The diplomacy behind Turkey’s operation in Syria
Surprising many opponents of the campaign, still active Syrian air defense and air forces did not intercept the Turkish military operation on the Afrin region, which officially started at 5 p.m. (14:00 GMT) on Jan. 20.
Neither did the Russians. Perhaps even more surprising was the statement issued by the Russian Defense Ministry after the start of the “Olive Branch Operation.”
“The main reasons contributing to the development of the critical situation in this part of Syria were the provocative U.S. steps aimed at the separation of regions with predominantly Kurdish populations,” it stated.
The statement continued by describing militant groups affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as “pro-U.S.” forces and pointed the finger at Washington for the escalation of tension.
“The uncontrolled delivery of modern weapons, including the reported delivery of man-portable air defense systems, by the Pentagon to the pro-U.S. forces in northern Syria, has contributed to the rapid escalation of tension in the region and resulted in the launch of the special operation by Turkish troops,” it added.
Reading between the lines one can easily spot the threat analysis in which the “pro-U.S. forces” could one day use those man-portable rockets against targets other than Turks, perhaps even Russians.
The statement almost looks like a telegram from Russian President Vladimir Putin to U.S. President Donald Trump, telling him to stay in control east of the Euphrates, as agreed, and to not fall victim to the blackmail of “pro-U.S.” groups.
The U.S. Central Command has since 2014 been collaborating with the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it has used as the ground force against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This partnership has continued despite Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s repeated calls on U.S. presidents (both Barack Obama and now Trump) to work together as two NATO allies.
Despite Washington’s strong support for the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the YPG stated on Jan. 20 that the U.S., Russia and Turkey were “equally responsible” for the attack on them. Murat Karayılan, the current leader of the PKK, also denounced Russia as an “enemy,” despite the fact that the PKK has up to now accused the U.S. of “siding with the Russians” in Syria whenever the White House has voiced a small amount of empathy for Turkey’s position.
The result is that NATO announced on Jan. 21 that “every country has the right to self-defense,” in support of Turkey. Such a NATO statement would not be possible without U.S. content.
Another result is that - as Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said on Jan. 21 - the “operation was carried out after contacts with the [Syrian] regime through Russia.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said an official note was given in writing to the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul before the operation, saying Turkey had no intentions against Syria’s territorial integrity and vowing that only “terrorist elements” were being targeted.
Such statements are the only public contact between Ankara and Damascus since Turkey cut its links with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria since just after the start of the civil war in 2011.
The “Olive Branch Operation” comes just before the Sochi meetings due on Jan. 29-30 as a continuation of the Astana talks for a de-escalation of tension in Syria ahead of the Geneva talks. Turkey has repeatedly stressed that it will not accept any PKK-affiliated group in any Syrian peace talks, whether it be under the banner of the SDF, the YPG, or some other makeshift name.
If U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had given a clearer message in support of Turkey on Jan. 17, a day after his meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu, things could have unfolded differently. The U.S.’s apparent indifference to Turkey’s security concerns prompted Ankara to seek Russian support to act on what it perceives as an existential threat.