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Recap on Turkey’s Mil. Operation in Syria

May 8, 2018

Recap on Turkey’s Mil. Operation in Syria

Operation Olive Branch:

Background: Turkey’s military presence in Northern Syria started in August 2016 during the Syrian Civil War and has thus far consisted of two major operations. The first one, Operation Euphrates Shield (Fırat Kalkanı Harekâtı in Turkish), carried out between the Euphrates in the east and the rebel-held territory around Azaz in the west, had the twin goal of both unseating the Islamic State in the above-mentioned territory and countering the advancement of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the West of Euphrates. The most recent operation, the Operation Olive Branch (Zeytin Dalı Harekâtı in Turkish), aimed at putting an end to the rule of the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and SDF in the Afrin Canton. The Operation Olive Branch was set in motion in January 2018 with the participation of Free Syrian Army militias alongside the Turkish army and ended in March 2018 with the capture of the city of Afrin.


Reasons for Afrin operation

Ankara has long been concerned about the territorial gains of the PYD, which it considers an extension of a Kurdish rebel group (the PKK). Turkey has fought a decades-old civil war with the PKK and it wants to prevent the PYD from consolidating its hold on Syrian territory. Moreover, Ankara is also extremely dissatisfied with the overt US support given to the PYD as Turkey’s president, Erdogan, said Washington was “creating a terror army” and he vowed to “suffocate” it. Erdogan further noted that the operation would “gradually destroy this [terror] corridor, starting from the west” and continue to “Manbij…up to the Iraqi border.” Finally, the defeat of the Islamic State opened the door for the operation to be launched without disrupting the operation against ISIS.



The human cost of the operation has been significant. By March 13, a week before the end of the operation, the Turkish military had already suffered 43 casualties while an estimated 250-350 men from the Turkish backed militias had been killed. The YPY, on the other hand, was said to have lost between 600 and 900 fighters. Due to the intensity of fighting and the uncertainty about the future of the Afrin enclave, an estimated more than 150 000 people left the Afrin region to take refuge in the government held territory in Syria.


Reactions from the world leaders

Reactions from world leaders have been mixed. While most NATO members have remained silent, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has condemned Turkey with harsh remarks: “For all Turkey’s legitimate security interests, what has happened in Afrin, where thousands and thousands of civilians are persecuted, killed or forced to flee, is unacceptable. This too we condemn in the strongest terms.” On the other hand, analysts point to a tacit agreement between Moscow and Ankara to Turkey’s operation in Afrin in exchange for Turkey’s silence on the recent bombardment of Ghouta by Russia and Assad. Such tacit approval of the incursion by the Russians has the possibility of bringing Moscow and Ankara even closer while creating further stumbling blocks for Turkey’s relations with the West.


As far as the Americans are concerned, Washington has been gradually withdrawing its support from the SDF/YPG in Afrin upon realizing that it cannot attain its goal of defeating the Islamic State in Syria without making concessions to an important NATO ally like Turkey. Yet, the defining moment in relations will occur if and when Turkey expands its operations eastwards and threatens to take Manbij, which it calls the “bastion of terrorists”. This, despite the fact that an important number of American bases are now stationed in Manbij, working in close collaboration with the SDF/YPG. While Ankara has been threatening to invade Manjib, the US army has been strengthening its positions along the Turkish border in what seems to be a response to Ankara’s warnings.


Vahid Yucesoy for iStrategic