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One week on, Operation Olive Branch helps Turkey seize many initiatives

A Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighter stops a armed man near the frontline on January 26, 2018 at the Syrian town of Azaz. (AFP)
ANKARA: As Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch entered its second week on Saturday, Ankara said military action against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia and its political wing the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria’s Afrin would continue until the threat is “neutralized.”
But despite Ankara’s claims that it has no wish to take territory from another country, and that control of Afrin will be handed over to the Syrian regime at the end of the operation, the offensive has inevitably complicated the already chaotic regional dynamics still further.
The official aim of Olive Branch is to establish stability along Turkey’s border with Syria and to remove not only the YPG/PYD ­— regarded by Ankara as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state for more than three decades — but also Daesh from the area.
Turkey’s military reported that 343 terrorists have so far surrendered, or been killed or captured, and that 333 targets have been destroyed. The operation’s scope now extends around 7.5 kilometers into Syria, with 11 villages captured.
Turkey has lost three soldiers so far, while one Syrian refugee was killed and 13 others wounded as two rockets launched from Afrin hit the Turkish border city of Kilis on Wednesday.
No casualties were reported after another rocket struck a marketplace in the border town of Reyhanli on Friday.
Overall, the operation has garnered the approval of the Turkish public and the support of the international community, with NATO recognizing Turkey’s “right to self-defense like all other countries.”
Washington, too, has released sympathetic statements recognizing “Turkey’s security concerns about the PKK, a US-designated foreign terrorist organization.”
Russia has supported the operation by allowing Turkey access to Afrin’s airspace, although it is not yet clear whether Russia’s will allow unlimited access or whether it will impose similar restrictions to those applied during Turkey’s cross-border Euphrates Shield Operation, which ran from August 2016 to March 2017.
Washington’s offer to Ankara this week to establish a 30 km safe zone in Syria, along with an increased number of meetings between US and Turkish officials, have been seen by many experts as a move by Western powers to re-establish ties with their longtime NATO ally. But the Turkish regime remains skeptical of US offers — a sign of the current distrust between the two countries.
However, the Syrian regime considers Turkey’s operation to be an invasion and an attack to Syrian sovereignty. In an interview with the BBC on Thursday, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said Syria will “act accordingly” to defend itself, explaining that could involve the use of its aerial defense systems.
Also on Thursday, the PYD/YPG-led administration of Afrin canton released a statement calling on Bashar Assad and his regime to protect the city.
Erol Bural, a former military officer and a terrorism expert at the 21st Century Turkey Institute, said the Turkish military, with the assistance of Free Syrian Army fighters, had encircled Afrin by opening multiple front lines.
“Barseya mountain, in the north of Azaz, is a primary target for Turkey because of its critical location overlooking Afrin’s urban center. The PKK/PYD used it as a major hideout for years, with fortifications against aerial and ground attacks,” Bural told Arab News.
Bural expects an effective siege on Afrin’s urban center once this mountain has been cleared of any terrorist threat, which will also prevent the YPG from targeting Turkey’s border towns with rockets and mortars.
“I don’t expect the Syrian regime to react positively to the YPG’s call, considering that Assad previously called the US-backed Kurdish fighters traitors, and considering the regime also wants the PYD presence cleaned out from this region,” he said.
At the end of the operation’s first week, the expansion of Olive Branch to Manbij, a city captured from Daesh in 2016 by the Kurdish militias, is still on the table. But the presence of American forces there complicates the situation.
“I think the main focus for now should be to wind up the military operation and hand complete control to local forces, while conducting diplomacy with regional actors,” Bural said.
According to Bural, the US is holding Manbij as its “trump card” against Turkey, in an attempt to weaken Russia’s influence on Ankara and to protect the “PKK statelet” America has established on the western flank of the River Euphrates.
“Now Turkey has two options: Either launch an operation on Manbij regardless of the US military presence, or conduct diplomatic maneuvers to convince the US to withdraw their soldiers,” he said.
According to Galip Dalay, research director at Al-Sharq Forum in Istanbul, “Operationally, the Afrin operation is progressing slowly but smoothly.”
Dalay thinks Operation Olive Branch is unlikely to progress at the same speed as Euphrates Shield, “at least in its early phases.”
“Nevertheless, Turkey hasn’t incurred many casualties,” he told Arab News.
On the diplomatic front, despite US concerns, the international community has so far been supportive of the operation, he said, adding that the objections it has faced thus far are “manageable.”
On the political front, though, Dalay said the goal of the operation “is still opaque.”
He explained: “It isn’t clear yet what will be acceptable to Turkey in Syria. If Turkey keeps the pressure on the YPG for too long, the YPG will invite the Assad regime to Afrin.
“Despite Turkey’s public discourse, Turkey doesn’t have much objection to such an outcome,” he continued. “Nevertheless, that would bode ill for Turkey, as well as the Syrian opposition’s image, as their actions will appear to play into the hands of the regime. This is one of the major dilemmas of this operation.”

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