This article was published in Arab News on January 22, 2018.
Road ahead full of danger as new front opens in Syria
Turkey has launched its long-awaited military operation — dubbed “Olive Branch” — in the Syrian province of Afrin. There was much talk of this operation for months, but recent controversial statements may have accelerated the process or have served as a justification for Turkey to go ahead at once.
It started with a statement by the US-led anti-Daesh coalition that a 30,000-strong “Border Security Force” was to be set up in the northeast of Syria. A decision of this nature requires the unanimous agreement of the members of the coalition, or at least their consensus. Setting up an army in the territory of another country has no justification in international law.
Wisdom prevailed a few days’ later and the US stepped back from this untenable decision. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described his administration’s move as “misportrayed” and “misdescribed,” and said: “Some people misspoke.” What is more, Tillerson made this statement immediately after he met in Vancouver his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. Turkey rightly drew pride from having persuaded the US to change its position.
Tillerson further explained that the US intention was to train local forces in the fight against Daesh. In a bid to gain the hearts of Turkish leaders, he said the US owed Turkey an explanation. However, Ankara remained unimpressed by this conciliatory rhetoric.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan capitalized on the US lurching from one position to another, thinking that the atmosphere was suitable for launching the military operation. This does not mean that, without this misstep, the operation would not have been launched.
The operation started, as usual, with air attacks to soften the targets. This will be followed by the advance of fighters from the Free Syrian Army, trained and supported by Turkey, and later by the Turkish army, when it becomes necessary. That will definitely become necessary sooner or later, especially when the operation expands to Manbij and to the east of the Euphrates.
Clearing Afrin of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters may not be as easy as in the earlier operation code-named “Euphrates Shield.” The seizure of Al-Bab alone cost Turkey the lives of about 70 soldiers. The rugged topography of Afrin and better-equipped Kurdish soldiers may pose a more serious threat for the Turkish army, but this will be a war between the second-biggest army in NATO and a group of fighters, no matter how dedicated they may be to their cause. Turkey seems to have decided to pay the price. The coinciding of this operation with the run-up to the crucial 2019 elections will make Turkey more determined for a victory.
The name of the operation, “Olive Branch,” is reminiscent of Turkey’s ultimate intention to come to terms with Kurds, but it is uncertain whether middle ground can be found.
Turkey’s ‘Olive Branch’ attack on the Kurds in Afrin — launched despite conciliatory rhetoric from the US — could bring Ankara into conflict with many of its partners.
A more serious situation may arise if the Turkish army does not bog down in Afrin and expands the operation to Manbij and to the east of the Euphrates. Confrontation between Turkey and the US armies may become unavoidable. This has risks for both sides. It does not mean that Turkey will defeat the American army, but there are risks of a large number of casualties. Subordinate-level US officers have stated several times that, if the US-trained Kurds are attacked, the US army will protect them. Washington may try to protect the Kurds, not because of these promises but because of their longer-term policy goals.
Russia opposed the US decision to set up a Border Security Force, but it is also a traditional supporter of the Kurdish cause. The US affirmed it has no forces in Afrin — but Russia has. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied news that appeared in the Turkish media, saying: “Russia will not withdraw its soldiers from Afrin.” If the Russian soldiers are hit by accident or through the conspiracy of third countries, the nascent Turkish-Russian cooperation will go back to square one.
Turkey’s cooperation with Iran in Syria is limited to certain tactical issues. Turkey announced that, after clearing Afrin from the “YPG terrorists,” it would hand over the administration to the Free Syrian Army, like it did in Jarabulus. Iran may not support this plan and this will be yet another headache for Turkey.
There seems to be many risky turns in the road ahead, but Erdogan is a person who can take risks. Whichever side emerges as a winner, a new front is now open in Syria and all stakeholders will try to get their plunder from this new war.