The poisoned olive branch

Turkey has launched its second military campaign in northern Syria. But this time it is not directed against Islamic State. Once again the Kurds are in the firing line. This move also has implications for relations with Russia. An analysis by Michael Martens

By Michael Martens

When it comes to self-rule for the Kurds, Ankara acts according to the motto: resist the beginnings. The Turkish government not only opposes independence for Syria's Kurds but will also do everything in its power – including the use of military force – to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region within a newly constituted Syrian state.

Anything that might encourage the Kurdish population in south-eastern Anatolia to emulate their fellows elsewhere is to be suppressed. The second Turkish offensive in Syria, which started on Saturday (20 January 2018) likewise pursues this course. The first military intervention in Syria, code-named "Operation Euphrates Shield", officially lasted from August 2016 to March 2017 and was aimed at terrorists from Islamic State (IS) and fighters from the Kurdish "People's Protection Units" (YPG) in the northern Syrian areas bordering Turkey. From the point of view of the Turkish government, the YPG units are also terrorists.

The second campaign is now called "Operation Olive Branch" and is directed only against Kurds. Although state-run Turkish media claim that both IS and the YPG are being targeted, the reports contradict themselves. They try to portray the Afrin region, against which the campaign is initially directed, both as terrain entirely controlled by the "People's Protection Units" and as an area suffering under their "terrorism".

In fact, however, Afrin with its eponymous capital is one of three cantons in northern Syria that have already been under Kurdish control for several years – and there is no room there for IS.

It's true that IS did nearly capture Kobani, one of the three Kurdish cantons, in 2014, but they were successfully repulsed. From American statements made over the past few days, it can be inferred that Afrin is not threatened by IS. The Americans emphasise that, although Washington is allied with the Syrian Kurds in the fight against IS, this coalition does not apply to the region of Afrin. One can assume that this is because there are no Islamist guerrilla squads there that need to be dealt with.

″Neutralise″ terrorist groups

Syrian YPG fighters in Qamishli (photo: Getty Images/AFP/D. Souleiman)
A thorn in the side of the Turkish AKP: the Turkish government regards the YPG units as terrorists. The YPG, which heads up the SDF military alliance – supported by the U.S.A – in Syria, is seen as the Syrian branch of Turkey′s outlawed Kurdish Workers′ Party (PKK). The PKK can also be found on the European Union′s list of terrorist organisations

Turkey officially represents the situation differently. According to a statement by the general staff in Ankara, the Turkish armed forces have been deployed since five o'clock in the afternoon on Saturday in an operation whose purpose is to "neutralise" the terrorist groups and to "liberate friendly and brotherly people of the region from oppression and tyranny". Although the official and officious statements do not say in so many words that these friendly and brotherly people had asked to be liberated by Turkey, this is the tenor of the pronouncements.

The newspaper "Hurriyet" quotes an undisclosed government source as saying that the aim of "Operation Olive Branch" is to enable self-rule for the people of Afrin so that they can build democratic institutions once the YPG has been driven out of the region. Whether the democratic institutions in Afrin are to follow the model established in recent years in Turkey under Tayyip Erdogan remains an open question.Although the members of the YPG actually did originally come from the Kurdish terrorist organisation PKK, reasonably democratic structures have been established in the Syrian territories it controls, at least compared to other nearby regions. The YPG model of regional self-government, with a high rate of political participation by women, is contrary to just about everything the Turkish government aspires to.

It was clear that Afrin would end up in the Turkish regime's sights once the Kurds set up their own administration there and Syrian dictator Assad's power began to wane.

When the U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis came to Turkey in August of last year to co-ordinate the fight against IS with its NATO partner, Erdogan took the opportunity to make it clear that his country would never allow a Kurdish "terror corridor" to arise in Syria. Should such a threat be on the horizon, "we will then intervene", said Erdogan, adding: "We are still resolute with regard to Afrin. Our plans are proceeding as before."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: picture-alliance/abaca)
Absolute intransigence: on Monday in Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan disclosed that he had obtained Russian support for the military offensive. The Turkish army aims to bring Afrin under its control, as it has done previously with Jarablus, al-Rai and al-Bab. Only then will the Syrians be allowed to return

Russia shows solidarity towards Turkey

There are several reasons why it took Turkey five months to carry out those plans after the president had announced an impending offensive. For one thing, the Americans strictly opposed an attack on Afrin last year because they were in dire need of the help of the Kurdish fighters to oust IS from their Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, a battle that had not yet been decided at the time.

In addition, Turkey needed Russian backing or at least its endorsement for an operation against Afrin, in particular for air attacks. Moscow has namely stationed not only an S-400 missile defence system in Syria, but also an unknown number of military observers in Afrin.

It's no coincidence that Turkish chief of staff Hulusi Akar and intelligence director Hakan Fidan travelled to Moscow late last week for talks with Russian military leaders. They were apparently there to fine-tune the Russian response to the Turkish offensive.

The added value that Russia sees for itself in the operation is obvious. Although Moscow has supported the Kurdish guerrillas in Syria and the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has expressed on multiple occasions Russia's sympathy for the Kurds' striving for political autonomy – to Ankara's chagrin – the YPG troops are also American allies, which by Moscow's zero-sum logic makes Turkey's fight against them a good thing, because it could cause a deeper rift between the NATO allies Washington and Ankara.

Waiting for America's reaction

Turkish attacks on YPG positions in north-western Syria (photo: picture-alliance/abaca)
Redrawing the battle lines: the Turkish military have advanced into the northern Syrian province of Afrin to drive out the Kurdish YPG militia, one of America′s allies in the fight against IS. According to the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, the aim of Operation Olive Branch is to establish a 30-kilometre wide security zone

Russian comments from the past weekend suggest at any rate that the Turkish chief of staff's trip to Moscow was successful. The Russian defence ministry pronounced that the recent crisis had been triggered by "provocative steps" taken by the U.S.A and criticised "uncontrolled deliveries of modern weapons to pro-American groups in northern Syria".

Moscow also claimed that its military police as well as soldiers had been pulled out from the area around Afrin – an important precondition for the Turkish attack, because nothing would be more harmful to Turkey than being responsible for not only Kurdish but also Russian casualties. Ankara has not forgotten Moscow's drastic response to the shooting down of a Russian combat plane by Turkey in late 2015, which resulted in a tourism boycott, a ban on importing Turkish goods and the threat of military confrontation in Syria.

So now Russia can sit back and watch how the Americans respond to Turkey attacking their most effective local auxiliary units in the fight against IS in Syria. Media in Turkey are quoting a Pentagon spokesman as saying that the American-led coalition has no current operations in Afrin, as it is concentrating on fighting IS, which was understood in Ankara as an endorsement of the Turkish offensive.

Last week, however, American secretary of state Rex Tillerson said that his country was planning to remain in Syria for the time being to prevent the emergence of "IS 2.0".

Should such a resurgence of IS grow on the breeding ground of the Syrian war, the Kurdish units could again be important for the Americans.

But how will it affect the fighting morale and loyalty of the YPG toward its American and Russian partners stationed further eastward in Syria, when its outpost Afrin in the west is now left at the mercy of Turkey?

Michael Martens

© FAZ / 2018

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor