Turkish armed forces have entered Syria’s Afrin enclave since late January 2018 and have launched an offensive against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) there. The province, located in northwestern Syria, has been controlled by the de facto government of the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) party and the YPG since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2012. Turkish forces, alongside thousands of fighters from multiple factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), are currently engaged in combat with the YPG as Turkey seeks to drive the Kurdish group out of Afrin in a move Turkey has dubbed Operation Olive Branch.
Turkey commenced Operation Olive Branch based on Ankara’s views that the YPG are a “terrorist group” with alleged links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has been involved in an ongoing insurgency in Turkey since 1978. With the YPG controlling the majority of the Syrian-Turkish border, Turkey has seized the opportunity to attack the Kurdish group and intervene in Afrin, despite possible consequences. Many in the international community have called on Turkey to exercise restraint and cease hostilities to prevent further escalation.
This intervention is already showing signs of increased diplomatic gravity, as it has opened another front in the wider Syrian Civil War. On February 19, Bashar al-Assad’s government announced through Syrian state news that Syrian government forces will arrive in Afrin to help the YPG “stand against the Turkish regime’s attack on the area and its people.” Turkish ministers and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have intensified their hostile rhetoric against the Syrian government and have increased their threats towards Assad in response to his promise to help the YPG in their fight against the Turkish and FSA forces.
Not only does this military operation put Turkish forces in direct conflict with Kurdish groups and Syrian government forces, but the intervention also risks bringing Turkey into a confrontation with the United States. The United States has been integral in supporting, funding, and supplying the largely Kurdish YPG and SDF groups in their successful campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria’s Raqqa, al-Hasakah, and Deir ez-Zor provinces. Although Kurdish groups in Afrin have not been directly supported by the United States, the U.S. has aided YPG forces in northern and eastern Syria in the fight against ISIS. Turkey risks a significant diplomatic standoff with its NATO ally considering U.S. support for the YPG and the stationing of American troops alongside Kurdish forces in Syria.
This developing situation in northwestern Syria suggests that the war may become even deadlier and more widespread as Erdogan and Ankara attempt to further exert their influence and force.