Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin is more than just about expelling Kurdish militias, which Ankara deems as “terrorist”, from its borders with Syria. In reality, the operation will serve to consolidate Turkish military presence in northern Syria ahead of forming a “safe zone” 30 kilometers into Syrian territory.
This will allow Ankara to tighten its grip, through the help of Syrian allies, on the northern part of the country that lies between the Idlib province and west of the Euphrates River. This was implied when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had informed US President Donald Trump that there was a need to withdraw American troops from Syria’s Manbij.
Amid the American silence and ineffective Syrian regime statements, the operation reveals Russian-Turkish agreements to allow Ankara to go ahead with its offensive. This operation threatens the Kurdish dream of establishing a “federal state” in northern Syria and places obstacles ahead of the negotiations over a political solution in Syria, which Moscow wants the Kurds to be a part of.
Ankara had threatened a year ago to launch a military operation against the Afrin enclave in the northwestern most part of Syria and it stayed true to its word, kicking it off a week ago, under the name Olive Branch. It said that the operation was aimed at “cementing security and stability on our borders and in the region. It is aimed at eliminating the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Democratic Union Party, Kurdish People’s Protection Units and ISIS in the city of Afrin and saving the people in the region from the oppression of the terrorists.”
The city of Afrin itself has not been targeted by the Turkish strikes, making it a destination for refugees from the border villages, which have so far been the main focus of attacks.
The Turkish operation appears limited exclusively against Kurdish militias that control the city and its countryside. Afrin is one of three regions that are part of the Kurdish vision of the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria”, which they had declared in the past. It includes the al-Jazeera province that includes the al-Hasakeh region and the countrysides of the al-Raqqa province, the Ain al-Arab (Kobane) province that the militias expanded to include Manbij, 70 kilometers north of Aleppo city, and the Afrin province.
In order to prevent the three provinces from being connected to each other, Turkey launched in August 2016 the Euphrates Shield Operation in which it was able to cut through to the city of al-Bab, 30 kms north of Aleppo. This way, it was able to bar the Kurdish separatists from linking their three provinces together and obstruct their dream of establishing the federal state, which is known as Rojava.
Since then, Turkey has been determined to eliminate the Kurds from Afrin because it views them as an extension of the PKK, which Ankara labels as terrorist. It also has its sights set on Manbij and its countryside, leading observers to believe that it is seeking to control the regions extending from the Idlib province’s eastern borders with Turkey in northwest Syria and the western banks of the Euphrates in northern Aleppo.
Attack on Manbij
Turkish statements do not indicate that the battle in Afrin will end with its forces seizing control of the city. They instead reveal that Ankara will widen its operations towards Manbij, where the US has military bases.
An informed source told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Kurds’ American allies assured them that the Turkish forces will not attack Manbij. This is seen as a clear sign that Washington was not ready to abandon it, while Ankara’s statements on this issue can be interpreted as “intimidation.”
Political solution efforts thwarted
The most significant repercussions of the Afrin operation so far is that it thwarted efforts to reach a political solution in Syria with the participation of the separatist Kurds. The Americans want the Kurds to take part in the talks despite Turkish objections. After their participation in the Geneva talks became complicated, Russian officials announced before the Olive Branch Operation that the Kurds will be part of the Syrian national dialogue congress scheduled for Sochi next week. Their attendance has been put in doubt however after the Kurds accused the Russians of granting Ankara cover for their military operation.
A high-ranking Kurdish source told Asharq Al-Awsat that in wake of the Afrin operation, the Kurds refuse to take part in the Sochi talks.
“We will not head to Sochi under the bombardment. Turkey is attacking us under Russian cover and support, so how can we head to a conference that Ankara is attending and which has been called for by Russia?” he wondered.
Dr. Hisham Jaber, head of the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research in Beirut, said that the Afrin military offensive “undoubtedly obstructed the Sochi talks.” The Turks no doubt do not want the Sochi path either.
Meanwhile, despite Turkey’s repeated assertions that the Afrin operation was linked to its national security, the separatist Kurds view the offensive from a different angle. They see that it is part of “Turkey’s enmity towards the Kurds.”
Head of the Kurdish Center for Studies Nawwaf Khalil told Asharq Al-Awsat that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party is not only antagonizing the PKK and Democratic Union Party in Syria, but it is antagonizing all Kurds. He noted that Ankara’s opposition to the Iraqi Kurds’ secession from Iraq revealed its view of all Kurds in the region.
Turkey is not taking into account the 500,000 refugees that have fled to Afrin from other parts of Syria during the war, he continued. “We will prove that we are capable of defending ourselves, even if everyone abandoned us.”
Afrin in exchange for Idlib
The Kurds believe that the Operation Olive Branch revealed a possible deal between Russia and the Syrian regime on one side and Turkey on the other to trade Afrin for the Idlib region.
Experts said that Russia is seeking a solution in Idlib that sees the regime reimpose its control, which gave Turkey the green light to enter Afrin that will act as a “consolation prize” instead of Idlib. “Turkey has grown tired of the Idlib file, which has become a burden on it. It will not however abandon it without getting anything in return. This is why it is leaning towards trading it for Afrin.”