Analysis | Operation Olive Branch: Turkey's Afrin Offensive

Analysis | Operation Olive Branch: Turkey's Afrin Offensive

Pranav Jain

- Programme Assistant at The Economist
- MESA Affairs Specialist at The International Scholar

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The Afrin Offensive may drive Turkey and the United States into Further Conflict

As ISIS crumbles in the Levant and the variety of anti-ISIS operations reach their crescendo, the Syrian civil war appears to have acquired yet an additional degree of complexity—Operation Olive Branch, a Turkish military campaign against Syrian Kurdish forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance in the Afrin enclave that exists between two pockets of Turkish backed rebels. Such a campaign marks the first time that Turkey will be fighting the SDF since the United States of America identified the establishment of a Syrian Border Security Force as a priority in its strategy for the region. Having already caused heavy civilian and military losses on both sides, this recent maneuver has the potential to pit the two largest militaries within the NATO alliance against each other yet again, only this time the presence of American forces amongst the SDF forces means blue on blue action is a serious concern.

Turkey has taken issue with the American decision to establish a 30,000 strong Syrian border force in SDF controlled lands. The border force was initially presented on the 23rd of December by U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, commander of CENTCOM, as an expansion of a training program for pro-Coalition militias to specialize in border security, with the objective being to guarantee stability in newly liberated areas of Syria. While such an ambiguous and understated border security program may have still been deemed unworthy of an offensive of the scale that Turkey has undertaken, subsequent remarks by a representative of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) may have been the watershed that convinced Turkey to intervene in this manner.  

Members of the women's battalion of the YPJ, part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), stand on salute.

Members of the women's battalion of the YPJ, part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), stand on salute.

On January 13th, a CJTF-OIR Public Affairs Officer announced that the border force would be 30,000 strong, and would consist of 15,000 veterans of the SDF and 15,000 future recruits from SDF controlled regions. The point of alarm however was the strategic positioning of the ethnic forces that Col. Thomas Veale identified in his briefing. Given that the SDF is an alliance of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and various ethnic Caucasian militias, the CJTF-OIR explicitly identified that Arab forces would be deployed along the Iraqi border and most of the central and southern territory  of the Euphrates River valley, while Kurds would be stationed on the volatile Northern front along the Turkish border. This would station Kurdish forces in Kurdish-dominated Northern Syria, but would also place them in the Afrin and Manbij areas west of the Euphrates, where Turkish backed rebels are currently struggling to retain territorial control along the Turkish border.

For Ankara, the existence of American-backed Kurdish forces in these volatile regions amounts to acceptance of a permanent Kurdish administered region on its border. These developments also come at a time when Erdogan has increased suppression of the Kurds within Turkey. Of great concern to the Erdogan administration is the high degree of support that Kurdish elements of the SDF receive from the PKK, a Kurdish paramilitary force identified by Ankara as a terrorist organization that has been fighting Turkey for control over Turkish Kurdistan. Naturally, the Erdogan regime fears that a Kurdish military foothold along the porous Turkish border could lead to increased PKK paramilitary action in Turkey. The fact that 2018 may also have Erdogan calling for snap elections after the coup attempt in 2016 and after the constitutional reforms he has passed through increases the pressure for Erdogan to continue his heavy handed approach towards Turkish Kurds as he attempts to stifle any signs of opposition. It should come as no surprise that Ankara was quick to denounce  Washington’s decision over Kurdish force deployment and stationing, summoning the American Chargé d'affaires (in the absence of an appointed American ambassador to Turkey) to register Turkish opposition to in an attempt to diplomatically overturn the decision.

The results of such intra-alliance conflict has contributed to the trend of policy divergence between the United States and Turkey, and the recent decision by the SDF to move forces from the Euphrates basin region—prioritized by the United States—to the front lines against Turkey will only increase tensions. However, given Turkish restriction of military operations west of the Euphrates, it is probable that the outcome will be an effective restriction of Kurdish control about the river valley. Until Ankara or Washington takes action, all eyes will remain on Assad as he vies for the destruction of Idlib, which would open a new front along rebel forces with the Syrian regime. In any case, we can expect U.S.-Turkey relations to remain strained as long as SDF forces remain in the Afrin enclave.


All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.


Banner Photo Credit: 

  1. Kurdish YPG Fighters, by Kurdishstruggle, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kurdishstruggle/22341816374/in/photolist-A3gDCA-Ar66Pw-A8apdp-AmAXqC-E3ZbAv-AY48nG-FpL68D-23J2DoL-ApNrXH-DDarGM-DdW8zT-GcmsRA-22ZUxkN-BuKYHs-22pqsJD-DuJd9d-B9twKt-AAnQ88-Ak8mhx-AGFNP1-DmFUtp-AhdTiC-FF6TaE-25dSBVk-AuP6jH-GyUafi-JjJZiW-FSWJXC-FhRkHc-22D3SE3-DeBFvG-23Pvvaf-243rL7i-BLNPCc-FUwrNs-HDPXiQ-22pqsBV-AWM667-FUwjds-FGXrHd-22pqsT6-22F348t-EXhJ9X-FQfqU7-EyNrEk-E2viFg-FHYcR1-FUvZsb-EofxrF-FUwtC

  2. "YPJ" by Jakob Reimann, Flickr
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/141006965@N05/37282144605/in/photolist-YNuJGD-5ryDfB-zgrtrv

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