Though a possible operation in Afrin had been on Ankara’s agenda for a long time, serious signals regarding the military incursion were not sent out until Jan. 13, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly stated that “they will see what we’ll do in about a week. If the terrorists in Afrin don’t surrender, we will tear them down.”
Turkey launched the operation as it considers the presence of the YPG in Afrin a serious threat to its national security and the stability of the region as a whole. For months, Ankara has tried to explain to its allies, namely the US, its security concerns and called on them to stop supporting the group. However, Turkey’s concerns have fallen on deaf ears, with Washington continuing to throw its weight behind the YPG with the alleged reason that it was fighting Daesh. Whenever Turkey tried to convince its ally, it received a reply along the lines of: “We understand your security concerns, but the priority is Daesh, not the others.” Frustrated with the indifferent stance of the US and others, Turkey took the matter into its own hands and engaged in a process that may not end with Afrin.
With Operation Olive Branch, Ankara seems to be sending a message to its allies that its concerns are not less important than theirs and that it now prefers not to jump on the US bandwagon.
With Operation Olive Branch, Turkey seems to want to send a message to its allies that Turkey’s concerns are not less important than theirs and also show that the world is no longer unipolar, with Turkey having no other option but to be dependent on the US. Today’s Turkey, which is surrounded by myriad regional challenges, prefers not to jump on the US bandwagon.
As Turkey launched its military operation, it also engaged in shuttle diplomacy to explain to the international community that the offensive is being carried out within the boundaries of international law. Turkey seems to be following the rational model of decision-making in the context of Afrin. First, it identified its goals — to eliminate the YPG — and then it evaluated the consequences of its policy choices, in order to come to the most rational decision.
For Turkey, this military operation was the most rational choice.
As in all military involvements, there are clear goals to be accomplished as well as long-term strategic objectives. The Afrin operation’s most significant goal is to set up an area 30 km deep and 130 km wide free of terrorist groups. If this goal is achieved, Turkey will be able to control its Syrian border and even proceed toward Manbij, close to the western bank of the Euphrates, if the YPG does not withdraw from that area. Ankara has planned a four-phase operation but made it clear that the operation’s aim is not against Syria’s territorial integrity.
Needless to say, it seems Russia gave the green light to Turkey’s operation for many possible reasons. First and foremost was to keep Turkey in the Astana peace process because Ankara brings legitimacy to the talks, given that the other two actors, Russia and Iran, are supporters of the Syrian regime. Second was to decrease the US role in Syria and to distance the Kurdish groups from American influence. We still do not know if Turkey can reach Manbij but, even if it does not, the offensive in Afrin has dealt a severe blow to the Kurdish organizations. They in turn seem set to lose motivation and trust for the US, which has a long history of disappointing the Kurds. Third, both Russia and Turkey are frustrated with US policies in Syria and want to re-establish a forum where the future of Syria will be reshaped.
For Turkey’s part, a successful operation would strengthen its hand in both the Astana process on the table and in Syria on the ground. Ankara’s role in the Sochi talks, to be held on Jan. 29-30, depends on how strong it is on the ground.
Indeed, Turkey’s intervention in Afrin has opened a new chapter in the Syrian crisis. Turkey is not a big power, but it is a serious regional player that can influence the strategies of the other powers that have a stake in Syria. It is too early to predict what the Afrin operation will bring in terms of Ankara’s long-term strategy in Syria, and it is clear the operation is not totally without risks and consequences, both militarily and politically. However, one point is clear — that Turkey started the operation strong; but to remain strong throughout the process is even more significant. The coming days are of utmost importance.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.