Ankara’s ebbing dream in Afrin

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Saturday 17 Feb 2018

Turkey’s drive to control Syria’s Afrin might lead US ties to their breaking point

Sugedigi, Turkey
Turkish Army soldiers prepare their tanks next to empty shells at a staging area in the outskirts of the village of Sugedigi, Turkey, on the border with Syria, Jan. 22, 2018 (Photo: AP)

Turkey’s ties with the United States are at a critical point and the two countries will either fix them or break completely. This is not an analysis, but rather the point of view of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusolgu, expressed bluntly on the sidelines of a Turkish-African meeting last Monday in Istanbul.

On 20 January, Turkey launched military operations in Afrin, in Syria’s northwest, dubbed Operation Olive Branch. Turkish forces entered the Kurdish militia-controlled Afrin enclave despite repeated calls by Washington for Ankara not to intervene. Turkey subsequently threatened to expand its operation to the Syrian town of Manbij, northeast of Aleppo, where US forces are deployed with the YPG (People’s Protection Units).

Erdogan ramped up his verbal assault 6 February, declaring he would be forced to “bury” them and warned that although “they tell us ‘don’t come to Manbij,’” Turkey “will come to Manbij”.

Threatening US forces in Manbij could irrevocably damage the decades-long US-Turkish alliance, which is already under strain.

Today, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is scheduled to arrive in Turkey, bracing himself for what he described as “tough conversations”.

Tillerson’s Turkish counterpart Çavuşoğlu agrees that the relationship between Washington and Ankara has reached a challenging point.

Although the US and Turkey are NATO allies, the two countries have diverging interests in Syria. Tillerson is expected to inform Turkey that the Kurds are the US’s only allies in Syria and that a strong Kurdish-US alliance is imperative to US interests when it comes to breaking the chains of Russian and Iranian hegemony in Syria. He would also try to explain to officials in Ankara that this US goal would also benefit Turkey, adding that US forces will not leave Manbij.

US coalition commander Lieutenant General Paul Funk and special ops commander Major General Jamie Jarrard were flying huge American flags on their vehicles when they rolled into Manbij on 7 February, to make sure the Turks and their allies knew they were there.

“You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves,” promised Funk, who made a point of standing on a roof surrounded by Arab and Kurdish fighters so Turkish troops and their Syrian allies could get a good look at him.

In response, a senior foreign policy adviser to Erdogan denounced the visit to Manbij as a “gung-ho gesture” and a “flippant and provocative display”.

It is an open secret that Erdogan has decided to side against the US after he stated a few days ago that the US was working against Turkey, Russia and Iran in Syria.

Erdogan believes that the Afrin war will turn to his country’s benefit. After “wiping out terrorists in Afrin… We will solve the problem of Idlib and the Syrians will be able to go home,” said Erdogan.

These statements were made 13 days ago, before he added that, “our forces were just warming up. Our big move will follow in the next phase.”

The invasion of Afrin was promised to last no longer than 10 days.

With the increase of deaths among Turkish soldiers, security bodies are intensifying their campaigns against Turkish opposition movements who reject the military operation undertaken, according to the media loyal to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), “for Turkey to remain an undivided land: one language, one flag and one nation”.

According to opposition figures, “all European countries have expressed their resentment of the military operation. The European Parliament has condemned the spate of arrests of opposition members and is worried about the humanitarian repercussions of the brute force that took the lives of tens of civilians.”

\Regional condemnation of Operation Olive Branch stands in stark contrast to reactions to Operation Euphrates Shield that lasted for eight months in 2016-17. Despite the fact that the Turkish army lost 70 of its soldiers in the latter operation, the government achieved its goals.

This time around, not only did the Turkish government come up empty handed, it has also failed to appease Sunni groups that had previously received the Turkish army with open arms in Jarabulus and Al-Bab. Today, the Sunni groups are siding with Kurdish forces – a development that has compounded an already intriguing situation.

Ankara’s plan to create a buffer zone by forcing a security cordon on Afrin has proven a failure. Observers believe this will happen only when Afrin becomes completely wrecked, citing as proof the fact that Turkish military forces were able to march only a few kilometres south of their borders and into Syria. They point out that this is because of Kurdish steadfastness and their knowledge of the complex geography of the region, together with US supply in assistance.

Recent developments, however, are increasing Turkey’s burden. For the first time in seven years since the Syrian civil war broke out, armed opponents to Bashar Al-Assad downed a Russian Sukhoi Su-25 jet, ruling in the possibility that the aircraft was launched by the Free Syrian Army supported by Turkey. More importantly, however, Syrian air defence systems destroyed an Israeli F-16 that was attacking military targets in Syria. Israel then downed a drone it claimed to be of Iranian origin.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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