From an olive branch to a tree
The much awaited military operation into Syria’s Afrin region started on the night of Jan. 19 and was fully announced by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the next day, during one of his party chapter elections in the Central Anatolian Aegean town of Uşak.
The aim of “Operation Olive Branch” is to cleanse the Afrin region of People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants who have been there for a long time. So what makes this different from decades of operations against the Qandil Mountains?
Former Chief of General Staff, retired General İlker Başbuğ, explained the territorial and generational gap in an interview he gave Hürriyet on Jan. 22. Başbuğ said this is a young and different group of fighters who are familiar with the techniques for using American weapons. “These are trained fighters, they have anti-artillery, rockets, hand grenades and drones. They are much better equipped than the [PKK]. Nevertheless, the Turkish Army is very capable of defeating this threat,” said Başbuğ.
Indeed, symbolically Afrin is almost a sacred ground for the PKK’s younger fighters. A former intelligence analyst had told me Afrin carries symbolism in terms of its links to Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed PKK. During the early years of the PKK, when Öcalan was exiled in Syria, he was spotted several times in and around Afrin. Now, Turkey is also fighting Öcalan’s footsteps.
But Ankara’s case to send troops deep into Syria has more meaning than defeating the Kurdish groups there who are supported by the United States. “Ideally, Syrians living in Turkey should have more incentive to go back into a territory that is demographically more balanced,” said retired Major General Ahmet Yavuz.
Most Western capitals reacted with empathy for Turkey. But during a background interview on Jan. 18, a State Department official told reporters about Washington’s skepticism.
“We support them in their concerns regarding PKK terror in Turkey, no question. But the kind of threats or activities, which these initial reports may be referring to, we don’t think advance any of these issues. They are destabilizing [the region],” said a senior State Department Official.
The operation carries its own risks. The terrain is harsh, the groups that know the area are widespread and the alliances are shaky. Should Turkey trust Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to a full extent?
Most analysts believe Turkey and Russia see eye-to-eye in the Afrin operation, despite some of the previous differences. “This is an election-matter for Putin and he wants zero problems on the ground,” wrote Hakan Aksay, a seasoned Russia analyst and journalist.
Finally, after losing a big chunk of its brainpower after the bloody coup attempt, the Turkish military is back on its saddle, with the help of drone technology, Turkish-made weaponry and a lot of regained public support. From an olive branch, we might eventually see an olive tree take root.
Young cadets in jail for life?
In one of the post-coup trials last week, 37 cadets (students) of the Air Force Academy who are between 19-21 years old were sentenced to life in prison. Their defense was ignored and their basic rights were violated, so they could not even write letters. This incredibly harsh sentence is a huge shame, considering most generals still walk free. Hopefully, they will be freed after their appeal.