YPG targets from the air and from the ground, the Syrian regime would move in.
Sinam Mohamad, a senior official in the YPG-backed Syrian Kurdish administration in northern Syria, told Al-Monitor in an interview, “Russia wants us to give Afrin to the Syrian regime." She said the YPG was told that if it ceded Afrin to the regime, the Kurds would be protected. She said the Kurds responded by saying that they would never give up Afrin and that "we will defend Afrin to our last breath.” Mohamad said, however, that the YPG had offered to hand over the Menagh air base, located to the south of Turkish-controlled Azaz, along with several checkpoints in the area, but had failed to secure a deal. “That’s when the Russians told the Turks 'Attack' and they did,” she said.
Mohamad, currently in Washington with fellow Syrian Kurdish representative Nobahar Mustafa, said the Syrian Kurdish people expected the United States to declare a no-fly zone over the Kurdish-controlled north, “including Afrin.” Mustafa, who was present at the interview, concurred that Afrin “presents a very real and immediate test of US commitment to their Kurdish partners.” The United States “must and can stop Turkey,” Mustafa said. She said the Turkish offensive was only helping the regime, Iran and IS, asking, “Aren’t they supposed to be America’s enemies?”
Washington's reaction so far has been confined to words.
The State Department urged its NATO ally Friday to not attack the Kurds and to focus on the fight against IS instead, but the United States has yet to respond to the Syrian Kurds’ appeals for help and is unlikely to. The United States views Afrin as part of Russia’s zone of influence thus none of its business, with its own informal mandate extending east of the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border.
“The United States is very concerned about the situation in northwest Syria, especially the plight of innocent civilians who are now faced with an escalation in fighting,” the State Department said in statement today. It also said, “We continue to be supportive of addressing the legitimate security concerns of Turkey as a NATO Ally and critical partner in the effort to defeat [IS]. However, we urge Turkey to exercise restraint and ensure that its military operations remain limited in scope and duration and scrupulous to avoid civilian casualties.”
The looming question is what Washington will do if Erdogan delivers on his threats to dislodge the YPG from the mainly Arab city of Manbij. The coalition’s decision to help the YPG wrest control of the city from IS in August 2016 was something of a tipping point and has stoked Turkish fears of Kurdish expansion.
Manbij falls west of the Euphrates River and Ankara had made clear it would not tolerate YPG expansion beyond the eastern bank. This is because western expansion could enable the Kurds to connect the territories under their control with Afrin, which lies to the west of the Euphrates and remains encircled by pro-Turkish and Syrian regime forces. Ankara agreed to cooperate with the Manbij operation on the sole condition that the YPG and its Arab allies withdrew once it fell. But Manbij remains under pro-YPG rule.
Mohamad said the United States would not allow Turkey to attack Manbij. “There are US forces who come in and out of Manbij, it's out of the question,” she said.
Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Al-Monitor that a Turkish grab for Manbij could result in a dust-up with the United States, and that nothing would please the Russians more. Heras said, “Up to now the Pentagon has been able to write off sporadic exchanges of fire between Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and the [YPG-dominated] Syrian Democratic Forces [allied with the United States] as random incidents.”
Heras said, however, that “what Erdogan is now suggesting is a Turkish invasion and dismantling of the entire edifice of post-Islamic State stability the United States is building in Syria.” This is because “Manbij is the lynchpin of Raqqa’s security. Lose it, and the US begins to lose control over Raqqa, and Raqqa is the steering wheel driving all US efforts.” Heras was referring to the recently liberated IS-stronghold.
Iraqi Kurdish officials who recently experienced their own share of disappointment with the United States have drawn parallels with their own plight and have aired skepticism about any US commitment to defend Manbij. With the battle against IS winding down, US reliance on the Kurds is diminishing, and with it YPG leverage over the United States. US forces would only open fire on Turkish troops if the Americans were attacked by the Turks, which despite the meltdown in ties seems highly unlikely.
A senior official from the Kurdistan Regional Government told Al-Monitor, “The Americans will do what they did in Kirkuk; they will tell the YPG, 'Manbij is not solely your territory.'” The official was referring to the enormous setbacks suffered by the Iraqi Kurds following their ill-fated referendum in September. Iraqi forces backed by Shiite militias drove Kurdish forces out of Kirkuk and other territories claimed by Baghdad, as the United States, which had made no prior commitment to defending the Kurds, looked on.