After two days of artillery fire Turkish air forces joined an assault, somewhat inappropriately called, “Operation Olive Branch,” on the Syrian province and city of Afrin on Saturday. According to Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, the objective of the operation is the elimination of the PKK, PYD, YPG (Kurdish) and Daesh (Sunni Islamist) forces operating in the Syrian border region.
The targeted Kurdish factions represent various interests. The Turkey-based militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is featured on the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list, seeks greater autonomy for the Kurds and has led a low-intensity insurgency against the Turkish state for decades. The Syria-based Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of the PKK which, while ethnically inclusive, is largely comprised of Kurds and aims to create an independent polity known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria or colloquially Rojava. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) serves as the armed wing of the PYD. The fourth target, Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State) is comprised of Salafi jihadists, who would prefer what amounts to their own state-like entity.
1] Turkish army announcement:
— Operation Olive Branch (@OliveBranchOp) January 20, 2018
Turkish media outlets reported that the Turkish General Staff are claiming “Out of the 113 PYD targets, 108 have been destroyed as of 18:30 [15:30 GMT]. All the killed and wounded people, who have been sent to hospitals, are members of terrorist groups.”
However, as of this writing, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based human rights advocacy group reported six civilian fatalities including one child resulting from the bombardment.
Despite these fatalities Prime Minister Yildirim stated, “the black propaganda of the terrorist group claiming ‘an operation is being conducted to eliminate the Kurds in Afrin’ has absolutely nothing to do with the reality. The operation is launched to protect the Kurds and the Arabs and the innocent people from the persecution of this bloody, separatist terrorist organization.”
Responding to the Turkish offensive, Presidential Council Member, Hikmet Hebib of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria declared “Northern Syrian forces have saved the region from terror, civilian and military institutions have been formed. They will defend the region by resisting the Turkish state’s attacks as well. The war the AKP [Turkey’s governing party] fans in the region will spread to Turkey too.”
By January 21, Turkish media outlets reported that Turkish ground forces, in coordination with the pro-Turkish Free Syrian Army militia, were tasked with establishing a 30-kilometer (18.6 mile) safe zone along the border and so far had met little resistance.
Meanwhile, the YPG militia spokesman in Afrin, Birusk Hasaka, has reportedly issued a conflicting account, claiming that while intense Turkish artillery fire and air strikes have continued, Turkish forces and their FSA allies’ assault on the city had been repelled.
While Prime Minister Yildirim has claimed the U.S., Russia, Iran and Syria were all consulted prior to the start of the operation, the international community has responded with varying degrees of disapproval and has largely called for a de-escalation of the conflict.
The Syrian regime, under Bashar al-Assad, has stated it received no advanced warning and claimed it was prepared to shoot down Turkish warplanes, yet as of this writing, has taken no public action.
The U.S. finds itself in a difficult position as it has provided material support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of regional militias led by the PYD which has proven an effective fighting force in the battle against ISIS. Turkey, a NATO ally, considers the PYD to be a terrorist organization. While U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has reportedly spoken with his counterparts, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, no details from the call have been released.
.@statedeptspox: The US is very concerned about the situation in northwest #Syria, especially the plight of innocent civilians. We urge Turkey to exercise restraint to ensure its military operations avoid civilian casualties. https://t.co/xSoFpv8OFV
— Department of State (@StateDept) January 21, 2018
State Department spokesperson, Heather Nauert, addressed the situation by issuing an official statement, noting that the U.S. “continue[s] to be supportive of addressing the legitimate security concerns of Turkey as a NATO Ally and critical partner in the effort to defeat ISIS. However, we urge Turkey to exercise restraint and ensure that its military operations remain limited in scope and duration and scrupulous to avoid civilian casualties.”
While it remains unclear how long this operation will continue, comments by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan indicate that the town of Manbij is the next likely target. “The promises made to us over Manbij were not kept. So nobody can object if we do what is necessary,” Erdoğan continued, “Later we will, step by step, clear our country up to the Iraqi border from this terror filth that is trying to besiege our country.”
Turkey has been known to alter its alliances to reflect its interest in the outcome of the Syrian civil war. It has acted on behalf of the various forces warring in Syria, seemingly in hopes of regaining a semblance of its former greatness in the region and the territory it lost (especially Aleppo) in the aftermath of World War One (Hall 2015, 210 – 213).
Indeed, Erdogan has recently stirred some alarm, when he called into question whether Greece was living up to its 1923 Treaty of Lausanne obligations. It remains to be seen, however, if Turkey’s interests are limited by pure security concerns on its borders.
LIMA CHARLIE NEWS, with Sean McNicholas
Lima Charlie provides global news, insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.
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