The Turkish military Operation Olive Branch in Afrin has demonstrated that the problem of Syrian Kurdish militias YPG has driven a serious wedge between the USA and Turkey who are strategic partners and leaders among NATO members based on the size of their military. The reason for the invasion of the territory of Syria by the Turkish military has been the statement by CJTF-OIR Public Affairs Officer Colonel Thomas F. Veale who said that the United States work to establish the People’s Protection Units on the Syrian border with Turkey and Iraq composed of 30,000 Kurdish militias. Ankara has been alarmed with Washington supplying military equipment and ammunition, including mortars, antitank weapons systems and heavy machine guns to the YPG fighters. The refutation by the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said that Washington was not going to establish an armed group in the northeastern border of Syria, which Turkey seems to have misunderstood, has failed to stop Turkey from achieving its goal.
The charismatic leader of the ruling AKP party, Recep Erdogan, who has been ruling the country for 15 years at his discretion and in a tough way, could not but seize the opportunity to strengthen his political capital before the 2019 presidential election. The opposition, except for the pro-Kurdish HDP, has all lent full support to the operation.By launching the military operation, he has managed to draw the Turkish nationalists over to himself. The leader of the nationalist party MHP Devlet Bahceli has already stated that his party would not nominate its candidate, but will support Erdogan in the elections.
If Erdogan manages to complete the military operation without heavy casualties, resettle over 4 million Syrian refugees from Turkey to the Syrian province of Afrin and create a strong buffer zone free from Kurdish militants, he can win the forthcoming election. Thus, many factors have intertwined in the Operation Olive Branch: state security protection, fight against Kurdish terrorists, geostrategic interests of Turkey in the Middle East, and domestic policy challenges.
Turkey’s Carrot and Stick Method on Kurds
It should be emphasized that in the last 15 years Turkey has been pursuing differentiated policies towards the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds. If the cooperation with Iraqi Kurds is a tactical friendship, there’s a tough war between Ankara and the Syrian Kurds. What is the secret behind such different attitudes towards Syrian and Iraqi Kurds who belong to a single ethnic group?
The Kurds are one of the largest nations in the world with no national statehood. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, the Kurds were divided between the four countries in the Middle East – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. However, currently there are three active Kurdish ethnic groups that have complex relationships between them.
The first group is led by ex-president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Masoud Barzani, who has managed to establish cooperation with Ankara after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The second group is composed of adherers of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party in Iraqi Sulaimani that has lost its one-time influence after the death of its leader, Jalal Talabani, in 2017. The attitude of Ankara to this group of Kurds can be described as relatively stable. However, Turkey strongly disapproves of the initiatives of KDP and PUK to declare the independence of Kurdistan. Partly due to the diplomatic and economic pressure by Turkey, Erbil has had to freeze the independence referendum results as of September 25, 2017, and remain as an autonomous region of Iraq.
The third group includes Syrian Kurds who have united behind the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that controls the armed militias of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). According to Ankara, these armed groups of Syrian Kurds are closely related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered by Turkey and western countries as a terrorist organization. It should be emphasized that the Kurdish militants of PKK have been fighting against the Turkish Government to gain sovereignty since 1984. Therefore, Erdogan believes that PYD, YPG and PKK are all terrorist organizations. All three of them Erdogan refers to as Daesh (Arabic language acronym ISIS).
The concerns expressed by Ankara contain elements of truth. Despite the statements made by the Syrian Kurds about their non-affiliation with the PKK militants, evidence suggests otherwise. The training camps of PKK have been known to be based in Syria and Kurdish militants after committing terrorist attacks in Turkey have been hiding there successfully in the north of Syria. It is no secret that the leader of PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison in Imrali, is very popular among the Syrian Kurds. Therefore the Syrian Kurdsbuilt a huge, 53-meter-high, statue as a monument of Abdullah Ocalan on the slopes of the Darmyk Mountain in the northern Syrian region of Afrin, which the Turkish air force bombed during the Operation Olive Branch.Yet his life sentence has not stopped him from attempting to become the leader of the whole Kurdish world and to create the united Kurdistan at the junction of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Given that the Talabani group is not strong enough to compete, there’s an ongoing ideological struggle for leadership between Barzani and Ocalan, which has an impact on the situation in the region.
Turkey, in its relations with the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, is using a carrot-and-stick approach. The government of Erdogan uses skillfully disagreements between the three Kurdish groups to improve its national security. Ankara is actively developing economic cooperation with Iraqi Kurdistan and hosts Masoud Barzani at the highest level. In turn, Masoud Barzani reciprocates for the ‘Turkish carrot’. He tries to force the PKK militants out of his territory and upon the request of Ankara closes the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan for the Syrian Kurds. When in May 2014 the Syrian region inhabited with Kurds raised the question of establishment of autonomy, Masoud Barzani did not support his fellows and took Erdogan’s position. Thus, Barzani and Erdogan’s government have found common interest, which satisfies both leaders.
Unlike their Iraqi fellows, today Syrian Kurds in Afrin feel the brutality of the ‘Turkish stick’ approach. According to the General Staff of Turkey, over 1,000 PYD/PKK and Daesh terrorists have been killed since the launch of the military operation. The Turkish army, jointly with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has managed to clean up a significant part of Afrin areas. Operation Olive Branch has demonstrated that Turkey is overreacting to the attempts of the Syrian Kurds to transform into an independent political force in the region.
Putin’s ‘hybrid tactic’ in the confrontation between Ankara and Washington
Erdogan has said that afterthe military operation in Afrin the Turkish army is prepared to clean up Manbij where about 2,000 U.S. troops and an umbrella group of Kurdish fighters YPG are stationed. He has called on the U.S. to leave Manbij and stop supporting the Syrian Kurds. In fact, Ankara has laid out a condition to Washington to choose between the Kurdish militias and Turkey. Washington meanwhile manages to walk a fine line between the Syrian Kurds and Ankara.According to YPG,if the United States refuses to support the Kurdish militias, who have turned out to be a strong support to the Americans in their fight against ISIS,it would be as bad as capitulating to the so-called Islamic State. Yet the red line across Manbij comes closer and closer every day.
Finally, it may be concluded that the confrontation between Ankara and Washington strengthened the positions of Russia, Iran and the regime of Bashar Assad in the Middle East. Russia,who has troops in Afrin and controls the skies over the region, has given a green signal to Turkey to attack US-backed YPG. Thus, Moscow punished the Syrian Kurds for rapprochement with Washington and the refusal to release Afrin to the army of the Assad regime.
Expectedly, the Kremlin will keep on trying to influence the two NATO members to collide, which will curb the influence of the United States in Syria. Erdogan, who has recently strongly demanded regime change in Syria, today he fears that Bashar Assad and YPG can unite against Turkey. This all reminds me of Putin’s ‘hybrid tactics’ during the brexit in the UK and interference in the US electoral process.
Today it is difficult to predict how long the Turkish “whip” diplomacy against the Syrian Kurds will last. The situation is becoming more dangerous. In this situation, much will depend on the statements and actions of Washington, which still has enough influence and resources to defuse the tense situation in northern Syria.