By: Patrick Hoover, Columnist
Photo by: www.almasdarnews.com
On January 20, the Turkish army, with Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxies, launched Operation Olive Branch to clear the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria. Ankara’s chief strategic objectives include eliminating the Syrian Kurdish militia’s People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their political partner, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which are defending Afrin; ensuring Turkish control of the Syrian-Turkish border from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean Sea; and linking Turkish zones of control in Aleppo and Idlib provinces. Ankara views the YPG as an ideological and operational extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish-Kurdish entity that has waged an intermittent insurgency against the Turkish state for nearly 40 years. The YPG, on the other hand, claims it is wholly Syrian and committed to defending its autonomous region against Turkey and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) alike.
The regional impact of Turkey’s actions are far-ranging, but largely play into the hands of the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis. Russia green-lighted the operation when it withdrew its troops from Afrin, likely in an attempt to extract concessions at the Sochi peace talks, of which Turkey is a co-sponsor. The diverting of Kurdish attention from eastern Syria to Afrin will allow Iran to expand its reach on the Syria-Iraq border, while Syrian forces roll back rebel forces in Idlib province without fear of Turkish interference. While Operation Olive Branch may further cement Russian-Iranian influence in the region – and even risk broader conflict between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds – US policymakers should devote considerable attention to how local dynamics within Syria may ebb and flow.
Given its partnerships with both Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, the U.S. is in a precarious position. America must not only focus on key strategic objectives – such as preventing the reemergence of ISIS and deterring Iranian expansion – but also prevent further Turkish-Kurdish conflict in other parts of northern Syria. To do so, US policymakers should ensure they understand a key underlying driver of the Afrin operation: the potential for increased instability in other Kurdish-controlled, Arab-majority areas. Further instability may disrupt US stability operations and efforts to prevent ISIS or ISIS-sympathetic elements from re-establishing a foothold.
Restoring al-Raqqa Amidst Ethnic Tensions
Operation Olive Branch is undermining US-backed Kurdish stability operations by stoking ethnic tensions between Kurdish-backed authorities and local Arab populations. PYD-controlled Syria, collectively known as Rojava or “Western Kurdistan,” has recently witnessed a series of anti-Turkish protests. While the largest public demonstrations have occurred far from Afrin in Kurdish-heavy northeastern Syria (notably Amuda on January 16 and Kobani on January 18), reports surfaced of PYD authorities coercing local Arabs into participating in protests in al-Raqqa on January 23 and al-Qamishli on January 30.[i],[ii] ,[iii] ,[iv] Though Turkish-leaning news outlets may have purposely misreported the latter two protests, likely in an attempt to drum up anti-Kurdish sentiment, many Arabs living in these areas already mistrust and resent Kurdish rule.
Al-Raqqa, in particular, poses a unique challenge given the city’s recent liberation by the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in October and slow struggle back to normality. Dozens of returning Arabs protested against the al-Raqqa Civil Council (RCC) – the SDF-backed local governance body charged with al-Raqqa’s reconstruction – for preventing residents from returning to the city’s al-Mashlab neighborhood in late October. It is true that the RCC has closed off certain parts of the city that still require significant de-mining of IEDs left behind by ISIS; however, local residents and activists view these prohibitions as attempts to reserve parts of post-ISIS al-Raqqa for Kurds, rather than Arabs who have deep historic ties to the city. On the other hand, the RCC have failed to prevent at least 29 IED incidents from occurring in al-Raqqa since its liberation – a continued source of frustration for civil-military relations.
Local and Turkish Hostility Brewing in Manbij
Another flashpoint in Afrin-related tensions is the town of Manbij, located 20 kilometers east of the Free Syrian Army frontline in Aleppo province. Erdogan and other Turkish officials have clearly stated that Manbij is the next target in Operation Olive Branch, despite the presence of US military and civilian personnel stationed in the town in support of SDF border control and governance efforts. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated a week prior to launching the operation that the offensive will not be “limited to Afrin alone…there is also Manbij and east of the Euphrates River.”[v] In response, American General Joseph Votel, head of CENTCOM, warned the Turks that “our object is to prevent something like that from happening.”[vi]
Though Turkish threats run the risk of unintentional Turkish-on-US violence, the deeper threat to stability west of the Euphrates mirrors that of al-Raqqa: the Kurdish-backed Manbij Civil Council (MCC) has increasingly lost the Arab majority’s public trust. Since October, unidentified assailants have attempted to assassinate three local officials (including Kurdish military commander Mohammad Abu Adel), provoking a spate of IED attacks and popular protests. In November, city-wide demonstrations against an unpopular SDF conscription law led to a city-wide strike and the shutdown of commercial businesses.[vii],[viii] Another protest occurred in January over the alleged killing of two local al-Bubana tribal youths by the SDF, revealing the fragility of the MCC’s tribal relations as MCC president and al-Bubana tribal elder Faruq al-Mashi indirectly distanced himself from the protesters.[ix] Al-Mashi was likely unable to broker a solution and assuage residents, calling into question the legitimacy of the SDF’s local governance body.
ISIS – the common thread that knitted the US-Kurdish alliance together – is no longer a tangible threat in al-Raqqa, Manbij, and most of the Euphrates River Valley. Nonetheless, the US retains a vested interest in supporting the Kurds in clearing remaining ISIS pockets near the Syria-Iraq border. More importantly, it is also in US interests to prevent ethnic conflict between Kurds and Arabs. Turkey, which enjoys indirect ties to various Syrian opposition-leaning tribesmen, may exploit simmering anti-Kurdish resentment in Manbij and al-Raqqa to foment chaos. Disillusioned Arabs may also radicalize if ISIS is able to craft an ethnic narrative and regain support. To prevent this, the U.S. must focus on both de-conflicting tensions with Turkey and strengthening local Kurdish capacity and legitimacy to govern its hard-won territory.
[i] Smart News Agency, “Two Protests Occur in Ain Arab and Afrin in Aleppo Condemning Turkish Bombing,” January 18, 2018. https://smartnews-agency.com/ar/wires/255308/%D9%85%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%B1%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D9%85%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%AA%D9%8A-%D8%B9%D9%81%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%88%D8%B9%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A8-%D8%A8%D8%AD%D9%84%D8%A8-%D8%AA%D9%86%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%AF%D8%A7-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D8%B5%D9%81-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%B1%D9%83%D9%8A
[ii] Smart News Agency, “Two Protests Occur in Ain Arab and Afrin in Aleppo Condemning Turkish Bombing,” January 18, 2018. https://smartnews-agency.com/ar/wires/255308/%D9%85%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%B1%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D9%85%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%AA%D9%8A-%D8%B9%D9%81%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%88%D8%B9%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A8-%D8%A8%D8%AD%D9%84%D8%A8-%D8%AA%D9%86%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%AF%D8%A7-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D8%B5%D9%81-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%B1%D9%83%D9%8A
[iii] Shaam Network, “The QSD [SDF] Coerces the People of al-Raqqa city to Protest Against Operation Olive Branch,” January 23, 2018. http://www.shaam.org/news/syria-news/%D9%82%D8%B3%D8%AF-%D8%AA%D8%AC%D8%A8%D8%B1-%D8%A3%D9%87%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A-%D9%85%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D9%82%D8%A9-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AE%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%AC-%D8%A8%D9%85%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%B6%D8%A9-%D9%84%D8%B9%D9%85%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%BA%D8%B5%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D9%8A%D8%AA%D9%88%D9%86.html
[v] Daily Sabah, “Turkey gave no guarantee that operation would be limited to Syria’s Afrin,” January 22, 2018. https://www.dailysabah.com/war-on-terror/2018/01/22/turkey-gave-no-guarantee-that-operation-would-be-limited-to-syrias-afrin
[vi] CSIS, “Understanding Turkey’s Afrin Operation,” January 25, 2018. https://www.csis.org/analysis/understanding-turkeys-afrin-operation
[vii] Smart News Agency, “Leader of the Manbij Military Council in an IED attack in Eastern Aleppo,” October 2, 2017. https://smartnews-agency.com/ar/wires/245660/%D8%A5%D8%B5%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%A9-%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%A6%D8%AF-%D9%85%D8%AC%D9%84%D8%B3-%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A8%D8%AC-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B3%D9%83%D8%B1%D9%8A-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%81%D8%AC%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%B9%D8%A8%D9%88%D8%A9-%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B3%D9%81%D8%A9-%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%82-%D8%AD%D9%84%D8%A8
[viii] Orient News, “General Strike in Manbij Against the SDF’s Conscription Campaign,” November 5, 2017. http://orient-news.net/ar/news_show/142129/0/اضراب-عام-في-منبج-احتجاجا-على-حملة-تجنيد-تشنها-ميليشيا-قسد
[ix] Forces Syria Democracy, “Faruq al-Mashi: Al-Bubana Tribe Will not get Involved in the Conflict and Instability in Manbij,” January 14, 2017. https://sdf-press.com/2018/01/%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%88%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B4%D9%8A-%D8%B9%D8%B4%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D9%88%D8%A8%D9%86%D8%A7-%D9%84%D9%86-%D9%8A%D9%83%D9%88%D9%86-%D9%84%D9%87%D8%A7/