Turkey’s Military Operation in Afrin – a New Phase in the Syrian Conflict
Author: Zurab Batiashvili, Expert of Oriental Studies, Doctor of Historical Sciences
On 20 January 2018, Ankara, together with its ally, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) started a military operation named Olive Branch in the Afrin region, due to which the on-going conflict in Syria entered a new phase. If previously the parties preferred to fight through proxies (i.e. allies on the ground), now the level of direct involvement of the interested parties in the conflict has increased – the situation is close to what is called the War of All against All. Hence, Ankara failed to obtain wide international support for launching the operation.
Reasons for the Military Operation
The launch of the military campaign by Ankara in the Northern Syrian region of Afrin was predictable due to several reasons:
- The opposition forces supported by Turkey had been losing ground in Syria for the past several months. Parallel to this, west to the Euphrates River the positions of the Assad regime supported by Russia and Iran had been strengthening whilst east to Euphrates, the positions of the pro-Kurdish forces, supported by the United States of America were being bolstered. There was a growing threat that Ankara would remain without any serious stronghold in Syria. The main stronghold for Ankara was about 2,000 square kilometer land acquired as a result of the military operation Euphrates Shield, which took place from August 2016 to March 2017. This land constitutes just 1.08% of the Syrian territory and does not represent any serious leverage for the negotiation table. Ankara perceived that it might be left out of the game with regard to the processes unfolding in Syria;
- Turkey believes the Kurdish dominated People’s Protection Units (YPG) operating in Syria to be a branch/continuation of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which is considered to be a terrorist organization. Hence, Turkey fears that a terrorist rim is being created around the country, which they consider to be an existential threat and do all they can to oppose. Ankara especially severely reacts to the fact that their main ally in NATO, the United States is also involved in the process, as it relies on the YPG in Syria and supplies it with a lot of weaponry;
- About 3.5 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey, creating a multitude of problems in the country. Hence, Ankara hopes that after the Afrin operation, the formation of a secure zone will be possible along the Turkish-Syrian border, where the refugees will be settled.
In addition, the decision of Turkey to start the military operation was accelerated by the statement made by the US in the middle of January 2018, saying that it plans to form regular military units in Syria with the participation of the pro-Kurdish forces.
Turkish military aviation got actively involved in the Afrin operation from day one. Russia is controlling the airspace in the region and it has done nothing to thwart the Turkish military planes. If we also take into account that the operation was preceded by the visit of the Head of the Turkish General Staff, Hulusi Akar, to Moscow, it becomes clear that some sort of a deal was reached between the parties. There is an opinion, that the Afrin region was “exchanged” for the Idlib province, which is controlled by the opposition and an organization affiliated with Al-Qaida, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). This opinion is reinforced by the fact that lately the Assad regime and its allies have occupied a rather large territory in the Idlib province.
Despite this, when it comes to Syria, clearly there are a lot of disagreements between the parties. For example, it should be noted that:
- Moscow’s ally Damascus allowed the YPG support forces based in Manbij and east of Euphrates River, to pass through the territory controlled by the Assad regime and help the Afrin canton in their battles against Turkey;
- After downing the Russian destroyer jet in Idlib on 5 February, Turkey was forced to halt its airstrikes in Afrin for four days, which thwarted the progress of the Turkish military and FSA on the ground. It should be pointed out that Russia was also using various methods to hinder the progress of the Turkish military in northern Syria during the operation Euphrates Shield staged a year ago;
- Parallel to operation Olive Branch, Turkey sent two military convoys in Idlib in January-February in order to form the “de-escalation zone” in terms of the Astana Process. Both of the convoys were bombed: one by the Assad regime and another by Iran and its affiliated military units.
These examples once again illustrate how fragile the situation and the agreements achieved in Syria are.
Operation Olive Branch has already produced casualties, including civilians: the dead and wounded number in hundreds. This number will likely increase, as the parties are motivated to continue fighting and the perspective of conflict resolution for the nearest future is small.
It should also be noted that Ankara wishes to expand its operation towards the main Kurdish enclave, first to Manbij and then to the east of Euphrates River (several clashes in the Manbij district have already taken place). This region, unlike Afrin, is under the unofficial patronage of Washington, which is considered by many to be part of the strategy of containing Iran. The US military bases are placed on this territory. Hence, Washington is not in a hurry to move out and plans to defend them.
Dangers and Risks
- Due to the fact that the level of direct involvement of the interested parties (USA, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel and others) has increased in the Syrian conflict, the risk of separate incidents, that could turn into a large-scale confrontation at any moment, has also grown;
- Afrin military operation and the perspective of its expansion contribute the most to the growing tension in the already complicated relations between our two strategic partners, USA and Turkey. This could negatively influence the security of the whole region, including Georgia. Moscow will try its best to encourage Turkey to expand its operation towards Manbij, in order to increase the likelihood of Turkish-US confrontation;
- In case of the dragging out and increase of casualties in the Afrin operation, it is not excluded for Turkey to face political and social-economic problems. Corresponding actions against Turkey should also be expected. This could be the launch of guerilla warfare as well as the terrorist acts organized by the PKK and the organizations affiliated with it in large Turkish cities, as they have done before. So far, Turkish cities of Kilis and Reyhanlı are periodically being bombarded from Afrin region, which has already produced casualties;
- Given the fact that it is vital for Ankara to conclude the Afrin operation successfully, the level of its dependence on Moscow, as the actor defining the future of Syria, increases, which is not in the interests of Georgia;
- As a result of more active military operations of the Assad regime and Russia in Idlib province, the opposition has lost almost half of the territory controlled in this region. Most of the population leave their homes and move towards Turkey. This creates new problems for both Turkey, as well as the European countries;
- Apart from the population, the Al-Qaida affiliate HTS fighters are also leaving positions and trying to go to Turkey. They will not be able to feel safe in Turkey, as it has lately been conducting intensive raids for arresting radical Salafis. Hence, the terrorists will try to move on to other countries, including Georgia, as was the case for the Chataev group. Clearly, the Georgian law enforcement structures will have to be especially careful so that new terrorist groups cannot enter the country and create problems here. Especially since these groups have supporters in Georgia.
Despite numerous peace talks and agreements, the Syrian conflict is generally far from being resolved, as the reasons of its beginning have not been eradicated (confrontation between large countries, internal ethno-confessional confrontation, Alavi minorities governing the Sunni majority, repressive governance, rampant corruption and flawed economic model). Hence, all of the dangers that have plagued the Syrian conflict for years are still present: terrorism, religious radicalism, intolerance, flow of refugees and so on.
Georgia, much like other small countries, has little leverage to influence the peaceful resolution of the Syrian problem. The only thing possible in this scenario is to be more careful, in order to ensure Georgia’s security.
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