Beyond Afrin: How far will Turkey's operation against Kurds go?
On January 20, Turkey began to fulfill its many threats against the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in north-western Syria by launching Operation Olive Branch.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to remove the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) from the canton and has also threatened to target the group elsewhere across northern Syria.
Ankara believes the YPG to be the Syrian arm of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), whose ongoing militant insurgency has been responsible for many Turkish deaths over its 34 years.
Fundamentally, the ongoing Operation Olive Branch against the YPG in Afrin is a continuation and extension of Operation Euphrates Shield - which began on August 24, 2016 and officially ended on March 29, 2017.
The objective of that operation was to both remove the Islamic State group from Syria's northwestern border with Turkey - and to prevent the Kurds from establishing a land bridge across that same 60-mile swathe of border territory IS occupied, to link the tiny isolated Afrin canton to their main territories of Jazira and Kobane.
Erdogan also stated several times early last year that Manbij was his next target. Manbij is an Arab city on the west bank of the Euphrates, captured from IS in the months before Euphrates Shield by the Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (of which the YPG is a constituent part), with support from the US.
The Americans had assured the Turks beforehand that the YPG would have minimal involvement in the operation and they would not remain in the city.
"The promises made to us over Manbij were not kept," declared Erdogan, upon launching the Afrin operation on January 20. "So nobody can object if we do what is necessary."
The US actively prevented Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters from clashing with the SDF in Manbij last March by deploying Army Rangers there.
"Later we will, step by step, clear our country up to the Iraqi border from this terror filth that is trying to besiege our country," Erdogan added.
This implies Ankara may well intend to go beyond both Afrin and Manbij to attack Syria's other Kurdish regions.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also said: "Whether Afrin, Manbij, northern Iraq or the east of the Euphrates, wherever the terrorists are situated and are posing threats is our target."
Operation Olive Branch constitutes the first Turkish invasion of Syrian Kurdish areas; earlier clashes between the Turkish-FSA forces and YPG forces during Euphrates Shield transpired outside of the Kurdish cantons.
Conquering Afrin, in Erdogan's stated view, amounts to destroying the "western wing" of the "terror corridor" - a term he invariably uses to describe both Kurdish-controlled areas and the prospect that the YPG could eventually control the entire border.
|Kurds control Afrin, Kobane and Jazira, much to the ire of Turkey|
Interestingly, when outlining the official pretexts for Olive Branch, one thing the Turkish Prime Minister's Office of Public Diplomacy cited was eliminating "the possibility of losing Turkey's geographical contact with the Arab world". This is a clear allusion to the fact that Kurds presently control most of Syria's border with Turkey and the entirety of Turkey's border with Iraq is with that country's autonomous Kurdistan Region.
The ongoing invasion of Afrin is a major development in Turkey's conflict with the Syrian Kurds and appears to be a calculated act of aggression on Ankara's part. The fact the Americans never worked with Afrin-based YPG forces during their campaign against IS, and said as much when queried by the Turkish press on the eve of Olive Branch, coupled with the territory's isolated nature, and the complete Turkish encirclement of it, makes it an extremely difficult area for the Kurds to defend and reinforce.
This would unlikely be the case for their much larger northeastern cantons of Kobane and Jazira, where the Americans plan to maintain an open-ended presence.
Were Erdogan to actually send Turkish forces beyond Afrin and Manbij to destroy the SDF/YPG in Kobane and Jazira, he would run the risk of killing American personnel there and severely damaging, or dealing a death-blow to, the already strained relationship between Ankara and Washington.
Just before the launch of Olive Branch, Erdogan threatened Washington over its plans to create an SDF border-guard force and Çavuşoğlu warned that such a project could "irreversibly harm" US-Turkish relations.
From Afrin to Sinjar
Turkey has also long threatened to remove the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from Sinjar, home of the Yazidi minority in Iraq. Erdogan has said, time and again, for well over a year, that Turkey would not "sit idle" while Sinjar becomes what he calls a "second Qandil" - a reference to the PKK's mountain stronghold in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Turkey often targets the PKK in Qandil with airstrikes, and has for decades tried to deny the group a base there. Erdogan said just last November he would "level Qandil to the ground". The Turks bombed Sinjar last April, but accidentally killed Peshmerga troops belonging to Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) rather than their intended PKK militant targets.
During a January 21 joint press conference with his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Çavuşoğlu agreed on the need to destroy IS remnants in Iraq but argued that "it is equally important to wipe out all terrorist groups from Iraq".
He proceeded to refer to the PKK and its affiliates, which he says need "to be cleared from Iraqi, Turkish mountains".
While Turkish officials routinely threaten to destroy the PKK in Iraq, Turkey is unlikely to take any military action there - aside from the intermittent airstrikes it launches against Qandil.
A proposed Turkish operation, dubbed Tigris Shield, mooted early last year to seize positions around the town of Faysh Khabur - which sits on the Tigris River at a three-way border crossing between Iraq, Syria and Turkey - to interdict PKK movements never materialised.
More recently, a plan was promoted in Turkey to punish the entirety of Iraqi Kurdistan for its independence referendum last September, by circumventing that autonomous region and trading directly with Iraq by opening a new border crossing at Ovakoy which, like Khabur, is situated where the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Syria meet.
As Al-Monitor pointed out, advocates of the plan seemed "unconcerned with the hard reality that the 50-kilometre stretch of land between Ovakoy and northern Mosul is under the control of the Kurdish Peshmerga and that the Iraqi government hasn't controlled even one metre of land on the Iraq-Turkey border since 1991".
The Turkish border with Iraq is with Iraqi Kurdistan's Duhok Province, a fully recognised part of the autonomous region that is not legally disputed with Baghdad in any way. Ultimately Turkey did not close its major Ibrahim Khalil border crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan for even a single hour following the referendum, despite the bluster from Ankara.
Furthermore, subsequent Iraqi efforts to seize Kabur from the Iraqi Kurds during clashes between Iraqi Popular Mobilisation (PMF) paramilitaries and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters failed.
On October 17, one day after Kirkuk's takeover by Baghdad-loyal fighters, the Peshmerga also withdrew from Sinjar and a series of other disputed territories. Iraqi PMF paramilitaries have since moved in. Turkey has long had good relations with the KRG, which, when it had the Peshmerga in Sinjar before October 17, was sympathetic to Turkey's opposition to the PKK presence and, to some extent, even shared it - since the PKK was seen as a challenge, or even an affront, to its authority and sovereignty.
The PMF there, closely allied with Iran, may not prove so understanding if Turkey were to start any major military operations in their midst anytime soon.
However, upon concluding his one-day trip to Iraq on January 21, Çavuşoğlu claimed that Baghdad would "completely stop PKK-YPG infilitration" between Sinjar and Syria.
"And we told them that we'll grant them all the necessary support in their efforts and that we altogether can do our best to clean Iraq from all terrorists," he added.
It's unclear if this will amount to anything other than Iraq simply securing its own borders with Syria. Nevertheless, even that could potentially hinder any transit of these Kurdish fighters between the two countries which would, of course, be beneficial to Turkey.
In conclusion, given the present facts on the ground in both Syria and Iraq, Operation Olive Branch will likely remain confined to Afrin, at most extending to Manbij, in spite of Ankara's frequently stated goal of destroying these Kurdish groups once and for all.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.