Turkey’s long-term Syria strategy takes a big step forward

Turkey’s long-term Syria strategy takes a big step forward

On the night of March 18, Operation Olive Branch achieved its aim in the Afrin region of Syria. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) entered the city center and liberated it from terrorists without difficulty or civilian casualties. The operation was launched on Jan. 20 to clear out militants from People’s Protection Units (YPG), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and Daesh. The Turkish flag was hoisted over Afrin’s city hall 58 days later. The city had been under the control of YPG since 2012, when the Assad regime surrendered the city to the terrorist group without a fight. In 2014, it was declared a de facto autonomous region by the Kurds.

The announcement of the taking of the city by the TSK and FSA was done in a symbolic way. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed the success of the operation in a speech during a ceremony commemorating the great Turkish victory at Gallipoli during World War I. “Most of the terrorists have already fled with tails between their legs. Our special forces and members of the Free Syrian Army are cleaning the remains and the traps they left behind,” he said, hailing the Turkish and Syrian soldiers as heroes.

Operation Olive Branch, which marked a major turning point in the seven-year Syrian war, is the successor to Operation Euphrates Shield, which was conducted between Jarablus and Al-Rai in northern Syria from August 2016 until March 2017, when the areas were cleared of terrorists. However, Operation Olive Branch has not only changed the balance of power in Afrin, it has had significant additional consequences.

First and foremost, Turkey has achieved its main strategic target in dealing serious blow to Kurdish aspirations for self-administration there, and neutralized the threat in Manbij. The Kurdish-controlled town is now a flashpoint for Turkey. US forces are stationed nearby, west of the Euphrates River, and are trying to control their “Kurdish allies.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recently said Ankara and Washington have reached “an understanding, but not full agreement” about working towards stabilizing the town and other areas in which YPG are present.
Secondly, Turkey displayed its determined stance on the fight against terrorism despite criticism from several sides. The operation strained already stressed relations between two NATO allies, Turkey and the US, the latter of which had provided support to YPG in its fight against Daesh. During the operation, Turkey renamed the street in Ankara on which the American Embassy is located to “Olive Branch Street” in honor of the campaign in Afrin.

The success of Operation Olive Branch in driving terrorists out of Afrin is another big boost for Ankara’s vision for the future of the region along the border.

Sinem Cengiz

Thirdly, the operation’s success is likely to further strengthen Turkey’s hand in diplomatic circles. The country is already part of the Astana peace process, along with Russia and Iran, and the fall of Afrin improves the cards it can play. Also, Olive Branch offers Turkey greater room for maneuver in tackling subsequent targets, as Ankara has threatened to eventually clear the terrorists from along its entire border, all the way to Iraq.
Fourthly, the public in Turkey was supportive of both operations. This not only strengthened the government’s position domestically, it also alleviated some concerns within the administration regarding the military operation, its timing, targets and capabilities.
Lastly, Turkey is determined to step up reconstruction efforts in Afrin when Operation Olive Branch is over, similar to what has been seen in Al-Bab and Jarablus. After Euphrates Shield, Turkey set up local systems of governance, and repaired or rebuilt damaged schools, mosques, hospitals and houses, which enabled Syrians to return to their city. This “Euphrates Shield Model” is expected also to be applied in the now YPG-free Afrin.
The day after Afrin was taken back, Syrian opposition leaders and activists from the region gathered in the Turkish province of Gaziantep to select council members to form an administration. Turkey does not want to waste any time in reconstructing the city, after what it has achieved in Jarablus and Al-Bab. However, the real responsibility now rests on the shoulders of those who will govern those liberated cities.
There is a well-known Turkish saying: “What we have done is assurance of what we are going to do.” Turkey has made it clear that the focus now must be on PKK targets in Sinjar and the YPG in Manbij. When looking at both operations so far, their success and aftermath, it appears likely that Turkey will not stop until it achieves the targets of its long-term Syria strategy.

• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.
Twitter: @SinemCngz
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