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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / International Relations and Security

Intervention fever: The politics of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch

On January 20, 2018 at 17:00 local time, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) entered Afrin, a city in northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan named the military operation “Operation Olive Branch” (Zeytin Dalı Harekâtı) for the region’s many olive trees.

Assad forces had withdrawn from Afrin in 2012, which allowed the military branch of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), to seize control of the city. The YPG managed to maintain control by balancing relations with both Assad’s forces and various rebel groups, aided by American material and tactical support. Afrin and a nearby city, Tel Rifaat, were incorporated as a “canton” under the control of the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) and the YPG. Turkey sees this as a threat to its domestic security, due to the 30-year-old armed conflict between the Turkish Armed Forces (TS) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—a separatist group in Turkey which Ankara considers a terrorist group.

Ankara sees no difference between the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since 1984, the PKK has been engaged in a war with the Turkish army in the southeastern region of the country and has committed acts of terror against civilians. Ankara has accused Bashar al-Assad of supporting the PKK since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, citing domestic security as one of Turkey’s main justifications for intervening in the conflict. There is confirmed cooperation between the YPG and PKK: in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, a Kurdish fighter confirmed coordination between PKK, YPG, and PJAK (the Iranian branch of PKK), saying “it doesn’t really matter. They are all members of the PKK.”

Additionally, starting in 1984, Hafez al-Assad began supporting the PKK and allowing them to conduct training in Syria as a way to gain leverage over Turkey. In 1979, al-Assad also granted safe haven to Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the PKK and a prominent Kurdish nationalist figure. Öcalan remained in Syria until 1998 when al-Assad conceded to Ankara’s demands, deporting Öcalan and vowing to stop supporting the PKK.

At a Justice and Development Party (AKP) meeting days before Operation Olive Branch  began, President Erdogan threatened,“If the terrorists don’t surrender we will destroy their heads. If our promises in Menbij are not fulfilled, then we will cut our own bellies. They will see what we can do in a week.” The General Staff of the Armed Forces announced that the operation was necessary to “protect our borders and for stability of northwest Syria.”

According to Turkey, the operation does not violate international law because the operation was against the PYD and YPG as an act of self-defense, aiming to guarantee the security of Turkey’s borders. For Turkey, the links between the PKK and Syrian Kurdish groups classify Kurdish activity in northern Syria as a threat to Turkey’s domestic security.

The TSK announced that the goal of the operation was to remove the influence of the PKK, PYD, YPG, the Islamic State (Daesh), and affiliated groups in the areas close to the Turkish border. The Afrin area is home to some 450,000 people, and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım estimated that a minimum of 8-10,000 fighters affiliated with paramilitary groups live there. According to government reports, 65% of the border between Turkey and Syria, both countries’ longest border, was controlled by the PYD and PKK. Turkey aims to create a “safe zone” of 30 kilometers on the Syrian side of the border to reassert control over the line.

Domestically, Operation Olive Branch has few opponents, with two out of three opposition parties voicing support for it . The leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Devlet Bahçeli of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) both express approval of the mission. Ayhan Bilgen, the spokesperson of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a leftist party that has been described as “pro-Kurdish,” opposed the operation, stating that, “They are trying to make a world war in the Middle East and Turkey is far from the truth—the living will of the people will disappear.”

Celebrities have also joined in the fervor for the operation with statements and social media postings in its favor. Internationally renowned singer Ibrahim Tatlıses went to Hatay along with the president and other government officials, such as Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ, and General Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar, to publicly rally support for the operation.

Turkey has cast the operation as a liberation of Afrin from terrorists, but that narrative has received mixed responses in the international community. Germany expressed support for the operation, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Rainer Breul saying, “Turkey has legitimate security interests along its border with Syria,” while qualifying that the operation should focus on combating Daesh. Kurdish politicians in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq have come out against the operation, calling it an “occupation,” and stating that it is more about attacking Kurds than fighting terrorists. Conversely, Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesman Lulwah Rashif Al-Khater stated that the operation was motivated by “legitimate security concerns.” Iran called on Turkey to finish the operation quickly and urged Turkey to hand over the city to Assad. Russia claimed it was “watching worriedly” and called for Turkey to be “moderate.” It is worth noting that Russia has de facto control over Syrian airspace, and therefore plays an active role by allowing Turkish planes to conduct airstrikes in Syria, a policy which some regard as a tacit approval of the operation. The Syrian Arab Army ran an unsuccessful campaign to counter the Turkish forces in February, after President Bashar al-Assad called the Olive Branch Operation “brutal aggression” against Syria and stated that Turkey has “supported terrorists since day one of the conflict.” Meanwhile, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres expressed “concern about the situation in Afrin” based on the “mass exodus” of people in Afrin and Ghouta, adding that he “profoundly regrets” that the UNSC countrywide ceasefire was not implemented.

The United States has had one of the more equivocal reactions. After Ankara announced that it would go through with the operation, the United States announced that it would not support the YPG in Afrin. After Turkey began the operation, the US made no official statement of opposition or approval, but urged Turkey to be moderate. Operation Olive Branch has placed enormous strain on Turkey’s relationship with the US. Their disagreement stems from a major divergence on the status of the YPG and their allies. They agree that the PKK is a terrorist organization, but the US government is more reticent to label the YPG similarly. The disagreement has exacerbated the existing rift between Turkey and the US, due in no small part to mixed signals from Washington. The CIA recognizes the PYD as a Syrian affiliate of the PKK, yet the US moved ahead with plans to train 30,000 troops for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for the sake of securing Syria’s border with Turkey, and preventing Daesh fighters from fleeing into Turkey, despite Turkey’s objections to the presence of Kurdish YPG fighters among the ranks of the SDF. Some pundits forecast the possibility of a showdown between the US and Turkey over Menbij, a region neighboring Afrin in which American troops operate side-by-side with Kurdish fighters. Even so, it remains doubtful that the two would escalate the conflict further, given the value the US places on Turkey as a member of NATO. Nonetheless, US allies in Syria such as the SDF believe that the US has allowed Turkey to act despite international outcry in the hopes that controlling Afrin will appease Erdoğan.

Erdoğan stated that the Turkish Army would stay in Afrin until accomplishing its goals, but has remained vague on what exactly that goal is. The TSK achieved “total control” of Afrin by March 18, just eight weeks after Turkish forces began the seige of Afrin. Turkish organizations such as the Turkish Red Crescent joined the army in Afrin to provide relief  services there. Yet, when Iran requested that Turkey hand Afrin over to the Syrian government, Turkish presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalın argued that the goal was to make Afrin safe and stable, stating “we do not want to lift a threat and face a new one.”

According to Turkish government media, the people of Afrin are “happy about the intervention” because the arrival of the TSK has led to the disposal of weapons created by the YPG and allies, as well as the resumption of schooling and the delivery of much-needed food and medical supplies. However, the Turkish operation has also resulted in the mass displacement of people from Afrin to Tel Rifaat, according to Syria’s UN Representative Dr. Bashar al-Jaafari. In March, there were protests in Aleppo against Turkey’s assault on Afrin and US interference in Syria.

The YPG developed  an international image as the main force of opposition against Daesh, a claim strengthened by the support the group has received from the US military since the Obama administration. Operation Olive Branch has definitively ended the YPG’s image as an invincible player in Syria. The success of the operation and the general lack of clarity from Washington also demonstrates that the US is not strongly committed to the Kurdish militias.

Undermining the YPG is a clear foreign policy win for Turkey, but the operation has also put President Erdoğan in a strong political position domestically, particularly in light of the recently announced snap elections that will take place in June. Turkey has accomplished its stated goals in Afrin, and nationalist voters will likely reward the AKP for its actions at the ballot box. Even with electoral victory in hand, however, it is unclear how long Turkish forces will remain in Afrin. Given Turkey’s support for  the US-French-British missile strike on Syrian government sites and Turkey’s key role in establishing the de-escalation zone around Idlib, it does not look like Turkish forces will withdraw anytime soon.