In January of 2018, Turkish military forces launched Operation Olive Branch, a military offensive against US-backed Kurdish YPG fighters in Afrin, a Syrian city just south of the Turkish border, opening a new front in the nearly seven-year-old Syrian war.
The Afrin offensive was put into motion by President Erdogan of Turkey less than a week after the U.S. announced plans to establish a 30,000-strong border force in the area of northern Syria where YPG-dominated Kurdish forces were able to drive out ISIS fighters last year.
Recently Erdowan gave a statement saying, “The US is in the process of creating a terror army on our border. What we have to do is nip this terror army in the bud.”
Tanks, warplanes and ground troops have all been deployed over the border.
In addition to the Afrin offensive, Erdogan has stated that Turkish forces intend on targeting the predominantly Arab town of Manbij, which is part of the larger area controlled by the Kurdish YPG and its allies. Currently, Kurdish control of the western edge of Syria’s border with Turkey is cut off from the rest of Kurdish-held territory by a Turkish-held enclave. If Turkey and its Free Syrian Army rebel allies can defeat the YPG in Afrin, they would link up two areas of rebel-held territory in northwest Syria.
Achieving this would be an enormous advancement for Assad’s opponents (Turkey, FSA, and ISIS), who have continuously lost ground over the past last two years to government forces supported by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias.
This scenario would pit Turkish troops against a collection of Kurdish and Arab fighters armed and supported by its NATO partner the United States, and quite possibly against U.S. military personnel, some of whom are in the Manbij area.
The YGP perceives defending the Kurdish enclave of Afrin as nothing less than an existential fight to preserve a territory which they’ve sacrificed many lives to gain control of. Afrin has major significance since it was one of the first Kurdish areas to rise up against Bashar Assad and back self-rule. Furthermore, throughout the conflicts long and drawn our duration, Afrin has acted as a base for senior Kurdish fighters.
The battle for Afrin places Washington into a geopolitical bind with few good options. The Turkish offensive employing a combination of air power, artillery and ground troops, has alarmed the United States which has supported the YPG in liberating northern Syria from the Islamic State.
Erdogan has warned the United States, “Do not encroach on our borders. Do not provoke us, or we will run out of patience.
The US State Department has urged Turkey to exercise restraint and ensure that its military operations remain limited in scope and duration and scrupulous to avoid civilian casualties.
The issue reflects a deep-seated concern among Kurds over their alliance with the United States, which played a decisive role in defeating ISIS terrorists in Syria. The Kurds fear that someday their dream of self-determination and state sovereignty will be lost by larger more powerful forces vying for influence and territory in Syria. Geopolitically speaking, the United States between a rock and a hard place, juggling between the interests of Turkey, a key NATO ally, and the Kurds, the United State’s only remaining ally in war-ravaged Syria.
It will be interesting to see how things unfold from this point as we move forward. Will the US continue to back Kurdish fighters or will they capitulate to Erdogan’s demands?