The Middle East is one of the most volatile regions in the world. There are many players with different interests sometimes at odds with one another. Turkey is one of those players. In 2016 it has taken the spotlight for launching Operation Euphrates Shield into Syrian territory to push back against the Islamic States.
Turkey is concerned not only with the presence of IS but also Kurdish militias. The decline of IS is replaced by the growing power of the Kurdish forces in Syria. This new reality has been looked with suspicion by Ankara. Therefore, it has launched a second operation into Syria, yet this time the main target is not IS but the YPG.
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Who is the YPG?
YPG is a group of Kurdish militias called the People’s Protection Units. This group is currently in control of northern Syria. Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). PKK has waged guerrilla warfare against the Turkish state since 1984 aiming for an independent Kurdish state separating from Turkey or at least Kurdish autonomy in the country. The decade-long combat has claimed the lives of more than 40 000 people.
YPG has received military assistance and logistical support from the United States who sees it as an effective fighting force in its campaign against the Islamic State group. Turkey has, again and again, called on Washington to stop its support for the YPG citing security concerns. Given the fact that the YPG controls over 25% of Syrian territory, it has become a force to be reckoned with in a country ravaged by nearly 7 years of civil war.
With US announcement of the creation of 30 000-member border security force mostly made up of Kurdish militias, Turkey decides to take action and launch Operation Olive Branch to stop what it calls as a “terrorist army” at its border. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has walked back from the announcement saying that it was misinterpreted. Regardless, the operation is already underway.
Turkey sees the YPG as a national security threat. It has stated that the group has provided a safe heaven for PKK militants to launch attacks across the border. Also, an independent Kurdish state in Syria could dangerously fuel the separatist sentiment among Kurdish population in Turkey. Its territorial integrity is of utmost importance for Ankara.
If Kurdish militias in Northern Syria could achieve independence, the geopolitics in the Middle East would be massively altered. Turkey would be isolated from Iraq and Syria by land because the Kurds control the direct land borders between these countries. Iraq and Syria will, therefore, find it almost impossible to maintain themselves as unified nation-states.In a region already plagued by instability, any more miscalculations will easily spiral out of control.
Following days of intense shelling, Turkish fighter jets carried out airstrikes against several targets of YPG militias on 20 January 2018. A day later, its ground forces made up of Free Syrian Army and Turkish Army started to move into YPG’s enclave of Afrin.
There could be some challenges to conducting an operation in Afrin region as the area has mountainous terrain. Capturing these strategic locations is vital but not easy. People’s Protection Units (YPG) has received US military support. Therefore, there will be stiff resistance, and Turkish ground forces will have to deal with an opponent in possession of American arms.
Turkey has received wide public support for Operation Olive Branch in the country as well as across a wide range of political parties. The United States attempts to ease its strain relationship with Ankara by issuing statements recognizing Turkey’s security concerns.
Meanwhile, Russia which controls the airspace over northern Syria has given Turkey green light to carry out its air raids on the YPG positions. It is not yet known whether this access is unlimited or with some restrictions by Moscow.This is a major concession by Moscow to Ankara. Russia has been looking for a way out of Syrian civil war to avoid getting bogged down in the Middle East as the Americans did in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has urged restraint and voiced concerns over Turkish operation.
Bashar Al Assad’s government, on the other hand, has considered Turkish operation to be an attack on its national sovereignty. The Syrian regime has announced that it may shoot down Turkish fighter jets flying over its airspace.
People’s Protection Units (YPG) has accused Russia of betraying the Kurds. Earlier, Russia had proposed to transfer Afrin enclave to Syrian government control in exchange for security guarantee against Turkish-backed forces. This proposal was rejected by the YPG.
Russia appears to be using the Kurds as a bargaining chip with Turkey rather than serious cooperation. In the long run, Moscow may find it hard to regain Kurdish supports due to its lack of clear position.
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğanhas announced that once Operation Olive Branch is over with the elimination of “terrorists” from Afrin region, Turkey will launch another operation against YPG in Manbij area west of Afrin around 100 kilometers. Unlike Afrin, Manbij has US military personnel on the ground. If Ankara decides to attack, the already strain relationship with Washington could reach a new low.
The two NATO allies at odds with each other will benefit neither parties but Russia. Russia will seize the opportunity to present itself as an emerging power capable of solving the mess created by the West and providing better alternatives to disillusioned actors. Therefore, the relationship between Turkey and Russia is based on convenience rather than alliance.
The presidential election will be held in Turkey on 03 November 2019. The result of Operation Olive Branch will affect the outcome of this crucial election. A victory abroad will automatically provide political victory at home.
Turkey wants to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state at its southern border. In any case, it will continue to take necessary steps to protect its national interest and security. Relationship with the United States and the West, in general, will continue to be cold in the foreseeable future unless either side gives some concessions.
Marmara University, Istanbul, Turkey
Department of Political Science and International Relations