How did ‘Operation Olive Grove’ turn into ‘Operation Euphrates Shield?’
We first heard about “Operation Olive Grove” on Jan. 24, 2018 when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan delivered a speech to neighborhood heads (muhtars) at the presidential complex in Beştepe in the capital Ankara.
If former U.S. President Barack Obama had not cheated Turkey – as Erdoğan recently described the Obama administration’s failure to keep its promises regarding Syria to Ankara – Turkish and U.S. soldiers would have carried out a joint operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). And this operation would have been dubbed “Olive Grove.” But when Obama “copped out,” Turkey launched its own “Operation Euphrates Shield” instead.
This crucial piece of information unveiled by Erdoğan during his speech at Beştepe went largely unnoticed in the heat of “Operation Olive Branch.” But my research revealed details of head-spinning diplomatic traffic, military talks and a race against time, the likes of which only Hollywood movies can offer.
March 2015: The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group Turkey has deemed a terror group for its links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), captured Kobani from the ISIL. Turkey did not want the YPG to have any presence in the areas to the east of the Euphrates River while the U.S., which supports the YPG, wanted to eliminate the ISIL along the Jarablus-Mare line.
Military commanders from the Turkish army and the Pentagon started to talk about “clearing” the area of ISIL militants. According to the plan, approved by politicians in Ankara, members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), supported by Turkey’s ground and air forces, would first take Jarablus from the ISIL and then advance on Azaz-Mare in the west and further south on Raqqa. U.S. commandos and the air force would also provide support. Following those operations the FSA would take full control of the area.
November 2015: The YPG, which enjoyed U.S. backing in the East of Euphrates, also secured Russia’s support in Afrin, to the west of the river.
February 2016: YPG units in Afrin advanced eastward. The strategic town of Tel Rıfat, previously under ISIL control, fell to the YPG.
March 2016: Turkey, fearing that the YPG could create a stretch of land under its control from Jarablus to Afrin, exerted more pressure on the U.S. to act swiftly. It submitted a list of 1,000-2,000 FSA members that would take in operations in northern Syria to the Pentagon. The Pentagon first checked with White House officials before submitting the initial plans devised by Ankara to Obama for his approval. The initial reaction from White House officials was negative. Since the Pentagon did not get a green light from the White House for the operation, it resorted to foot-dragging tactics: The Pentagon told Ankara that “the list it submitted included Ahrar Al-Sham.”
July 2016: Despite the heinous 2016 coup attempt, Turkey did not shelve its operation plans. It feared that the YPG would enter Jarablus because the U.S. was ignoring Turkey’s concern over the corridor YPG was establishing just across the border.
Aug. 9, 2016: Following a talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Erdoğan revealed that the Turkish military was considering a cross-border operation into northern Syria together with the FSA. When Putin said Russia would not object to Turkey’s plans and would prevent Assad’s military from countering the offensive, Turkish commanders started to work on plans that would include only the Turkish military and the FSA.
Aug. 13, 2016: Despite warnings from Turkey, the YPG, supported by the U.S., moved to the east of the Euphrates River and captured Manbij from the ISIL and then advanced north on Jarabus.
Aug. 17, 2016: Following Erdoğan’s orders, FSA militants were dispatched to the border. The Turkish military reinforced its units along the border.
Aug. 18, 2016: Having seen Turkey’s resolve to carry out a unilateral military operation, the Pentagon wanted to take part in the operation. The plan, which proposed the involvement of U.S. commandos and air support, was once again submitted to the White House for approval.
Aug. 22, 2016: The White House sought assurances from Turkey. It asked “who would protect U.S commandos from previously Al-Qaida affiliated fighters with whom they would fight in the same battle.” One day later, the White House summoned generals for a meeting. The Pentagon asked Ankara to postpone the operation.
Aug. 24, 2016: Ankara did not wait for the U.S. decision to launch “Operation Euphrates Shield.” The meeting between the White House and the Pentagon immediately became irrelevant.
Ankara: Once bitten, twice shy
After Turkey launched “Operation Olive Branch,” the U.S. started to talk about establishing “safe zones” in northern Syria. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has given the cold shoulder to the proposal. “Operation Olive Grove,” which ended even before it began, has forced Turkey to act more cautiously with the U.S. Once bitten, twice shy. As long as the mistrust between the two countries – Çavuşoğlu recently underlined this mistrust – remain in place and Russia continues to stand with Turkey, it seems impossible that Ankara and the U.S. will take a common position on critical issues such as Syria.