Many of this blog’s readers have expressed special interest in the present campaign that the Turks have launched against the Syrian Kurds. This is your analysis.
The Turks call it Operation Olive Branch – the destruction and annihilation of Kurds in Western Syria. You’ll recall that the murder of Kurds for fun and profit is and has been a key activity of Turkey. This is no different, except that the Kurds are better armed now. And that’s creating a problem for the Turks.
Let’s step back for a moment and identify the players.
There are two Free Syrian Armies loose in Syria. One of them is comprised of former Syrian Army officers who want to depose Assad (FSA). The second is the Turkish-Backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA). It’s ok if you’re a bit confused because this is Syria and there are a lot of different factions, a lot of different funding sources for those factions, and the names sound either close or the same even though they represent radically different groups (and their sponsors, of course). There are different factions within the TFSA. All of them are opposed to the—
Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Army (YPG), who were formed in Western Syria to keep the Kurds in that part of the land from being wiped out by either Turkey or Syria, both of which are at war with them – primarily because they’re Kurds. YPG is allied with the PKK, who the Turks hate far more than ordinary Kurds. And rather than get lost in the weeds, we’ll move on with the reason for this blog analysis.
Suffice that the Turkish-Backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA) is a cat’s paw of Turkey and consists of Turkish armed and trained Syrians (secretly led by Turkish officers in mufti), sent in to ferret out the Kurds and kill them so that main Turkish Army won’t take losses and lose face when their tanks are blown up by American made anti-tank weapons.
On 22 January, the third day of the Operation, Turkish forces and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters opened a new front. They attacked Azaz, another town liberated by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) last year. The Turks claimed to have seized an important hilltop near Azaz on the 22d. Two hours later the Kurds claimed to have driven the Turkish-backed fighters off the hilltop, known as Mount Barsaya.
Operation Olive Branch
Context and Precedence – In Operation Euphrates Shield (August 2016-March 2017), the Turkish-Backed Free Syrian Army fighters were supposed to prevent the SDF and the Syrian Kurds from crossing the Euphrates River and to drive them back if they did. The TFSA were outmatched by the SDF and the Kurds. Turkey was forced to commit special forces and armored units, supported by artillery along the border. They failed to accomplish the stated Turkish goals.
One analytical center reported that the Turks lost a battalion of tanks – up top 45 — during the eight-month operation. In March 2017, the Turks declared victory, ended the Operation and announced Operations Euphrates Sword would follow at a future date. Operation Olive Branch apparently is that follow-on operation.
Russia looks to be the big gainer. It reinforced its developing relationship with Turkey without weakening its support for Syria or Iran. If the Turks succeed in creating a Kurdish-free corridor, the Damascus government will avoid negotiations with the Kurds over regional autonomy. In addition, the US will be embarrassed for failing to assist the Kurds and will have no justification for keeping forces in Syria in an open-ended commitment.
If the Turks fail, Syrian sovereignty will be reaffirmed, which is a primary Russian goal. Turkish relations with the US will become more strained. The Kurds will be weakened militarily, but ties with the US will remain strained. The Syrian opposition will have exposed its lack of loyalty to Syria in the face of Turkish aggression.