Turkish military officials confirmed that operation “Olive Branch” targeting Syria’s northwestern Afrin Province officially began on January 20. The objective is to eliminate the presence of both People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Islamic State (IS).
According to Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Turkish ground forces entered Syria’s Afrin District from Kilis’ Gulbaba region on January 20 at 11:05 (local time). The prime minister also stated that the “four-phase operation” will aim to create a buffer zone 30 km south of the Turkish border.
Turkish forces targeted YPG positions with artillery fire throughout Afrin Province on January 20-21, including along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels were deployed along Syria’s border with Hatay Province and south of Syria’s Azaz.
YPG forces responded to the aerial bombardments with artillery fire striking Turkish forces in and around the Turkish border town of Kilis.
Russia reportedly withdrew its stationed forces from Syrian’s Afrin To Tel Ajar on January 20, in light of the Turkish operation. Russian authorities called for “reconciliation of warring sides.”
On January 20, the US “encouraged all parties to avoid escalation” and to “focus on the most important task of defeating IS.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated on January 20 that Syria’s Manbij, located just west of the Euphrates River, will be the “next destination for a Turkish combat operation” following Afrin.
Assessments & Forecast
The operations highlight Turkey’s continued efforts to safeguard its interests in northern Syria. The campaign in Afrin comes amidst persistent concerns by the Turkish government regarding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) activity along the border with Syria. The Turkish government has repeatedly accused the YPG of cooperating with the PKK, and by launching the offensive in Afrin District, Turkish authorities seek to stem the YPG’s assistance to the PKK. Additional motivation for the operation may include Turkey’s efforts to assert its political influence, as well as that of the elements it supports in Syria, ahead of future negotiations between the various parties in the Syrian conflict.
President Erdogan’s hardline stance regarding the elimination of YPG elements in Syria is linked to his political ambitions regarding the upcoming 2019 election. In the past, Erdogan’s calls for the eradication of PKK militants and all affiliated elements courted ultra-nationalist voters and expanded his base significantly, helping ensure victories such as the April 2017 referendum. A recent endorsement by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)’s chair and a continuing aggressive foreign policy regarding Turkish-Syrian border security will consolidate his base and secure him the presidency. The military operation in Syria’s Afrin will likely cause obstacles for oppositions parties in uniting, mainly the Republican People’s Party (CHP), due to likely labeling of it being weak on militancy. This labeling will likely be triggered by CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s recent call for diplomacy as opposed to a military operation into Afrin, as ultra-nationalists will perceive the statement as willing to negotiate with militant elements.
US-Turkish relations are likely to further diminish as a result of the operation, given vocal US opposition against intervention in Afrin. Turkish authorities already expressed much discontent regarding the US’ persistent support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group comprised of mostly YPG fighters in northern Syria. The US will likely continue providing the SDF with both weapons and training in order to not only fight IS, but to counter the influence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Iranian government. While the Turkish government has voiced its disapproval of Assad in the past, its objective to eliminate Kurdish influence in the region will be the priority, and US intervention will likely only embolden Turkish forces to engage in military operations against the YPG in northern Syria.
While Moscow provides a degree of support for the Kurdish militia, the Turkish operations are unlikely to significantly impact relations between the two countries. This is because the operations in Afrin District are not likely to jeopardize Russia’s strategic interests in Syria, namely the coastal provinces of Tartus and Latakia. Instead, the campaign may serve Moscow’s interests by weakening the US’s most important on-ground ally, decreasing Washington’s influence in Syria. The possible consolidation of a foothold by Turkish-aligned elements may also allow Moscow to better negotiate and enforce agreements across the country.
FORECAST: Given precedent of the previous Euphrates Shield operations, Turkish-backed rebels will initiate the ground offensive from multiple fronts, such as the Azaz and Deir Semaan areas, as well as from within Turkish territory, including Hatay and Kilis provinces. By doing so, the Turkish-backed rebels will compel the YPG to fight on multiple fronts, overstretching their forces. In the initial stages of the offensive, rebels will seek to attain and cut off the Rajo Road, as well as routes 62 and 217, all serving as important supply lines leading to the city of Afrin. Turkish forces will concurrently mainly conduct aerial bombardments and heavy artillery fire against YPG positions. Once areas are cleared of the YPG, Turkish army personnel themselves are likely to enter captured territories and establish administrative control. In response to the operation, as underlined by the YPG’s artillery fire at Turkish forces in the Kilis area, the Kurdish group will likely retaliate with rocket and mortar over the coming days.
The Turkish operations in Afrin District are liable to benefit the rebels’ rivals, namely the Islamic State (IS) and the Syrian government, on nearby fronts. Over the past several weeks, both IS and pro-government forces were able to capture multiple areas from rebel forces in southeastern Idlib, northern Hama, and southern Aleppo provinces. In light of the likely deployments of rebel fighters to northwestern Aleppo Province, at the expense of the Aleppo-Idlib-Hama triangle, their adversaries are liable to take advantage of their more dwindled presence in the region to seize additional territories. This is highlighted by the reported capture of Idlib Province’s Abu Dhuhur Military Airbase on January 20 by pro-government forces. As a result, both IS and the Syrian government are likely to intensify their operations in southeastern Idlib, northern Hama, and southern Aleppo provinces over the coming days and weeks.
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