Operation Olive Branch
This initiative has resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths in northern Syria, with thousands more being either wounded or displaced. While the number of deaths reported has varied between 245 and 510, the Turkish government denies that civilians have been harmed by Turkish forces at all. According to the United Nations, over 167,000 Syrians have been displaced following the Turkish intervention, and have fled into surrounding Syrian governorates. 50,000 to 70,000 civilians still remain in the city of Afrin.
Why did Turkey enter Syria?
Ankara has claimed that over 700 attacks on Turkey have been carried out from Syrian soil by the YPG, significantly increasing with the advent of the Syrian civil war. The actual number of attacks has been inconsistent, with the Turkish Foreign Ministry reporting 90, and the BBC only finding 26, but some attacks have certainly occurred regardless. Just like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or the Islamic State, Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization. Therefore, the large portion of northern Syria that the YPG had control over was perceived as a direct threat to Turkish national security.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has described operation Olive Branch as a means to “protect the country’s territorial integrity, and bring stability and peace to Syria.”
The PKK and the YPG
The PKK is a Kurdish insurgency group that has been active in Turkey since 1984, and has been the cause of thousands of civilian deaths in Turkey in their pursuit of statehood. The international community regards the PKK as terrorists, although it does not view the YPG the same way. Turkey’s claims of the YPG being a terrorist organization hinges on whether or not they associate with the PKK, and the YPG vehemently denies this connection. It is important to note, that while the YPG and PKK are sister organizations, and they both share ideological aspects of the founder of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, the YPG has never mounted an attack on Turkish civilians prior to operation Olive Branch. Whether or not the YPG is a truly a terrorist organization may void the reason for Turkish intervention in Afrin.
What operation Olive Branch has Revealed
The YPG successfully defended the Syrian city of Raqqa from a raid by the Islamic State in 2015, and have since become a leading force in the fight against terror. This has lead the United States to begin arming and training YPG fighters in early 2017 under the Obama administration. This has continued under President Donald Trump. While the Islamic State’s presence in northern Syria was significantly reduced following 2016-2017, support or opposition to the YPG is a surefire indicator of how the US and Turkey view terrorism in Syria.
US support of the YPG has severely harmed the long-lasting NATO relationship between the US and Turkey. This is currently the most effective strategy for the US to fight the Islamic State, but comes at the price of arming a group that Turkey considers terrorists. Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli told reporters one month into the operation, “We demanded this relationship be ended, I mean we want [the US] to end all the support given to the Syrian arm of the PKK, the YPG.”
Turkey, as evident from operation Olive Branch, is much more focused on quelling the perceived threat of the YPG, instead of continuing to target the Islamic State. The United States, on the other hand, views the Islamic State as a much greater threat, and is more than happy to work with the YPG in order to eliminate this greater evil. Between opposition from Assad’s regime and Russia, the YPG is the best way for the US to have a Syrian ground presence, without risking too much American life. This is also a message to Turkey, that the US is more concerned with dealing with ISIS, than it is maintaining their long-lasting NATO partnership.
It is important to note that the US has little to no attachment the Kurds, other than that they are geographically well suited to fight the Islamic State. This means that Turkey, should they provide the military capabilities to do what the YPG is doing, has the means to both improve US-Turkish relations, but also take away the United States’ reasoning for backing the YPG. Signs of this cooperation are already present through discussions about an offensive in the northern Syrian city of Manbij.
Before operation Olive Branch actually began, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to extend Turkish forces further into Syria, referring to the SDF-held city of Manbij. Ankara believes that just as the Kurdish in Afrin posed threat to Turkish national security, the same could be said of Manbij. This threat furthered the rift created between Turkey and the US, as the Turkish movement into Manbij would likely lead to contact with US troops stationed there. Kurdish commander Muhammad Abu Adel, head of the Manbij Military Council, fears the repercussion of a Turkish attack. Not only because of the tragedy and loss that would occur, but also in the uncertainty about whether or not the US would continue to back the Kurds.
Hosting a population of around 100,000, Manbij is widely composed of Kurds and Arabs, and has been under SDF protection since 2015, when they drove ISIS out of the city and region. This city also has a notable US military presence, complete with ammo crates and a 120mm mortar system within their expanding network of outposts. In attempt to work around this solidified military presence and rekindle relations, Foreign Minister Cavusoglu met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 4th to discuss a roadmap for American-Turkish involvement in Manbij. A joint press statement from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign affairs stated that “Turkey and the United States remain committed to addressing their common concerns in a spirit of allied partnership.”
The first phase of this approved roadmap is to have the YPG withdraw from Manbij, disarming in the process, and relocate to the east of the Euphrates river. The YPG announced the withdrawal of its military leaders from Manbij a day after this meeting. President Erdogan has kept true to the vows he made in March, and depending on the success of this roadmap, may continue to do so.
“Today we are in Afrin and tomorrow we will be in Manbij. And the next day we will ensure that terrorists are cleared east of the Euphrates River up to the Iraqi border,” Erdogan says.