Why and how are the Turks in Syria?
Around the middle of a press briefing by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli, who was sitting to his left, passed a note to him. Yıldırım read this note to the journalists present at the meeting: Ground troops had started to enter Syrian soil from two points as of 11:05 (08:05 GMT) on Jan. 21, almost 10 minutes before, to start the land phase of a military operation by the Turkish Armed Forces.
The operation, codenamed “Olive Branch,” had started a day before, at 17.00 on Jan. 20, with the target of clearing “terrorist elements” from the Syrian town of Afrin.
Yıldırım was keen to underline that the “8,000-10,000” militants present there are not only parts of groups affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), suggesting that members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAESH in an Arabic acronym, were also there. But the main aim is obviously the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG), with the prime minister saying that in the last year or so there have been more than 700 recorded incidents on Turkish border, some of which have claimed lives.
“We are not invaders, as the black propaganda of terrorists claim. The operation intends to provide our border with security, provide peace and shelter for the Syrian people in the region, and also to protect the territorial integrity of Syria. It is all done in line with the self-defense clause in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and U.N. Security Council resolutions 1373, 1624 and 2170,” said Yıldırım.
“The olive is for the peoples of the region while the branch is for the terrorists,” he added, using a metaphor in Turkish comparing a branch to a wooden stick.
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. Neither did the Russians, the protectors of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
“We have no airspace problem at the moment ... There is 24/7 coordination regarding air space,” Yıldırım said.
What was surprising was the statement issued by the Russian Defense Ministry after the start of Turkey’s Afrin 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 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.
The statement almost looked 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.
The “pro-US group” that the Russian statement is referring to is the PKK’s Syrian branch, the YPG. The U.S. Central Command has since 2014 been collaborating with the YPG 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.
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.
Meanwhile, President Erdoğan has vowed that the next target after Afrin will be Manbij, another Syrian town taken from ISIL by the YPG under the protection of the U.S. The Americans had promised the Turks that the town would be handed over to native Arabs after being cleared of ISIL, as it is located west of the Euphrates.
When asked about Manbij, Yıldırım said Ankara is “currently focused on Afrin operation,” while adding that “we are still waiting for the delivery of the American promises.”