The bottom line of Turkey’s Afrin operation
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşğlu said on March 14 in Moscow - where he was in talks with his Russian host Sergei Lavrov - that his meeting with outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson scheduled for March 19 in Washington could be postponed.
Earlier, when asked before departing for Azerbaijan whether the appointment of CIA Director Mike Pompeo to Tillerson’s position would negatively affect relations with the U.S., Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said “Turkish-American relations are not based on individuals.” Questions have arisen over Pompeo’s tweet from two years ago, which he later deleted, denouncing Turkey as an “Islamist dictatorship like Iran.”
Around the same time as Çavuşoğlu was speaking in Moscow, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan said in Ankara that the encircling of the Syrian town of Afrin by the Turkish military and Turkey-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) rebels was about to be completed. The area would soon be “cleared of terrorists to be given back to its native inhabitants,” he said.
The Turkish operation - which launched on Jan. 20 with the indirect support of the Syrian regime’s main supporter Russia - aims to clear the Afrin region (in northwest Syria, bordering Turkey) from the control of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting Turkey for nearly four decades. The crucial point here is that the YPG, or the PKK, has been the ground partner of the U.S. since 2014, under the makeshift name of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That partnership has continued despite Turkey’s objections and offer of more help in the anti-ISIL campaign, as the NATO ally of the U.S.
Having initially said the U.S. needed the SDF (or YPG/PKK) temporarily until the final defeat of ISIL, after which the modern weaponry delivered to them will be collected back, Tillerson later said in a speech at Stanford University on Jan. 17 that Washington also needs the Kurdish militant group to stop Iran’s influence in Syria. Accusing Turkey of distracting the YPG/PKK’s attention from ISIL by carrying out the Afrin operation, prompting YPG/PKK militants to rush there to fight against the Turkish army, the U.S. administration has been asking Turkey to conclude the operation as quickly as possible, preferably not going into Afrin city.
Russia, on the other hand, does not want the U.S. in the Syrian theater. Lavrov, who met Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu on March 14, claimed that the Americans want to establish a permanent base in Syria, and Russia would not let it happen. Russia has had a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus since before the civil war broke out and it now has an air base in Hmeymim near Latakia. Russia’s forces, like Iran’s, are in Syria upon a call from the Bashar al-Assad regime, unlike the U.S.
Under the circumstances, it is possible to draw a bottom line to Turkey’s Afrin operation against the YPG/PKK presence there: “Operation Olive Branch” advanced despite pressure from Ankara’s NATO ally the U.S., while the U.S. failed to protect the militant force in Afrin in order to set an example for its future operations.