Turkey forces US to revise its Syria policy
Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” in Syria’s Afrin is the Turkish Armed Forces’ (TSK) third cross-border offensive in the last year and a half.
The first was “Operation Euphrates Shield,” which took place between August 2016 and March 2017, and aimed to remove the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from a 100-kilometer strip of the Turkish-Syrian border along the Azaz-Jarablus line. This operation was considered a part of the anti-ISIL coalition’s efforts to eliminate jihadist threats in the Syrian theater. Coalition forces provided limited contribution to the operation at the time.
The second Turkish operation was launched in mid-October in the Idlib region of Syria following a trilateral agreement with Russia and Iran that sought to monitor the ceasefire between the Syrian regime and the opposition groups to establish a de-escalation zone in the area. Turkey has so far built three observation spots and is expected to accomplish the remaining nine spots in the following weeks and months.
“Operation Olive Branch” has both differences and similarities compared to the two previous Turkish incursions. The most important difference is that this is a unilateral military operation run by the TSK. The second difference is that it targets a Syrian Kurdish group, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has been recognized as a legitimate political organization by the United States, european countries and Russia.
What makes this operation even more complicated is that the YPG is the U.S.’s main partner in the fight against the ISIL in Syria. This highlights another key difference of this operation: Turkey is now fighting the U.S.’s proxy in the field. Furthermore, concerns are growing over a potential Turkish-American clash if Turkey’s next target becomes YPG troops stationed in Manbij, where American troops have also been deployed. The U.S. however urges Turkey to keep its current operation “limited in scope and time,” just as it did during “Operation Euphrates Shield.”
A common point for all three operations is that they were only possible thanks to coordination with Russia. “Operation Euphrates Shield” was allowed to happen after Turkey and Russia fixed their broken ties. Turkey had downed a Russian jet in late 2015, plunging Turkey-Russia ties into crisis. Russia’s consent allowed the Turkish Air Forces to perform efficient air strikes on ISIL positions throughout Turkey’s first operation.
The Idlib operation is itself a result of a Turkish-Russian-Iranian initiative. Likewise, this ongoing operation is based on coordination provided by Russia, which agreed to withdraw its few hundred military observers from Afrin. Russian support was also vital in allowing Turkey’s air strikes as Syrian air defense systems have not been utilized against Turkish jets.
Another main point is that all three operations serve to enhance the security of Turkish borders that have seriously deteriorated in the course of the seven-year-long Syrian civil war.
This brief summary of the three operations of the TSK provide a clear picture of the alliances in the Syrian theater. Russia has become the main ally of NATO’s second largest army and protector of NATO borders in a very difficult terrain.
This situation was characterized by the spokeswoman of the U.S. State Department as Russia’s efforts “to drive a wedge between two NATO allies, between the United States and Turkey.” However, the situation is more a result of the U.S.’s insistence on partnering with a group recognized as a terror organization by its main ally in the region.
It should be well recalled that Turkey’s recent military doctrine includes launching this kind of pre-emptive cross-border operation. It almost disables U.S. leverage on Turkish actions in the field. That’s why a recent U.S. proposal of establishing a security zone along the Turkish-Syrian border will not work at this stage.
This move of Turkey’s obliges the U.S. to undergo drastic changes in its policies and short-term tactical alliances in the Syrian theater. A total collapse in Turkish-U.S. ties obviously benefits no-one.