Turkish offensive in Syria

The poisoned olive branch

Turkey has launched its second military campaign in northern Syria. But this time it is not directed against Islamic State. Once again the Kurds are in the firing line. This move also has implications for relations with Russia. An analysis by Michael Martens

When it comes to self-rule for the Kurds, Ankara acts according to the motto: resist the beginnings. The Turkish government not only opposes independence for Syria's Kurds but will also do everything in its power – including the use of military force – to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region within a newly constituted Syrian state.

Anything that might encourage the Kurdish population in south-eastern Anatolia to emulate their fellows elsewhere is to be suppressed. The second Turkish offensive in Syria, which started on Saturday (20 January 2018) likewise pursues this course. The first military intervention in Syria, code-named "Operation Euphrates Shield", officially lasted from August 2016 to March 2017 and was aimed at terrorists from Islamic State (IS) and fighters from the Kurdish "People's Protection Units" (YPG) in the northern Syrian areas bordering Turkey. From the point of view of the Turkish government, the YPG units are also terrorists.

The second campaign is now called "Operation Olive Branch" and is directed only against Kurds. Although state-run Turkish media claim that both IS and the YPG are being targeted, the reports contradict themselves. They try to portray the Afrin region, against which the campaign is initially directed, both as terrain entirely controlled by the "People's Protection Units" and as an area suffering under their "terrorism".

In fact, however, Afrin with its eponymous capital is one of three cantons in northern Syria that have already been under Kurdish control for several years – and there is no room there for IS.

It's true that IS did nearly capture Kobani, one of the three Kurdish cantons, in 2014, but they were successfully repulsed. From American statements made over the past few days, it can be inferred that Afrin is not threatened by IS. The Americans emphasise that, although Washington is allied with the Syrian Kurds in the fight against IS, this coalition does not apply to the region of Afrin. One can assume that this is because there are no Islamist guerrilla squads there that need to be dealt with.

″Neutralise″ terrorist groups

Syrian YPG fighters in Qamishli (photo: Getty Images/AFP/D. Souleiman)
A thorn in the side of the Turkish AKP: the Turkish government regards the YPG units as terrorists. The YPG, which heads up the SDF military alliance – supported by the U.S.A – in Syria, is seen as the Syrian branch of Turkey′s outlawed Kurdish Workers′ Party (PKK). The PKK can also be found on the European Union′s list of terrorist organisations

Turkey officially represents the situation differently. According to a statement by the general staff in Ankara, the Turkish armed forces have been deployed since five o'clock in the afternoon on Saturday in an operation whose purpose is to "neutralise" the terrorist groups and to "liberate friendly and brotherly people of the region from oppression and tyranny". Although the official and officious statements do not say in so many words that these friendly and brotherly people had asked to be liberated by Turkey, this is the tenor of the pronouncements.

The newspaper "Hurriyet" quotes an undisclosed government source as saying that the aim of "Operation Olive Branch" is to enable self-rule for the people of Afrin so that they can build democratic institutions once the YPG has been driven out of the region. Whether the democratic institutions in Afrin are to follow the model established in recent years in Turkey under Tayyip Erdogan remains an open question.

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