Understanding Turkey’s Afrin Operation

Q1: Why is Turkey attacking Afrin?

A1: On January 20, Turkey launched a major military operation beyond its southern border code-named “Olive Branch” directed at the Syrian Kurdish canton of Afrin. The move followed months of increasingly harsh statements by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the emergence of a belt immediately beyond the Turkish-Syrian border controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), viewed by Turkey as the Syrian Kurdish affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). On January 13, Erdogan had announced that there would be action “within a week…if the terrorists in Afrin do not surrender,” and four days later the Turkish National Security Council meeting he chaired confirmed that steps would be taken “immediately and decisively to eliminate threats…to prevent the formation of a terror corridor and terrorist army beyond [Turkey’s] borders.”

The initial attacks on Afrin have been carried out mostly by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) comprising various opposition elements based in the area between Afrin and the larger Kurdish-controlled area to the east effectively controlled by Ankara. This is the second time the FSA has played a role in Turkey’s ongoing efforts to protect its interests in northern Syria. In its previous cross-border Euphrates Shield Operation in August 2016, Ankara had utilized FSA units, accompanied by Turkish special forces, to establish a wedge between the two Kurdish cantons while also ending the Islamic State presence there. Although Turkish tanks and ground units have surrounded Afrin, they have not yet received an order to follow up the limited FSA action on its periphery in a significant manner. However, the Turkish military has been providing active support through airstrikes and artillery barrages.

Claiming that there had been more than 700 attacks from Afrin during the past year, presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin referred to Article 51 of the UN Charter and “Turkey’s right to self-defense” in explaining the justification for the operation. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated that Turkey’s goal in Afrin was to “create a 30-kilometer deep security belt” that would prevent such attacks in the future. However, Turkish chief of staff Hulusi Akar identified a much more ambitious objective by announcing that “the operation will continue until the last terrorist is neutralized in our region.” For his part, Erdogan said that the operation would “gradually destroy this [terror] corridor, starting from the west” and continue to “Manbij…up to the Iraqi border.”

The most important short-term question is whether Turkish ground forces will be given the order to thrust deep into Afrin, thus expanding the scope considerably while inevitably intensifying the crisis. The longer-term question is whether, in line with Erdogan’s statements, Turkey will also initiate military action in Manbij and beyond the Euphrates, where there are approximately 2,000 U.S. troops embedded with the YPG in the context of Washington’s cooperation with the umbrella Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against the Islamic State.

Q2: Why did Turkey coordinate its operation with Russia?

A2: The decision to launch the Afrin operation was clearly taken with the consent of Russia, just as with Euphrates Shield. The necessary coordination was undertaken through Erdogan’s continuous personal diplomacy with Russian president Vladimir Putin, as well as Akar and National Intelligence Organization chief Hakan Fidan’s meeting with Russian chief of staff Valery Gerasimov on January 18 in Moscow. Erdogan praised Russia’s stance as the operation was beginning by saying “Afrin will be dealt with. We discussed this with our Russian friends, we are in agreement.” The accord on Afrin was further confirmed by the reported relocation of Russian military personnel stationed there prior to the outbreak of hostilities, as well as the lack of a response to the Turkish Air Force missions by the very effective Russian defense system covering western Syria or by the Syrians themselves notwithstanding the public threat by Damascus before the operation. In striking contrast to its close coordination with Russia, Turkey was content to merely inform the United States of its impending air strikes as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis noted on January 21.

Although Turkey has been denying suggestions of any kind of quid pro quo, it is noteworthy that the Turkish operation followed the intensified attacks by Moscow and Damascus against opposition groups backed by Ankara in Idlib province. The assault annoyed Turkey and prompted an unusual demarche through the Russian ambassador in Ankara on January 9. Nevertheless, Turkey did not deviate from its policy decision to cooperate in Syria with the main backer of the Bashar al-Assad regime as its relationship with the United States deteriorated because of Washington’s cooperation with the YPG.

Turkey’s involvement in the Astana Process on the future of Syria with Russia and, Assad’s other external supporter, Iran, has been very useful to Moscow as it seeks to cement its achievements in Syria with a political settlement. Unlike the faltering UN-sponsored Geneva process, this would be based on the implicit assumption of Assad remaining in power, an outcome the opposition groups backed by Turkey have been consistently opposing. Consequently, giving a free hand to Turkey in Afrin may have been perceived by Russia as a gambit to keep Ankara on board in the Astana process ahead of the upcoming Syrian National Dialogue meeting in Sochi on January 29 where the new constitution for postwar Syria is due to be discussed.

Q3: What are the implications for U.S.-Turkey relations?

A3: Having failed to get the Obama and Trump administrations to refrain from a deepening engagement with the YPG since 2014, Erdogan is sending a strong message to Washington through military action against its Syrian Kurdish allies. On January 11, Erdogan had taken direct aim at the United States by saying “On the one hand you claim that ‘we are strategic partners,’ on the other hand, you provide weapons in northern Syria with over 4,000 trailer trucks. To whom? The YPG. We explain this to you, you do not listen to us. How are we strategic partners?” He had added on January 15 that the United States “has now acknowledged that it is in the process of establishing a terror army along our borders. Our duty is to strangle this at birth.”

The initial response of the United States to the operation was characterized by a cautious understanding designed to minimize the impact to the already shaky relationship with Turkey. On January 20, General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, confirmed that Afrin was not part of U.S. operations in Syria in accordance with the deconfliction line agreement between the United States and Russia. On January 22, Mattis acknowledged that Turkey had “legitimate security concerns,” an observation that was repeated on the same day by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said that the United States “recognizes and fully appreciates Turkey’s legitimate right to protect its own citizens from terrorist elements.” Tillerson also said that the United States wanted to see “what we can do to work together to address Turkey’s legitimate security concerns in a way that’s satisfactory to Turkey.” However, both officials also called for “restraint,” while Tillerson stressed that Turkey should “ensure that its operations are limited in scope and duration.” Significantly, the second part of their message to Ankara was emphasized on January 23 by White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

On January 24, President Donald Trump decided to insert himself into the equation by phoning Erdogan for the first time in two months. Although Erdogan had publicly complained about Trump’s unwillingness to reach out to him during this period, the White House readout of the conversation and the subsequent Turkish rebuttal made it clear that Erdogan could not have been happy with the call. As the White House explained, Trump “relayed concerns” about the Afrin operation and urged Turkey “to deescalate, limit its military actions and avoid civilian casualties.” In a clear allusion to Erdogan’s stated goal of expanding the operation to Manbij and beyond, Trump called on Turkey to “exercise caution and avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.” For good measure, Trump also “expressed concern about the destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey” and brought up an earlier issue bedeviling the relationship, namely American citizens and local employees at U.S. diplomatic posts in Turkey who were “detained under the prolonged State of Emergency in Turkey.”

In its own report, the Turkish president’s office gave a different version of the conversation thus underlining the problems of communication along with differences in policies between the two allies. It put a much more positive spin on the call. It said that views had been “exchanged on the latest developments in Syria and Operation Olive Branch,” and the two leaders had “reaffirmed their determination to continue cooperation and close contact.” It also said that Erdogan had reiterated his demand that “the U.S. should stop arms support to PYD/YPG.” Unnamed Turkish presidential sources denied that Trump had expressed concern about escalating violence in Afrin and charged that the readout did “not accurately reflect the content of President Erdogan’s phone call with President Trump.” Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu went so far as to claim that the readout had been prepared before the telephone conversation.

Despite the Turkish explanations, there is little doubt that Trump’s call reflected a perceptible hardening of the U.S. position. This was further confirmed by Trump’s homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, who said on January 25 that Turkish troops should “remove themselves” from Afrin and warned that there could be “grave consequences to any miscalculation and escalation” if the Turkish troops clashed with “the proxy forces that we have all been relying on to defeat ISIS, especially if there are U.S. advisers in the region.” Votel also focused on the dangers of escalation and warned Turkey against sending its forces eastward. He said “Our object is to prevent something like that from happening. That’s not in our interest.” An unnamed U.S. official followed up by saying that it had been made “very clear” to Turkey that there would “be consequences if they move toward Manbij.”

It is not apparent if the U.S. warnings are having the desired effect on Turkey’s calculations. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, who accompanied Erdogan on a surprise visit to Turkish troops near Afrin on January 25, said “Those who support the terrorist organization will become a target in such a battle. The U.S. needs to review its soldiers and elements that support terrorists on the ground in a way to avoid a confrontation with Turkey.” Responding to a question on whether a Manbij operation is on Ankara’s agenda, Cavusoglu said: “If the harassment continues from there, we can do what is necessary like Afrin.” In this potentially dangerous context, it is noteworthy that the special presidential envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, and Votel—the architects of the alignment with the Syrian Kurds—were meeting with YPG commanders in northern Syria even as the Afrin operation was unfolding, thus sending their own message to Ankara that the U.S. military is likely to stand by its allies in Manbij and beyond.

Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Zeynep Yekeler is a research assistant with the CSIS Turkey Project.

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Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Zeynep Yekeler

Research Assistant, Turkey Project