By Gallia Lindenstrauss, Eldad Shavit
INSS Insight No. 1025, February 21, 2018
Turkish-US tensions stemming from Operation Olive Branch in Afrin have brought the deteriorating bilateral relations of the past two years to a new low. Whereas the major aim of the US interests in Syria continues to be preventing the return of the Islamic State, Turkey will continue to take action to take advantage of the post-Islamic State reality in order to achieve its goals vis-а-vis the Kurds. The conduct of all the parties involved in northern Syria will likely continue to be characterized by a sensitive and volatile reality in the coming months. From Israel’s perspective, tensions between Turkey and the United States, as well as these tensions’ negative impact on NATO, are consistent with Russian and Iranian interests. Additional deterioration, and certainly military clashes between US and Turkish forces, would make it more difficult for the US to wield influence in northeastern Syria; this in turn could impede its ability to prevent Iran from furthering its interest of establishing a corridor between Tehran and the Mediterranean. On the other hand, some Turkish presence in the region might offset Iran’s influence in Syria somewhat, and this could be a positive development for Israel.
The military operation launched by Turkey on January 20, 2018 in northwestern Syria appears to be part of the broader campaign to shape the future of Syria, following the territorial defeat of the Islamic State. The current Turkish operation, codenamed Operation Olive Branch, is actually a continuation of Operation Euphrates Shield, conducted by Turkey in August 2016. However, there are differences between the two operations: in Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkish targets were concentrated in an area that still contained no significant Kurdish presence. In the current operation, on the other hand, the Turks are operating in a region that has been under Kurdish control since 2012. In Operation Euphrates Shield, the declared goal of the operation was to strike at the Islamic State, although Turkey tried primarily to prevent the territorial unification of the Kurdish cantons in northern Syria. In Operation Olive Branch, especially if the operation is expanded to encompass operations in northeastern Syria, Turkey aspires to turn back the clock and deprive the Kurds of their autonomous administration of the cantons that are under their control.
The operation has intensified tensions in Turkish-US relations around the issue of US support for the Syrian branch of the PKK, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and especially its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The catalyst for the offensive was the announcement by the anti-Islamic State coalition of the establishment of a border force consisting of 30,000 fighters, to be based on the Syrian Democratic Forces. In response to Turkish criticism, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson clarified that a border force would not be established, although the Pentagon’s budget request for 2019 contains a $250 million line item to fund such a force. The United States, which has no interest in repeating the errors that were made during the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in 2011, would like to see the Kurds as a central part of the border force in northeastern Syria in order to prevent a situation that would allow the reestablishment of Islamic State or other such forces in the region.
For its part, Ankara is concerned that when there is a lull in the civil war in Syria, and especially if the Kurds succeed in maintaining some of their autonomous status, northern Syria will become a point of origin for attacks against Turkey. The result would be a situation that is similar to the 1980s and 1990s when, at the encouragement of the Hafez al-Assad regime, the PKK used northern Syria as a base for terrorist operations on Turkish soil. In light of these past events, Operation Olive Branch enjoys large internal support. Indeed, the launching of the operation inter alia reflects the effort by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to attract the nationalist voters in order to expand his base of support before upcoming Turkish elections. Erdogan has also claimed that the operation in Afrin will allow Syrian refugees to return to and resettle in Syria. According to assessments, Operation Euphrates Shield enabled Turkey to bring about the repatriation to Syria of a few hundred thousand refugees, although this figure is still small in comparison to the 3.5 million refugees that are located on Turkish soil, where they will most likely remain for the long term.
Whereas US and NATO spokespeople have expressed an understanding of Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns,” Washington’s concern is that the Turkish struggle against the Democratic Union Party will impair the effort to solidify the Syrian Democratic Forces’ hold over areas that used to be under Islamic State control. If Ankara makes good on its threat to open another front further to the east to occupy Manbij, there will be a serious possibility of a clash between US Special Forces located in the region and forces of the Turkish military. Yet while most of the negative rhetoric coming out of Ankara is currently directed at the United States, it is the Assad regime that is enabling the Kurds to retain their access routes to Afrin, thus preventing the enclave from being cut off. In addition, the Turkish air offensive is dependent upon Russian consent and at Moscow’s request has ceased intermittently during the operation.
Even if in the current operation Turkey succeeds in expelling the Kurdish militia presence from Afrin, it will be faced with two problematic options: to remain in the region for an unlimited period of time, or to have the region return to the control of the Assad regime. The first option poses the risk of repeated clashes, whereas the second would present Ankara with a dilemma, in light of the resources it has invested over the years in toppling the Assad regime. Moreover, the possibility that the Assad regime will use Kurdish forces against Turkey in the future is one of the factors that motivated Ankara to embark on the operation in the first place. Thus far, the Turkish operation has made the possibility of the Assad regime regaining control over this region appear to be the most likely prospect, based on reports regarding an agreement that has been negotiated between the regime and the PYD.
Turkish-US tensions stemming from the operation in Afrin have brought the deteriorating bilateral relations of the past two years to a new low. It appears that despite their being traditional allies and both being members of NATO, the gaps between the two countries regarding a long list of issues have continued to widen. The discourse between the leaderships reflects increasing mistrust regarding the actions of the Trump administration on the part of the Turkish elite, led by President Erdogan.
Moreover, the Turkish operation in Afrin has brought to the surface the contradictory nature of US and Turkish interests in Syria, which has existed for some time now. Whereas the major aim of the US interests in Syria continues to be preventing the return of the Islamic State, Turkey will continue to take action to take advantage of the post-Islamic State reality in order to achieve its goals vis-а-vis the Kurds. At the moment, despite US efforts (including visits to Ankara by the US National Security Advisor and the Secretary of State), a possible means to bridge these gaps has yet to emerge. Even if a temporary solution for the Manbij situation is found, a clash between the countries’ respective goals over time appears inevitable. The sensitive reality on the ground could also develop into a military clash between US and Kurdish forces in the event of a miscalculation, and not necessarily as the outcome of an intentional process undertaken by the Turks. Even if Turkey’s recent measures have accentuated tension within the US administration between the continued support of the Kurds in Syria and the risk of entanglement in a conflict with a NATO member state, the US military does not, at this stages, appear to have an alternative to the Kurdish YPG, which could serve as a military wing for the fulfillment of its goals in Syria.
In conclusion, the conduct of all the parties involved in northern Syria will continue to be characterized by a sensitive and volatile reality in the coming months. Additional deterioration, and certainly military clashes between US and Turkish forces, will make it very difficult for the United States to fulfill its goals in Syria, as defined recently by Secretary of State Tillerson: establishing stability in Syria, ensuring that the territory of Syria not serve as a breeding ground for terrorist groups, and advancing toward a political settlement that will also reduce Iranian influence in Syria. From Israel’s perspective, tensions between Turkey and the United States, as well as these tensions’ negative impact on NATO, are consistent with Russian and Iranian interests. Even if most of Israel’s interests pertain to the situation in southern rather than northern Syria, it is necessary to relate to the events in Syria as a whole. After all, the development of a US-Turkish confrontation would make it more difficult for the US to wield influence in northeastern Syria, and this could impede its ability to prevent Iran from furthering its interest of establishing a corridor between Tehran and the Mediterranean. On the other hand, some Turkish presence in the region might offset Iran’s influence in Syria somewhat, and this could be a positive development for Israel.