Ankara (GPA) – On January 19th, while shelling Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-occupied Afrin district, Turkey announced the beginning of Operation Olive Branch. The ironically named operation is an open-ended aggression on Syrian territory with broad aims to take land from the US-backed SDF.
Turkey claims the SDF, and their leading Kurdish force the YPG, pose an existential threat to Turkish national security. Airstrikes followed the shelling along with an invasion of anti-government contras and mercenaries with the support of Turkey’s military. Reports also indicate shelling of more SDF-occupied areas in various parts of northern Syria. Reports vary heavily on the scale and success of this operation thus far.
Olive Branch has been a long time coming as Turkey raised these so-called national security threats for years. January’s aggression was preceded by and built off of 2016’s Operation Euphrates Shield in neighboring Azaz and Al-Bab districts of Aleppo province.
Turkey used a parallel strategy in Euphrates shield: the Turkish armed forces operated as an auxiliary force for backing contras. Together they seized land from Daesh and the contras occupy it with Turkish support to this day.
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It appears that Turkey seeks to merge these areas into a contra-occupied protectorate across swaths of northern Syria. This is NATO’s new strategy to rescue the nearly defeated counter-revolutionary forces — such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — which they have relied on to wage war against Syria. It also serves to buy time for longterm maneuvering in the region and prolong the war: further destroying Syria.
A week into Operation Olive Branch on January 26th, Turkish President Erdogan openly admitted this was his intention. “We will clear Manbij of terrorists … No one should be disturbed by this because the real owners of Manbij are not these terrorists, they are our Arab brothers.” He explained it wouldn’t end in Manbij which borders Operation Euphrates Shield to the east, Turkey will invade all of northern Syria. “From Manbij, we will continue our struggle up to the border with Iraq, until no terrorist is left.”
The same day Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu alluded their intention to give this territory to contras. “After clearing them [terrorists], we will hand the region over to its real owners; namely, we will hand it over to Syrians.” When Turkish officials refer to Syrians in this sense, they don’t mean the internationally recognized government, they mean those who will fight against it.
The statements out of Syria, along with their primary ally Iran, confirm this perspective. As President Al-Assad said in an official statement on Sunday, January 21, “The brutal Turkish aggression on the Syrian town of Afrin cannot be separated from the Turkish regime’s policy from the first day of Syria’s crisis, which was essentially built on supporting terrorism and terrorist organizations, whatever their names.”
Bahram Qassemi, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, underlined that “continued crisis in Afrin can strengthen the Takfiri-terrorist groups in Northern Syria again and will ignite again the fire of war and destruction in the country.”
Washington Won’t Commit to “Border Force”
On the surface, Turkey’s escalated aggression is portrayed by the bourgeois press as well as Turkish and US government officials as a contradiction with Washington’s strategic support for the SDF. A lot of fuss was made over US statements it created an ambiguous 30,000 fighter strong “border security force” comprising the SDF in Syria.
Turkey condemned the plan while the US publicly backpedaled on this supposed strategy. “It’s unfortunate that entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed; some people misspoke,” Tillerson said. “We are not creating a border security force at all.”
It is impossible to believe the US couldn’t foresee this kind of reaction from Turkey: Turkey utilized the original Pentagon statements as the primary pretext for Operation Olive Branch.
The grim reality is that the US greenlit this operation and did nothing to prevent it from going forward. In fact, Ankara consulted Washington before the advance. Secretary of defense James Mattis stated “Turkey was candid. They warned us before they launched the aircraft they were going to do it in consultation with us, and we are working now on the way ahead through the ministry of foreign affairs,”
Mattis also said, “(Turkey) is the only NATO country with an active insurgency inside its borders, and Turkey has legitimate security concerns,”.
Secretary of State Tillerson also defended Turkey’s actions: “We recognize and fully appreciate Turkey’s legitimate right to protect its own citizens from terrorist elements that may be launching attacks against Turkish citizens and Turkish soil from Syria,”
Tillerson also denied the notion that the US would do anything to stop Turkey: “I don’t think you’re going to find two NATO allies facing off at all”.
Pentagon spokesman Marine Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway confirmed on Monday that senior US defense officials are in Ankara to discuss security matters — including the situation in northern Syria.
“I can confirm that senior leaders from the Department of Defense are fully engaged in working with their Turkish counterparts to de-escalate tensions along the Turkish-Syrian border and to ensure that operations to defeat ISIS continue without interruption,” said Rankine-Galloway.
U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “We urge Turkey to exercise restraint and ensure that its military operations remain limited in scope and duration and scrupulous to avoid civilian casualties.”
This is the same excuse the US uses time and again to absolve themselves of complicity in the actions of their allies. Simply replace “Turkey” with “Israel” and it would echo many US statements of the past.
The notion that US support for the SDF poses a security threat to Turkey because of YPG-affiliation with the PKK is entirely disingenuous. The PKK is the only Kurdish force genuinely challenging NATO hegemony by actively resisting Turkey. Even if the YPG had the resources and desire to support them materially, their dependence on the US stops them from doing so.
The truth is, thousands of US soldiers, special forces, intelligence operatives, and advisors embedded within the YPG would not permit the possibility of a genuine insurgency in their NATO ally to become a real security threat.
Operation Olive Branch — given tacit support by the US — represents the culmination of the US and NATO’s revised strategy to partition Syria since the Russian intervention spelled the defeat of their main contra army: Daesh.
Faced with this development, the US instead focused on providing support to the SDF/YPG/YPJ forces as their primary proxies in the war. The SDF has gained massive tracts of land which they have handed-off to the US for building air-bases and providing solid footing for invasion.
The US effectively used the SDF to keep Daesh land out of the hands of the Syrian state and their allied forces. Considering Turkey was (and perhaps still is) a main backer and coordinator of Daesh, the US likely planned this with their NATO allies’ consent.
The SDF/YPG was never a solid basis for permanent US occupation of Syria. Kurdish separatism has historically been much weaker in Syria than inside Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Syria has the smallest Kurdish population of these countries that many Kurds believe contain pieces of Kurdistan.
With the absolute failure of a Kurdish independence bid in Iraq last year, the momentum was missing for anything similar to develop in Syria. The YPG and their allies in the SDF (especially following the near defeat of Daesh last year) were more than likely to negotiate a path of reconciliation with the Syrian state — perhaps pushing for some framework of autonomy in territory they occupy.
It seems the main reason they prolonged this process was a false confidence instilled in them by the United States. US assurances of protection and strength had them fooled until they were handed to Turkey on a silver platter.
Even preceding Olive Branch on January 15th, the Foreign Deputy Minister of Syria, Faisal Mekdad, stated that Turkey must end its aggression and violation against Syrian sovereignty. Regarding the Kurdish forces, Mekdad said that “We believe that it is those Kurds who act in the interests of the US who open the door to the Turkish forces. We can declare that those who oppose the homeland and its interests become accessories to the enemies of Syria and the Syrian people.”
In contrast to this, Mekdad highlighted that “the majority of Kurds are patriots of Syria” and that the Syrian Arab Army would be willing to enter a military alliance with the SDF to counter Turkish aggression cooperatively. So far, no such alliance has materialized.
Many analysts perceive Olive Branch as an unprecedented rift in NATO and major shift in the war. In reality, Turkey’s expanding invasion and the U.S. manipulation of the Kurdish people follow the same blueprint as the rest of the war: support conflicting forces, let the chaos expand, and use it as a pretext for NATO intervention.
Considering the ongoing SAA offensive towards Idlib, the near complete defeat of Daesh, the weakness of NATO proxies, and the insolubility of a long-term US occupation through the SDF, this reshuffle is NATO’s only path forward.
The opinions in the above piece are those of the writer and may not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Geopolitics Alert.