Author: Natig NAZIMOGLU
Turkish army continues the military operation Olive Branch launched on January 20 against the Kurdish terrorist groups in the northern Syria. Ankara intends to complete this operation “as soon as possible”, as it can seriously impact the geopolitical balance of forces in the war-torn Syria.
Aspects of the Olive Branch
After the first week of the operation, the General Staff of Turkish Armed Forces announced the occupation of several border settlements, hitting 340 sites in the north-west of Syria, and the elimination of nearly 400 terrorists near the city of Afrin. These terrorists are associated not only with the so-called Islamic State, which is almost defeated thanks to coordinated military actions of Russia, Turkey and Iran, but also with Kurdish organization Democratic Union (PYD), its military unit People's Protection Units (YPG) and, most importantly, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). These terrorist groups are trying to create a Kurdish state in the north of Syria and posing a threat to the security of Turkey. Therefore, they are the main target of Turkish army on the Syrian borderline, including Afrin.
Turkish cities of Reyhanli in the province of Hatay and the center of the Kilis province have been repeatedly rocketed from Afrin. Recently, a missile launched from the PKK locations in Afrin hit the mosque in Kilis killing two people and injuring twelve more.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the military operation Olive Branch will continue “until the last eliminated terrorist”. He added that “neither a single child nor a woman was touched in Afrin. This will never happen. These are the rules of the Turkish army.”
Apparently, Ankara intends to create a 30-kilometer security zone in Syria. At the same time, Turkey's objective is not to violate the territorial integrity of Syria, but to prevent the emergence of a terrorist base near its borders disguised as an autonomy of Syrian Kurds. “We do not occupy Afrin. On the contrary, we are trying to make it suitable for the life of real owners, while at the same time eliminating terrorists from there,” assured President Erdogan.
As for the need to occupy Afrin, it reasonably stems from the strategic importance of this city for Turkey, both in terms of security and economy, as it is planned to prevent the Western project aimed at the delivery of oil and gas from Northern Iraq to the Mediterranean, bypassing Turkey. Incidentally, that is the autonomous territory of local Kurds. The key link in the implementation of this project is Afrin settled with Kurdish groups, which the West, primarily the United States, is trying to use for the establishment of an energy corridor along Northern Iraq, Northern Syria, and the Mediterranean. So, PKK controlling Afrin and its allies threaten not only security, but also the economic interests of Turkey.
Meanwhile, the U.S. interests are not limited to a single motive. In addition to energy supplies, opening a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea through Northern Syria allows Washington to deploy its military bases directly in predominantly Kurdish-populated areas of Syria and Iraq. In other words, this will guarantee a more profitable, land-based option for the delivery of strategic material, which to this day has been carried out by air route.
The foreign policy background, which resulted in the launch of Operation Olive Branch, is associated with the U.S. position on the Syrian conflict. The offensive of Turkish armed forces on areas controlled by Kurdish groups raises serious discontent of the U.S. and the West as a whole, although it was the open military support of Kurdish forces by Americans that has forced Ankara to take a decisive action. In fact, Operation Olive Branch began immediately after the US-led international coalition announced the establishment of “border security forces” in Syria. Turkey knows well whom Washington considers as a direct organizer of the announced forces. That is why President Erdogan did not hesitate to call the U.S. cooperation with PYD and YPG organizations a mistake.
Turkish leadership made it clear that the restoration of full-fledged cooperation between Ankara and Washington was possible only after the U.S. ceased to support the Kurdish terrorists and returned all the weapons handed to them earlier. By the way, the armament in question is amazing. Washington claims that weapons are transferred to the Kurds in order to strengthen the fight against the Islamic State. However, why should the Kurds have American anti-aircraft missile systems, if the Islamic State does not have aircraft?
Apparently, it is not only Ankara who considers the American support of the Kurds as an anti-Turkish action and knows answers to the questions listed above.
Moscow does not believe in tears
Obviously, Russia gave a tacit consent to the conduct of the Turkish military operation Olive Branch. Traditionally, Moscow has demonstrated a loyal attitude towards the Kurdish movement. Nevertheless, it did not find it necessary to express support to the movement now. And it is clear why. The Syrian Kurds agreed to act as a tool of American interests in the region and, in particular, to oppose the offensive of the Syrian government forces and the efforts of President Bashar Assad aimed at establishing the authority of Damascus throughout the country.
It is known that after the Turkish attacks against YPG facilities in the Sinjar mountainous area of Iraq and Karachok Mountains in the northeast of Syria in April 2017, Russian military forces were deployed somewhere between the city of Afrin and the Turkish border. The purpose of this maneuver was Moscow's desire to restrain Ankara's offensive against the Kurds and, on the contrary, to support it in the common struggle against the Islamic State. Turkey did not particularly resist this, since it was one of the guarantors of the intra-Syrian peace process launched in Astana along with Russia and Iran.
However, the growing cooperation between the U.S. and the organizations of Syrian Kurds forced Russia to change its decision by approving the Turkish operation in Afrin. According to Russian experts, shortly before the start of the operation, the heads of the General Staff of Turkish Armed Forces and representatives of the Turkish military intelligence visited Moscow. Immediately after that visit, Russian military units withdrew from areas close to Afrin. Therefore, YPG commanders began to blame Russians in the alleged treachery.
However, Moscow makes it clear that the main culprit of the Turkish military operation against Syrian Kurds is the U.S., since they decided to arm the forces settled in Afrin against the interests of both Turkey and Russia.
Yet another interesting moment is the joint military operations of Russian military security services and the Syrian government army for the final liberation of the province of Idlib from the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. Idlib, which is considered the largest oil and gas region of Syria, was one of the centers of Turkish military activities during the previous operation Euphrates Shield. Therefore, experts are inclined to believe in the agreement between Moscow and Ankara, according to which Russians leave Afrin in return to Turkey's approval to freedom of action in Idlib.
Recent telephone conversations between Vladimir Putin and Recep T. Erdogan also confirmed the actual coincidence of Russian and Turkish positions on the Syrian-Kurdish problems. According to the website of the Russian president, “both sides underlined the significance of continuing active joint efforts to resolve the crisis, which should be based on the principles of preserving territorial integrity and respect for the sovereignty of Syria.”
As for the condemnation of Turkish operation by Damascus and Iran, this can be explained as a tribute to official rhetoric used in Realpolitik. But this rhetoric has a significant reason: both Damascus and Tehran are interested in the territorial unity of Syria. Therefore, Turkey's desire to stop Kurdish separatism in Northern Syria is objectively in line with their interests. Also, Kurdish separatism, albeit not so tangible, is just as real a threat for the security of Iran as it is for Turkey.
In the context of preserving the territorial integrity of Syria and the attitude of local Kurdish organizations to it, preparation for the congress of the Syrian National Dialog held in Sochi on January 29-30 was very demonstrative. The Russian Foreign Ministry invited about 1600 representatives of the Syrian society to the event. Ankara initially made it clear that it would not allow representatives of PYD and YPG to participate in the congress. As the Turkish Foreign Ministry explained, “no group will be able to participate in the Sochi congress if Turkey is against it. The list of participants is accepted jointly by three countries - Russia, Turkey and Iran.”
Interestingly, the Kurds have not been particularly interested in the Sochi congress. This also can be explained with Kurdish separatism, since the participation of PYD and YPG in the forum devoted to the development of political model of post-war Syria would mean, in fact, their agreement with the inviolability of the principle of Syrian territorial integrity. Also, the Kurds were requested to recognize this fact. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the role of Kurdish representatives in the political process should be ensured on a common platform in which all Syrian ethnic and religious political forces are called upon to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.
All parties involved in the political settlement of the Syrian situation understand that two million Kurdish population living in this country should participate in determining its future. But does the Kurdish community agree to stop the support of PYD and YPG, to become part of a single Syrian society and state? This issue is still in question. The fate of Afrin is indicative in this case. PYD and YPG continue to refuse the transfer of Afrin to the control of official Damascus. This is one of the consequences of American promises to the Kurds about the creation of a Kurdish state.
However, Turkey stood up against the implementation of such plans, which are nothing else than a western idea to create a puppet state that would realize its interests in certain areas of Syria and Iraq, which are still trying hard to preserve their statehood and territorial integrity. Understanding that these plans are a threat to its national interests, Ankara launched the Operation Olive Branch, which, according to Turkish president, is “a clear signal” to those who do not want to reconcile with Turkey's determination in the fight against terrorism.