On January 20th Turkey launched operation Olive Branch against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northwest Syria, specifically targeting Syria’s Afrin region. Turkey considers the YPG as a terrorist organization due to what the Turks consider deep ties to Kurdish PKK party, which is fighting to self-rule inside Turkey. The United States and several other NATO allies also consider the PKK a terror group.
However, the United States and France supported the YPG during the Syrian civil war as they fought against ISIS and Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. French president Emmanuel Macron expressed concern with the offensive warning that while France accepted targeting potential terrorist threats it was opposed to a larger scale, more permanent Turkish presence.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan defended the operation saying it is only to defend the country’ security against a “Terrorist organization”.
Ankara has made minimal effort to produce evidence that the Syrian Kurdish forces have carried out any hostile action against Turkey, though the majority of the Turkish public appears to support the operation, based on reports from polling. It’s worth noting however that those criticizing the operation risk law enforcement action, at least 300 people have been detained for social media posts opposing the Turkish operation.
The last civilian casualty numbers were approximately 51 civilians killed since the beginning of the operation on January 20th, according to Qatari state-run Al Jazeera. On January 31st the Russia government claimed were killed since the beginning of this operation.
Turkey’s military said they captured mount Bursaya, which the Turks accuse the YPG of using to target Turkish civilians in the province of Kilis. Turkey’s military reported that they found tunnel systems and concrete structures throughout the mountain.
The hill overlooks Azaz which is a military hub for Turkey within Syria. The hill is also a bridgehead to the rest of Afrin, which is why Turkey is so keen to capture the position.
The U.S. has supported several groups in the Syrian civil war, but is particularly reliant upon the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is a member, to retake and stabilize territory formerly ruled by the Islamic State.
The US sees the SDF as an effective force to fight against the Islamic State and has supplied the SDF with weaponry and military advisors.
This puts the US in contention with NATO ally Turkey, whose officials have complained about U.S. arms and training going to Syrian Kurdish forces. Turkey has been a primary support of other Syrian rebel units, largely Islamist militias, some with known or suspected ties to Al Qaeda. Turkish supported Syrian rebels have on occasion openly attacked U.S.-supported Kurdish forces.
Turkish officials said that last year in November President Donald Trump had promised to stop supplying arms to the YPG, while U.S. officials say only that it is making “adjustments” to its arms allocation is pending following the successful defeat of Islamic State in Raqqa. Last week Trump and Erdogan had a phone conversation, the White House stated that Trump urged Turkey to “limit its military actions” in Afrin. Despite U.S. efforts to downplay the significance of tensions between the U.S. and Turkey, Ankara seems determined to bring issues to a head. Despite the long history of U.S.-Turkish partnership, (i.e. NATO), U.S. and Turkish objectives in the region are substantively different, and both parties have significantly different end states in mind. As a result, it’s unlikely these disagreements are to be resolved in the near term.