Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch is a combined military and political effort to reverse gains that armed Kurds have achieved in northern Syria. Launched on January 20, the campaign marks a turning point in the Syrian crisis and adds new layers of dangerous friction to Turkey-US relations, which reached rock bottom during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. Officials in Washington are concerned that Turkey’s military offensive will undermine international efforts to eradicate Islamic State (ISIS) and other Salafist-jihadist militants from northwestern Syria. The Ankara-Washington alliance has likely reached a make-or-break point as the Turkish military wages strikes against US-backed Kurdish forces while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vows to extend Operation Olive Branch east of Manbij.
Although Turkey and the US have coordinated past efforts against the Damascus regime via the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and the two NATO allies’ militaries fought together against ISIS in Syria, since 2015 Washington and Ankara have never seen eye to eye on the dominant Kurdish militia in Syria. Both the Obama and Trump administrations (especially the latter) have supported the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), the armed wing of the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Democratic Union Party (PYD), in the fight against ISIS. Viewing the YPG/PYD as a terrorist organization, Turkey has been infuriated with Washington for arming and financially supporting this entity under the banner of countering violent extremism.
Friction between Ankara and Washington reached new heights this month when US officials proposed a plan to recruit and train a security force with 30,000 members—the majority being Syrian Kurds—just south of the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkish officials condemned the “terror army” proposal, maintaining that it would severely damage the Ankara-Washington alliance. Yet the US has already trained and armed the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is currently considering plans for sending more reinforcements to Afrin to further fend off the Turkish military offensive on top of the YPG’s firing of rockets at Turkish towns along the border in immediate retaliation to Operation Olive Branch.
The first major victim
Much of the tension that the Syrian crisis has recently added to Turkey-US relations derives from the reality that Ankara and Washington have different priorities and incompatible agendas in the war-torn country. Three main objectives drive the Trump administration’s approach toward the Syrian crisis: 1) Undermining Tehran’s ability to consolidate Iranian influence in Syria; 2) Keeping the Syrian regime weak, and thus as minimal a threat to Israel as possible; 3) Preventing Salafist-jihadist entities such as ISIS or al-Qaeda from usurping control of territory and using Syria as a launch pad for acts of international terrorism. In pursuit of these aims, the Trump administration sees the YPG/PYD as having a critical role to play and has clearly signaled its view that the US-YPG/PYD partnership was to be more than a short-term transactional relationship that expired once ISIS lost its strongholds in Iraq and Syria last year.
Yet it is evident that the first major victim of the Trump administration’s approach to Syria’s Kurds is the US-Turkey alliance. Furthermore, odds are good that Washington’s continued arming of Syria’s Kurds will push Turkey closer to Russia. From Ankara’s perspective, the US has been indifferent to, what Turkey perceives as, an existential threat to Turkey’s security and territorial integrity, leaving Ankara with no choice but to seek greater support from Moscow. The Trump administration’s opposition to Operation Olive Branch will further reinforce Ankara’s conviction that the US cannot be trusted when it comes to issues of Turkey’s vital interests, adding to the growing mistrust stemming from the failed coup attempt in 2016, which certain officials in Ankara and voices in the Turkish media allege that Washington backed.
If Turkey and the US fail to diplomatically sort out their differences vis-à-vis northern Syria, the two countries’ alliance may near its final days. Should dialogue between Ankara and Washington not produce a mutual understanding and shared strategy for countering terror menaces in Syria, there is a growing risk of a direct clash between Turkish and US forces in northern Syria. Such an escalation in Afrin and nearby areas of the war-torn country would tragically end recently expressed hopes for 2018 being the year that peace returns to Syria.
Giorgio Francesco Cafiero is an analyst of Gulf Cooperation Council geopolitics and CEO and co-founder of Washington DC-based Gulf State Analytics. He has four years of experience publishing articles on the Middle East (Al Monitor, Middle East Policy Council, Atlantic Council, Middle East Institute, LobeLog, and The National Interest). Cafiero also has two years of experience at corporate due diligence consultancy. Cafiero tweets @GulfStateAnalyt.