Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’ is a marked escalation of its campaign against the Kurdish autonomous regions in Syria. The battle for Afrin, a mountainous, well defended region protected by a battle hardened Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forces will likely be protracted and lead to significant civilian casualties, due to Afrin’s large community of internally displaced Syrians. It will further compound the ongoing conflict against Kurds in Turkey and lead to, as of yet, unclear regional ramifications.
At the time of writing, Afrin is under heavy Turkish bombardment and assailed by Turkish armed forces and their Syrian allies in the Free Syrian army (FSA), many of whom are have close ties with Al-Qaeda backed jihadist groups. Although reports from the ground are conflicting, it seems that the invasion has been so far been repelled by SDF forces. Reports from Afrin hospital confirm multiple civilian casualties and thousands more civilians are sheltering from the bombardment in caves. Turkey has argued that the presence of an autonomous Kurdish dominated territory along its southern border is an existential threat to its security and that it accordingly needs to establish a buffer zone for protection from terrorists. However, no cross border attacks have been launched by Kurdish forces from Afrin; Turkey had no similar compunctions when it shared significant tracts of border with ISIS, rather Ankara actively supported it and facilitated the transfer of international jihadists to its forces. The invasion is patently not grounded in security concerns but rather in Turkey’s fears of a viable autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Syria. The Turkish regime is deeply perturbed by the success of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), whose armed forces have routed ISIS and established a multi-ethnic system of democratic governance inspired by the political philosophy of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Öcalan. It fears that in time this could serve as supportive environment for the Kurdish movement within Turkey, which it has systematically repressed in the context of an enduring civil war since the 1980s. Accordingly, the invasion needs to be analysed as part of Turkey’s internal reckoning with its Kurdish population rather than simply a Syrian issue.
Turkey has long used some form of looming existential threat to maintain its internal cohesion. Since the decline of the Cold War and diminution of tensions with Greece, this role has been increasingly assigned to Turkey’s Kurdish population and the PKK. Turkey’s political elites use contrived moments of crisis to trigger mass nationalist mobilisation as a means to re-assert the unity of the Turkish nation (for e.g. the Kardak crisis in 1995-1996 or when Öcalan sought political asylum in Italy in 1998). The weeks in the lead up to the Afrin invasion have shown how seamlessly large parts of Turkish society can be led to re-activate this peculiar bellicose nationalism. In recent days, the country’s mosques have all offered prayers in support of the attack. Media outlets have competed to outdo one another in their expressions of support and have excoriated celebrities that they feel are insufficiently supportive of the invasion on social media. Football clubs have tweeted their support, including Beşiktaş, whose supposedly left-wing, Carsi ultras played a significant role in the Gezi park demonstrations against the incumbent regime in 2013. Bizarrely, even the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul has publicly backed it, albeit he may not necessarily reflect the views of Turkey’s Armenian community. It goes without saying, with the natural exception of the largely Kurdish HDP, that all the major Turkish political parties including the centre-left CHP have unequivocally endorsed the operation in Afrin. It seems that much of Turkish state and society has lapsed into the hysterical throes of war any expression of opposition to the invasion is taken as an act betrayal of the nation.
Media and Civil Society Clampdown since the Attempted Coup
In the past, independent media outlets openly criticised the government, but the extensive clampdown on the media since the attempted coup in July 2016 has removed any such platforms. In recent days, even the writers of tweets which expressed disapproval of the invasion have been arrested. The ever more non-democratic nature of the Turkish state is evident by the limited Kurdish reaction to the offensive. In autumn 2014, when Erdoğan anticipated the apparently imminent fall of the Kurdish city of Kobanî to ISIS, mass protest erupted in Turkey’s Kurdish cities. In the authoritarian wasteland of post attempted-coup Turkey, there has been little protest. Thousands of Turkey’s Kurds are imprisoned, thousands more displaced from urban fighting in 2015 and many more cowed by the wave of arrests, dismissals and destruction of their cities.
Afrin is the most westerly of the three Kurdish cantons in Northern Syria, lying north east of the city of Aleppo. It is territorially separated from the other cantons (Kobanî e Cizîrê) by territory that is populated by an Arab majority. Parts of this area were controlled by ISIS and other anti-regime forces but it is now occupied by the Turkish army and its local (mostly Islamist) allies. The region is renowned for the historical weakness of the tribal feudalism which characterised other parts of Northern Syria, its agriculture, and in particular its olive production. The fact that Turkey’s territorial offensive has been named Operation Olive branch, is thus pointedly provocative. Afrin for the duration of the conflict has been the most stable and safest part of Syria; thereby its usual population of around 400,000 has swelled with internally displaced Syrians since 2011, to around 800,000. In 2014 the people of Afrin adopted the Rojava charter of 2014 which is based on the principles of participatory democracy, horizontal self-governance and female emancipation. As it lay west of most ISIS territory it has not been scarred by much of the fighting with ISIS as cities like Kobanî. Nevertheless, the violence which spurred hundreds of thousands to seek refuge there is now being wrought upon them by the Turkish army and its allied militia. There is much footage circulating of these fighters wearing Grey Wolves insignia (a fascist organisation responsible for anti-Alevi, Kurdish and leftist massacres in Turkey) and singing songs lauding Saddam Hussein (in reference to his genocidal anti-Kurdish policies in the 1980s). Erdoğan has gone as far as to declare that “Turkey will first exterminate the terrorists in Afrin and then make the region liveable again, all for the 3.5 million Syrians we [Turkey] are currently hosting” thus implying the mass displacement of Afrin’s population.
Turkish state aggression and the international response
Turkey’s belligerence has so far gone unchecked by the international community. Afrin lies within the Russian area of influence in Syria; the other two Kurdish cantons east of the Euphrates are in the American purview. Prior to the invasion, Russia, in its role as the Asad regime’s main backer, tried to convince the Afrin government to concede the territory to Syrian government control. The Americans have openly admitted that their interest is only in supporting the SDF’s campaign against ISIS and has no interest in the fortunes of its erstwhile Kurdish allies, thereafter. This shameless discarding of the very forces that fought ISIS, house by house and street by street in the bloody battles for Raqqa and Kobanî has been compounded by the passivity of western countries not directly involved in the mire of the Syrian civil war. The UK through its Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson endorsed Turkey’s right to protect its borders. France’s President Macron expressed his concern about the invasion but was careful to take Turkey’s “security imperatives” into account. Indeed many international media accounts have simply parroted Turkish propaganda: On Wednesday, Reuters regurgitated ludicrous Turkish assertions that it had killed 260 Syrian Kurdish fighters and ISIS militants. It’s worth re-iterating that there are no ISIS fighters in Afrin. Other respected outlets have surmised that invasion could prove a “disaster” for the USA’s interests in the region. The disaster befalling the lives of the Afrin population and the hundreds of thousands of refugees it has welcomed since 2011, seemingly of lesser importance than the West’s geo-strategic imperatives.
Erdoğan’s Turkey has veered so dramatically from the path of conventional democratic norms that, its NATO membership notwithstanding, it can longer be treated as a law-abiding state. Russia and the United States have made it clear that they will neither oppose nor impede Turkish aggression, nevertheless it behoves the rest of the international community to express their firm opposition to Turkey’s belligerence. As a concrete step, states like Germany should immediately halt all weapons sales to Turkey, as it did at the peak of Turkey’s excesses against its Kurdish population in the early 1990s. Furthermore, strong support should be afforded to calls for a no-fly zone over Afrin. The Turkish army is aware of the close combat expertise of the SDF and will most likely strive to avoid a protracted campaign against it at close quarters. The first days of fighting have resulted in casualties and strategic withdrawals from territory the Turkish army and its allies had temporally seized. In the absence of the complete aerial domination that it currently enjoys (possible only with Russian connivance) it is probable that the Turkish regime will be more amenable to a withdrawal from Afrin. Turkey’s unchecked domestic repression has emboldened it to extend its reach beyond its borders: It must be stopped before Afrin becomes a second bloodier Kobanî.