Turkish offensive

Print edition : March 16, 2018

Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army fighters in the Syrian town of Azez near the border with Turkey on January 19. Photo: AP

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his visit to the operating base in Hatay on January 25, the sixth day of “Operation Olive Branch”. Photo: AFP PHOTO / TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE

In Afrin on February 18, Syrian Kurds at the funeral of fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) killed in clashes in the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria on the border with Turkey. Photo: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP

The launch of “Operation Olive Branch” by Turkey against the U.S.-backed YPG, which has been fighting for a separate Kurdish state along the Syria-Turkey border, brings Turkey and the U.S. on the verge of a confrontation.

After months of sabre-rattling, the Turkish government started a military offensive, code- named “Operation Olive Branch”, in the third week of January against the United States-backed YPG (People’s Protection Units) forces that are intent on carving out an autonomous Kurdish enclave along the Syria-Turkey border. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged that he will under no circumstances allow an independent Kurdish state to emerge on his doorstep. An estimated 6,000 Turkish troops and 10,000 fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) militia crossed into Syria on January 20 threatening to drive the YPG out of Afrin town and all the area it has occupied along the Syrian border.

The big problem for the Turkish army, however, is that the special forces of the United States, its ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), are ensconced militarily in the area. There are around 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria to support the YPG and other groups that the Pentagon has propped up in its long-drawn efforts at regime change in Syria. “A total withdrawal of U.S. personnel at this time would restore [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad and continue his brutal treatment of his own people,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a speech delivered at the Hoover Institute in Stanford University, California. Tillerson also claimed that the U.S. was staying on in Syria to prevent the Iranian forces from consolidating their military position in the region. Neocon policymakers who are at the helm in Washington have apparently not learnt from the U.S.’ military misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Trump is continuing the previous administration’s policy of trying to break up Syria by propping up an independent Kurdish state. On January 18, two days before Turkey launched its air and ground invasion, Tillerson announced that the U.S. would back the creation of a 30,000-strong Kurdish force that would help occupy East Syria. In essence, it meant that the U.S. wanted to retain a military presence in Syria even after the war against the Daesh (Islamic State) was over.

The Russian military is the only foreign force that is on Syrian soil legally. Turkish and U.S. military forces are in Syria in violation of international law. In the 2019 U.S. defence budget, the Pentagon has requested $300 million for “Syrian train and equip activities” and a further $250 million for “border security requirements”. These moves added fuel to the fire as far as the Turkish government was concerned. The Trump administration did not even bother to keep the Turkish government informed of its decisions, despite both countries being NATO members.

U.S. bases in Turkey

Military bases of the U.S. in Turkey have been valuable assets for its operations inside Syria. The Trump administration has refused to consider Turkish requests for withdrawal of U.S. troops from towns like Manbij in Syria that are currently under the control of the YPG. Senior U.S. military officials have threatened that the U.S. will react strongly if the Turkish army targets towns like Manbij. Erdogan, on the other hand, insists that Turkey will not back down. “It is very clear that those who say that ‘we will respond aggressively if you hit us’ have never experienced an Ottoman slap,” Erdogan told Parliament in the third week of February. He has vowed to resist the permanent deployment of 30,000 U.S. troops along the Syrian border with Turkey.

The Turkish government’s aggressive move has massive popular support domestically. Turkish military planners have no doubt taken into account the considerable American backing for the Syrian Kurds. A nationalistic fervour has been whipped up across most of the country. Only the pro-Kurdish party in the Turkish Parliament has opposed the move. The YPG is closely linked to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which has for decades been fighting for an independent Kurdish state. The PKK is on the list of terrorist organisations banned by the U.S.

However, this has not stopped the U.S. from backing the Kurd separatists in Syria and Iraq. Kurds in Iraq have a more tenuous relationship with the YPG and have their own factional leaders. The YPG, on the other hand, has retained its loyalty to Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader who is incarcerated in a Turkish jail. The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian wing of the PKK. In 2017, the Americans got the YPG to undergo a cosmetic name change. The party now goes by the name of Syrian Democratic Forces.

The YPG rose to prominence when the Syrian civil war began. The Syrian government gave arms to the YPG to fight against jehadi groups that had the support of Turkey and key Gulf states even as the Syrian Army, under serious threat from many quarters, withdrew from Kurdish-dominated areas. With the Syrian Army deployed on other fronts, the YPG became an effective fighting force against the Daesh and the al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Along the way, the YPG formed an alliance with the U.S. forces. The Barack Obama administration initially deployed special forces to train, arm and supply the YPG.

Erdogan’s warning

The U.S. gradually increased its troop numbers. Trump revealed last year that the number had increased to more than 3,000 after the fall of Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic State. Before launching his military offensive, Erdogan warned the U.S. that he would under no condition accept an independent Kurdish state along the country’s border. The Turkish President conveyed to his American counterpart that he wanted the YPG to relocate east of the Euphrates river and that all arms shipments by the Americans to their Kurdish proxies must stop immediately.

The Trump administration has said that it acknowledges Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns” and has reiterated its commitment to work jointly with “its NATO ally”. But the U.S. has at the same time indicated that it has no intentions of abandoning the Kurds at this juncture.

In the second week of February, U.S. planes targeted positions occupied by the Syrian Army and its allies. More than 100 fighters battling the Daesh were killed in that attack. The American attack happened in an oil-rich area near Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria, which the government troops were on the verge of retaking from jehadi forces. The Americans wanted the area to be taken over by the YPG. There have been reports that some Russians were among those killed in the U.S. air attack inside Syria.

In tandem with the U.S., the Israeli army too has upped its military activities inside Syria. The Israeli goal of breaking up Syria and other populous Arab states into warring tribal states has had the U.S.’ endorsement since the beginning of the last decade. But these plans have failed to fructify after the decisive intervention of Russia and Iran in the Syrian civil war.

Russia, if reports are to be believed, gave tacit approval for the Turkish military operations. In exchange, Turkey is looking the other way as the Syrian Army is busy cleansing the pockets in Idlib province in north-western Syria occupied by jehadis who until recently had been supported by the Turks. Russia had reportedly advised the Kurds to hand over the border regions they control to the central government in Damascus. The YPG did not take up the offer and the Turkish army then announced its “Operation Olive Branch”.

The Kurds have been putting up a stiff fight. Although the YPG has suffered heavy casualties, the Turkish forces too have lost many soldiers in the fight so far. In the third week of February, the Turkish army said that it had lost 31 of its soldiers.

Erdogan is threatening to attack the town of Manbij. There are also reports that Turkey is using former jehadi fighters in their battle against the Kurds. Many of the so-called FSA fighters, it is alleged, are actually former Daesh foot soldiers. The Turkish authorities have always had a clandestine relationship with jehadi groups fighting in Syria. Until the fall of Mosul in 2014, Turkey allowed free passage for jehadis and military supplies into Syria.

Circumstances have changed dramatically in the region. Turkey now finds itself more aligned to the Russian world view than that of the West. It now has very few friends left in the region.

With the Syrian Army and its allies dealing decisive blows to the terrorist groups and confining them to a few isolated pockets, the U.S. and its main ally in the region, Israel, seem to be getting increasingly desperate as their recent actions indicate. In the second week of February, Syrian forces shot down an Israeli F-16 Air Force jet. The Israeli forces have been regularly bombing Syrian Army sites, claiming that they are used for transporting Iranian missiles and supplies. It was for the first time since Israel started using F-16s in the early 1980s that one of them was shot down. Israel has been violating the air space of its neighbours with impunity. Saleh al-Hamwi, a leader of the al-Nusra Front, praised Israel for carrying out bombing raids in Syria. However, with the shooting down of the F-16, a strong message has been sent to the Jewish state that its days of lording it over West Asian skies are coming to an end. Russia, which previously used to look the other way when Israel targeted Syria, has reportedly warned Israel to stop its bombing raids or risk the possibility of being shot down by Russian batteries.

Meanwhile the Syrian Foreign Ministry has strongly condemned the Turkish and American violation of the country’s sovereignty. A statement from the Syrian government said that “the presence of foreign military operations on Syrian territories without overt approval from Damascus is an assault and an occupation”.