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.
- Moldova’s challenges alongside the war in Ukraine
- Is Israel's New Government Shifting its Policy towards the Russia-Ukraine War?
- What does Russia want from Georgia?
- Geopolitics, Turkish Style, and How to React to It
- The Ninth Package of Sanctions - in Response to the Russian Escalation and Missile Attacks
- The Danger Russia’s Neighbors May Face after the Russo-Ukrainian War
- The Biden Doctrine and its Implications for Georgia
- Belarus and Russia deepen trade and economic relations with occupied Abkhazia: A prerequisite for recognition of Abkhazia's “independence”?
- "Captured emotions" - Russian propaganda
- The Eighth Package of Sanctions - Response to Russian Annexation and Illegal Referendums
- What’s next for Italy’s foreign policy after Giorgia Meloni’s victory?
- War in Ukraine and Russia’s declining role in the Karabakh peace process
- What issues were discussed at the Putin-Erdogan meeting?
- The Russian Exclave of Kaliningrad and the Lithuanian "Sting"
- Seventh Package of Sanctions and Embargo on Russian Gold
- What could be the cost of “Putin’s face-saving” for European relations
- Failed Tskhinvali Referendum
- The War and Georgia
- “Rural Orbanism”- Polarization as a determinant for Hungary's political future
- Illegal Presidential Elections in the Tskhinvali Region: Why Bibilov Lost and What to Anticipate in Future
- How to Respond to Russian Ultra-Orthodox-Historic-Hegemonism?
- The War in Ukraine and the UK’s New Role in Eastern Europe
- What Will the Abolition of the OSCE Minsk Group Bring to the South Caucasus?
- Why Has the Abkhaz Side Become More Active on Social Networks?
- Why a Neutral Ukraine Is Not on Putin’s Mind (Ukraine’s Neutral Status Is Getting Closer, but What Does It Mean to Putin?)
- Europe's energy future - challenges and opportunities
- Uncontrolled Mass Immigration and the Position of the Georgian Government
- Changes in Putin's propaganda narratives since the Russian invasion of Ukraine
- Positions and Actions of Turkey in the Russo-Ukrainian War
- NATO’s possible expansion in Northern Europe and its significance for Georgia and Ukraine
- Political Winter Olympics in Beijing
- What Is behind Putin’s Sudden Gambit in Ukraine?
- L'Europe pourra-t-elle éviter le “déjà vu” ? (France, President of the Council of the European Union, and the Tensions in Eastern Europe)
- US-Russia Relations and the Issue of Ukraine
- The New Targets of Ramzan Kadyrov’s Regime
- What Will the Post-Merkel Era Mean for the EU’s Russia and Eastern Neighbourhood Policy?
- What Lies Behind the Growing Cooperation of the Georgian and Hungarian Governments
- “Doberman” as a Minister: Inal Ardzinba’s Prospects and Challenges
- The Belarus Crisis: How to Enhance Our Resilience Against the Russian Strategy for Its Near-Neighborhood
- Moldova’s Gas Crisis Has Been Russia’s Yet Another Political Blackmailing
- Belarus One Year On: An Insecure Regime Under Russian “Protection”
- Why Did Iran-Azerbaijan Relations Become Strained?
- Russia’s Parliamentary Elections - What Can Be Said About the Regime’s Stability
- Can Georgia use China to balance Russia?
- The West vs Russia: The Reset once again?!
- Formation of a New “Political Elite” in Abkhazia - Who Will Replace the Old “Elite?”
- The Cyber-Dimension of the Geneva Summit
- Securitization of the Arctic: A Looming Threat of Melting Ice
- Europe in Anticipation of the Results of a “Harmful Deal”
- (Re)Mapping the EU’s Relations with Russia: Time for Change?
- USA, Liberal International Order, Challenges of 2021, and Georgia
- What does US President Joe Biden’s Recognition of the Armenian Genocide Imply?
- The Political Crisis in Moldova: A Deadlock without the Way Out?
- Russia's Testing or Bullying?
- ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’: A New Opportunity for Global Authoritarian Influence?
- A New Dawn for Transatlantic Relations under Biden’s Presidency: What Are the Hopes for Georgia?
- The End of the Russian Natural Gas Monopoly in Balkans
- Who did the judge sentence: Navalny, Putin or Russia?
- Biden’s Conundrum
- 2020 Developments in Abkhazia: “Elections,” the Pandemic and Deeper Integration with Russia
- Could Belarus Become a Prelude to the Great Polish-Swedish War 400 Years Ago?
- Vladimir Putin's Annual Grand Press Conference - Notable Elements and Messages
- Russia’s Energy Policy in the Tskhinvali Region
- Who Won and Who Lost with the War in Karabakh?
- What Russia has Gained in Karabakh
- What Armenia Did and Did not Lose as a Result of the Ceasefire Declaration in Karabakh
- Protests in Belarus, Lukashenko and the Russian Federation
- Some Thoughts on the Use of the Term „Post-Soviet Space“
- Turkey's Caucasus Policy Against the Backdrop of the Latest Armenia-Azerbaijan Tensions
- Khabarovsk Krai Protests as an Indicator of the Russian Federation’s Stability
- The Pragmatism and Idealism of the Georgian-American Partnership
- Trio Pandemic Propaganda: How China, Russia and Iran Are Targeting the West
- Complications Caused by the Coronavirus in Turkey and Their Influence on Georgia
- From Russia with… a Canny Plan
- “Elections” in Abkhazia: New “President’s” Revanche and Challenges
- Georgians Fighting the Same Battle 99 Years Later
- Confrontation between Russia and Turkey in Syria
- Political Crisis in Occupied Abkhazia
- What is the Significance of Killing General Qasem Soleimani?
- What Will the New Dialogue Format with Russia Bring for Georgia?
- On the “Russian Culture Center” in Georgia
- Main Messages of Russian Propaganda
- What do we know about the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Russian Federation and Georgia?
- New Focuses of the Anti-Occupation Policy
- Vladimir Putin’s Main Messages in his Interview with the Financial Times
- Georgia and Russia’s Post-modern Fascism
- Dugin has Come Out as a Supporter of Georgia – How Did This Happen?
- Deterring Russia
- On NATO, Russia and Pat Buchanan
- Why Local Elections of March 31, 2019 in Turkey are Important?
- Modern Russia’s Own Wars of Religion
- What Does the U.S. Withdrawal from Syria Signify?
- Bolton’s visit to Moscow– what to expect in U.S-Russia relations?
- The Risk of the Renewal of the Karabakh Conflict after the Velvet Revolution in Armenia
- The Situation in Syria’s Idlib Province, Interests of the Parties and Threats
- The Helsinki Summit and its General Results
- Why It Is Necessary to Know the Day the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 Started
- Georgia’s Position in the Westernization Index 2018
- Why Did the Results of the G7 Summit in Charlevoix not Meet Our Expectations?
- Results of Snap Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in Turkey
- How to Win Cold War 2.0
- The Russian “Ambassador’s” Rotation in Abkhazia
- Why did the Foreign Ministers of G7 not remember Georgia during their 23 April 2018 Toronto Meeting?
- Georgia and the American Strategy
- Women from Georgia in Syrian Conflict and their Future
- Putin’s Pre-Election Economic Promises: Myth and Reality
- Let Geneva Stay the Way it is
- Kremlin New Appointments and the Occupied Regions of Georgia
- Dangers Originating from Russia and Georgia’s Security System
- Eurasian Custom Union and problems of Russian – Georgian FTA
- Is Georgia’s Export Growth Sustainable?
- Russia’s Influence over the Field of Security in Tskhinvali Region is Growing: Support for Full Integration
- The Issue of Iraqi Kurdistan in the Context of Regional Security
- What Awaits the People of Gali?
- Growth of Military Spending and Relations with Russia: Azerbaijan trying to Gain Advantage over Armenia
- Disrupt and Distract: Russia’s Methodology of Dealing with the West
- Russian Diplomats in Georgia – who are they, how many of them are there and what are they up to
- Putin’s Visit to the Occupied Abkhazia: Was our Reaction Actually Adequate?
- Is it Acceptable for Georgia to Declare Neutrality?
- How to Stop the “Creeping Occupation”
- Kremlin’s Policy in the Occupied Regions of Georgia Moves to a New Stage
- Syrian Civil War in the Context of Regional Security
- The Winnable Second Round of Russia’s Neighbors’ Struggle against Its Imperialism
- Turkey’s Domestic and Foreign Policy in the Context of Regional Security
- Parliamentary Elections in Armenia – The Triumph of the Governing Party
- Current Foreign Policy of Georgia: How Effective is it in Dealing with the Existing Challenges?
- Observations on the Agreement Reached with Gazprom
- New Russian Weaponry in the Caucasus and Its Impact on Georgia’s NATO Aspiration