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Turkey sinks deeper in Syrian quagmire with Operation Olive Branch

Christian Chesnot

Published: Updated:

Is Syria becoming a death trap for Recep Tayip Edrogan? Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, the ‘Turkish sultan’ has committed all possible mistakes with his neighbor, showing a surprising lack of political acumen. He first thought that his old ‘friend’, Bashar al-Assad and his regime would collapse like a pack of cards in a few months. The Turkish president started imagining that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would soon assume power in Damascus, like their Egyptian cousins. However, Erdogan soon became disillusioned.

Erdogan’s blunders

By opening its borders to armed groups, the Turkish president then let in the most heinous extremist elements that had for long made Turkey their base. Erdogan thought of hitting two birds with one stone: weakening the Baathist regime and the Kurds. In both cases, the Turkish president’s plans came a cropper. Bashar Al-Assad is still in office and taunting his counterparts in Ankara. As for the Kurds, they have advanced their groups as part of the international anti-ISIS coalition. The territory they control is more than three times the size of Lebanon!

Kurdish fighters may prove to be a mighty opponent to Turkish troops because they know the land as well as their own pockets.

Christian Chesnot

Basically, Erdogan’s fears were never so much about the self-proclaimed Islamic State and the jihadists. To him, the number one threat was posed by the Kurds. He noted with horror that the great powers (United States, Russia, and France) supported the Syrian ‘Peshmerga’. It must be said that they were on the front lines against ISIS, from Kobane to Manbij and Raqqa. It is the People’s Protection Units, who recently arrested a group of senior French jihadists. In Paris, the popularity of the Kurds suddenly increased.

For Ankara, the project of a Kurdish-Arab border guard’s force supported by Washington was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This was followed by the Russian-backed Syrian regime’s offensive in the Idlib region to drive out the jihadists. Erdogan now saw red!

The Syrian quagmire

He therefore imagined and launched his Operation Olive Branch against the Kurdish canton of Afrin. In doing so, he has fallen a little deeper into the Syrian trap that might inexorably swallow him. It is an operation bearing very high risks. Even though the Turkish army is much more powerful than the People’s Protection Units, this offensive will not be smooth sailing.

First, the steep relief would favor the defenders. The Peshmerga could inflict heavy losses on the Turkish army, including its armored vehicles and tanks. Even if the Turkish army manages to occupy Afrin, it would have to hold its ground. The question is, for how long? However, in the Middle East more than anywhere else, the occupation armies have had varying fortunes, but always at a high human and financial cost. The canton of Afrin will probably be no exception.

Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units are known for their discipline and fierce fighting. They may prove to be a mighty opponent to Turkish troops because they know the land as well as their own pockets. There is little doubt that the Syrian regime will help them as well.

Another unknown factor is: what will be the reaction of the Kurds in Turkey? An internal front could open. Did Erdogan account for all the risks before giving the go-ahead to the Afrin operation? He probably thinks he will win by crushing all his opponents with an iron grip both within and without. What is certain is that Turkey is exposed to counter-shocks which could be painful. Erdogan’s feat has been to get everyone back in Syria. The Afrin's operation can also be seen as a desperate attempt by Erdogan to save what remains of any Turkish influence in Syria, which has been in decline since the fall of Aleppo in December 2016.

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Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf. Chesnot tweets @cchesnot.

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