Smoke rises from a target hit by Turkish forces in Afrin, Syria, January 20, 2018.
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
On January 20 Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch, aimed at clearing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) it calls “terrorists” from the area of Afrin in northwest Syria. The Turkish military says more than 200 YPG members have been killed in operations involving hundreds of strikes on targets using tanks, ground troops and warplanes. The offensive marks an escalation in the already complex and deadly conflict, risks creating a rift between Washington and Ankara, and opens a new front line that further complicates attempts to resolve the Syrian war.
Since 2012, the YPG has come to dominate parts of Syria as the regime forces collapsed and concentrated on fighting the rebels. The Kurds in Syria have historically suffered grievous discrimination at the hands of the Assad regime.
They were subjected to forced Arabization and their culture was under assault. Many were denied citizenship. Since 2012 under the aegis of newfound freedoms they have been a bulwark against Islamic State and become key partners of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS.
The YPG is also, however, connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a multi-decade conflict with Turkey and is viewed by Ankara and other countries as a terrorist organization. Like other groups in the region, the YPG therefore combines problematic origins with a present attempt to change its image. The US has been careful in its statements, indicating that it is working with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is an umbrella group that contains the YPG. Turkey has complained to Washington for years about weapons transfers to the YPG and accused America of recruiting a “terrorist army” in Syria. As the war against ISIS winds down, Turkey sees a threat on its border, and the US increasing its presence in eastern Syria. In mid-January the coalition announced plans to expand the training of a stabilization force in eastern Syria. Ankara upped its rhetoric and said it would launch an operation against Afrin.
Turkey's operation in Syria's Kurdish-controlled Afrin region has "de facto" begun with cross-border shelling. (Reuters)
Afrin is a small canton, around the size of the Golan Heights or Rhode Island. It is isolated from the rest of the Kurdish-controlled areas in eastern Syria, and the US has said it is not working with the YPG in Afrin. As such the Kurds there have been isolated. They had, however, amicable relations with the Syrian regime and with the Russians who deployed a limited presence there. Russia is the main ally of the Assad regime. Afrin enjoyed relative quiet as the rest of Syria suffered a brutal civil war.
Turkey, however, accuses the YPG of displacing 250,000 Arabs from their homes in Afrin. In addition, according to the Turkish media Daily Sabah, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that the operation in Afrin could enable 3.5 million Syrian who live as refugees in Turkey to move into Afrin and surrounding areas after the “extermination of the terrorists.”
US President Donald Trump expressed concern about Turkey’s actions in a phone call with Erdogan on Wednesday.
He asked Turkey to avoid civilian casualties and “limit military actions.” The US, NATO and the UK all say, however, that they share Ankara’s security concerns because Turkey is a close Western ally. If the Afrin operation expands, especially as it involves Syrian rebel groups that are accused of being jihadists and extremists, there will be more concern about the fate of Afrin. The US is concerned the conflict could distract from the war on ISIS.
Israel knows well the need to balance restraint and the issue of border security and fighting terrorism. Over the years Israel has conducted similar operations to Turkey’s, in Gaza and the West Bank and against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Turkey has not, however, shared Israel’s concerns about its own terrorism problem. Erdogan called Israel a “terror state” in December and Turkey has hosted Hamas.
Ankara should consider the different messages it puts out regarding Israel’s actions to ensure border security and Turkey’s own actions to secure its borders. In addition the EU and UN that have remained silent on Turkey’s incursion should consider their double standard.
Why are Israel’s operations in Gaza immediately condemned and accused of being disproportionate, but bombing Afrin with F-16s goes on without opprobrium? The international community should subject Turkey to the same standards, monitoring closely any civilian casualties and also examining the role of any extremist elements among the Syrian rebels in the operation. Border security must not be an excuse for a wide-ranging new conflict in northern Syria against Kurds who have helped defeat ISIS.