The “Olive Branch” military offensive that Ankara unleashed against northern Syria on 20 January remains shrouded in confusion, contradiction and ambiguity, apart from the certainty that it conflicts with the interests of all regional and international stakeholders and their Syrian proxies.
Observers also agree that Turkish forces and its so-called “Free Syrian Army” allies have scored some progress.
Yet, as those forces came to within a few kilometres of the predominantly Kurdish city of Afrin, the Turkish president, speaking at one of his many rallies on Saturday, railed against the West, again, this time targeting above all that alliance in which Turkey, itself, is a member: “Hey NATO where are you? We came in response to the calls on Afghanistan, Somalia and the Balkans, and now I am making the call, let’s go to Syria. Why don’t you come?”
Some observers read this is an urgent plea for help. In fact, it was a sarcastic quip.
The official line in Ankara is that Turkey is being threatened from the south. Accordingly, NATO should act to defend one of its own, or so Erdogan implies.
Of course, as the Turkish strongman knows, this is not on the cards. The stances of the Western military alliance on the question of Afrin are virtually antithetical to Ankara’s.
They more or less reflect a mounting tide of opinion in the West that regards Turkey as the belligerent aggressor and that demands an immediate halt to the Turkish invasion and occupation of Syrian territory.
While Erdogan raises the pitch of his demagoguery, inciting anti-Western passions at home (plus electoral support) with populist rants against the European/American conspiracy to divide and fragment his “Islamic” nation (under the Turkish constitution is a “secular” state), European leaders and officials in Washington tread more softly.
In fact, it is believed that they have reached an as of yet unpublicised decision. It is no coincidence that the Pentagon has sharply reduced operations out of Incirlik airbase due to mounting tensions with Ankara and that it has redeployed a fleet of A-10 attack aircraft that had been destined for that base to Afghanistan. It is also reported that Washington is considering other reductions in the Anatolian airbase.
Although Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said that the Afrin operation will conclude in May, his boss appears to have another opinion on the matter.
“Once we have purged the terrorists [from Afrin] we will then cleanse them from Manbij, Ain Al-Arab, Tel-Abyad, Ras Al-Ain and Qamishli,” Erdogan said. He also indicated that he would carry his cleansing campaign into Iraq, in collaboration with Baghdad.
Is this bravado? According to neutral sources, the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have suffered considerable attrition and disarray as a result of the Turkish invasion of Afrin, which has diverted a portion of SDF’s energies from the battle against the Islamic State group to the east.
Still, to borrow the Arabic proverb, the Turkish sails appear to be encountering contrary winds. These hail from the direction of Tehran where a press as tightly controlled from above as the Turkish one has sounded warning bells and Iranian Foreign Ministry officials have expressed their deep concern over the situation in Afrin and urged Ankara to halt its operation.
“[Iran] hopes that the operation would be immediately terminated so as to prevent the deepening of the crisis in northern Syria,” a statement posted on the Iranian Foreign Ministry Website said.
The statement cited Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi as saying that, “The continuation of the crisis in Afrin may reorganise ‘Takfiri terrorist’ groups in the northern Syrian regions and fan the flames of war in this country again.”
Ironically, the Trump administration shares the same view.
In an escalation of the campaign against Turkey’s Afrin operation, the official Iranian news agency Tasnim conducted an interview with Rezan Hedo, a media adviser to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
In the interview, Hedo said that the (pro-Iranian, pro-Syrian regime) “Popular Forces” had entered Afrin to repel “Erdogan’s aggression” and added that all components of Syrian society “reject the Turkish occupation of any portion of Syria”.
The Lebanese Hizbullah military media unit confirmed that the pro-Damascus “Popular Forces” had crossed into Afrin through the Ziyara checkpoint north of Nobol.
The report cited Rezan Hedo’s depiction of Turkey as a “foreign occupation power” and the Turkish military’s allies in Syria “takfiri terrorist groups”. The YPG media adviser added that the people in Afrin “welcomed” the arrival of the pro-regime forces.
Clearly, the Iranian regime regards Turkey’s bid to expand its influence in the region as a threat to its own expansionist drive.
Just as Tehran was instrumental in obstructing Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” operation (August 2016 to March 2017), it appears ready to do the same with the second edition, the so-called “Olive Branch” operation. This time, moreover, it will have at least tacit support from both the US and Russia.
The question is whether the Erdogan regime will heed the message or persist in its campaign in northern Syria.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly