The Turkish operation in Afrin and the possible impact on relations with the European Union (Part I)

On 20th January 2018, Turkey began its military operation called “Olive branch” in Afrin, a city in the north-western part of Syria dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the mainly-Kurdish militia in the country. Ankara’s goal is to create a 30-kilometer deep safety belt that serves as a buffer zone for its southern border. Ten days later, the Human Solidarity Group (HSG), together with the Association of Italian Organizations for International Cooperation and Solidarity (AOI), appealed to Federica Mogherini (the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security policies) and to the whole international community for the cessation of Turkish’s war actions in the North of Syria. This analysis will be divided into two parts. In the first part, initially, an overview of the evolution of relations between Turkey and the Kurds will be presented since 2013; secondly, what is happening in the region of Afrin (in Syria) and what the “Olive branch” operation consists of will be explained. In the second part of the article, (which will be published later), the positions of the experts will be introduced: firstly to understand what is at stake considering the relations between Turkey and the European Union (EU); and finally the probable consequences of the Turkish operation on the accession process to the EU will be exposed.


The Kurds are a population of Iranian origin and their historical region is Kurdistan (“land of the Kurds”). Kurdistan has never formed an independent state and it is currently divided among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan. During the nineteenth century, almost the entire Kurdish territory was dominated by the Ottoman Empire, and from the early 1900s, a repressive policy towards the conquered populations began. In 1920, the Sevres Treaty established Kurdistan’s birthright in the eastern provinces of Anatolia and it is precisely in 1923, with the Treaty of Lausanne, that most of the Kurdish territory is annexed to Turkey, provoking revolts against the government of Ankara. In 1991, at the end of the Gulf War, the United Nations (UN) condemned the crackdown on Iraqi Kurds and paved the way for the creation of a security belt for the Kurdish people in northern Iraq. The Kurds’ conditions remained very difficult in all the states: discriminated and persecuted, the Kurds do not have the right to officially use their national language. In Syria, the Kurds’ persecution was especially oppressive: some Kurdish minorities do not have the right to vote and they cannot leave the country, serve in the army, work in state institutions and possess any other kind of private property. In Turkey, the Kurds’ persecution was particularly violent: many journalists and politicians of Kurdish origin were imprisoned. In 1974, the repressions gave rise to the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a Leninist Marxist-inspired terrorist group, which until now fights to form a Kurdish state. The other two Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (the PDK, founded in 1945 by Mustafa Barzani) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK, founded by Jalal Talabani) are in Iraq and ask for a large autonomy, which they partly obtained thanks to the air exclusion zone created by the United Nations in 1991. Since December 1994, however, the PDK and PUK, once allied, began an internal war for the domination of the region and the Kurdish regional government.
In the analysis “What Turkey’s campaign in Africa means for the YPG” published by the Chatham House, Asaad Hanna, human rights activist and graduate at the Damascus University, highlighted that the military operation supported and launched by Turkey against the city of Afrin is not a surprise. The city, whose inhabitants are mostly Kurds, is also one of the main bases of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a military organization of Syrian Kurds and an armed wing of the Kurdish “Democratic Party Union” (PYD), which received considerable support from both the United States and Russia in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). Founded in 2004, it took a defensive position in the Syrian civil war from the beginning, fighting against any group intent on bringing the war to the Kurdish-majority areas. In fact, they fought against IS in Raqqa and northern Syria, and at the same time tried to delimit the areas for a self-government.


The Kurdish advance from 2013 to today

Kurdistan’s regions are crucial in the definition of the new balance of power in the Middle East. According to Stefano Torelli, researcher for the Italian Institute for international political studies (ISPI), the Kurdish issue returned to the spotlight due to two phenomena: the outbreak of the conflict in Syria and the rise and expansion of the Islamic State (IS) between Syria and Iraq. These two events gave the Kurds the opportunity to be considered as strategic actors by the international community, especially in the fight against the IS. As a result, according to the researcher, the profuse efforts of the Kurdish communities in the war against the IS led to a situation of great expectations on the part of the Kurds themselves who have tried to obtain the recognition of a political status.
When in September 2014, the United States announced the formation of an international coalition to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, both the YPG (People’s Protection Units located in Syria) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK located in Turkey) decided to help the international coalition. Turkey’s concern about the Kurds in its territory is linked to the resistance of Syrian Kurds against the Islamic State.
The first factor of concern was the establishment of the Rojava canton in Syria, which borders on Turkish Kurdistan. The establishment of the Rojava region started on January 29, 2014, when the Democratic Party Union (PYD), which claimed to represent the inhabitants of Rojava, declared the autonomy of the three cantons (Afrin, Kobane and Qamichli) under its own control: the aim was to completely free those areas from the presence of Daesh. However, Rojava’s Constitution Charter states that it remains an “integral part of Syria” and constitutes a provisional implementation of the future Syrian federal government in that region. On 17th March 2016, the Kurds of Syria proclaimed a “federal democratic” entity in the controlled areas, including the three Kurdish cantons of Afrin, Kobane and Djezireh. This entity is also called Rojava-Northern Syria: the official name is the Federal Democratic Republic of Northern Syria. However, this announcement was immediately rejected by the Syrian regime, the Syrian opposition, the United States and Turkey.
The second factor of concern was the definitive conquest of Kobane. The IS launched an assault on the enclave around the Kurdish city of Kobane, forcing tens of thousands to flee across the nearby Turkish border. Despite the proximity of the fighting, Turkey refused both to attack the IS positions and to allow the Turkish-Kurds to cross the border to defend the enclave. After a battle where at least 1,600 people died, the Kurdish forces regained control of Kobane. Since then, the Syrian Kurds, fighting under the insignia of the Syrian democratic forces (SDF) together with several local Arab militias and helped by the US-led coalition air force, pushed the IS away from some Syrian territories and established the control over hundreds of kilometres along the Syrian border with Turkey.
The creation of this area, along the 900 kilometres of shared border between Syria and Turkey, scared Ankara in a time when, also considering the internal administrative and political problems, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan began to see his popularity compromised. Already in August 2016, Turkey had launched a military operation called “Euphrates Shield” in northern Syria to prevent Kurds’ expansion in the western part of the Euphrates and to break the Kurdish territorial contiguity. The “Euphrates Shield” began on 24th August 2016 and ended on 29th March 2017.

It was an operation led by Turkey, Syrian rebel groups against the IS, and the Syrian democratic forces (SDF – military coalition dominated by the YPG and supported by the United States) in northern Syria, who had created the Rojava canton. This offensive started with the occupation of Jarablus, a city in northern Syria, located on the Turkish border, the capital of a canton in the Aleppo governorate. On 28th August, Turkish artillery and aircraft bombed the villages of al-Amarne and Jeb el-Koussa, respectively 8 and 14 kilometres south of Jarablus, provoking the retreat of many SDF fighters. On 18th January, 2017, a first Russian-Turkish air raid was observed in the area of ​​al-Bab, obtaining control of the city on 23rd February. On 26th February 2017, Turkey′s protests notwithstanding, the U.S. announced its support for the Manbij Military Council, established by the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, and sent Special Forces and several military convoys. On 20th March, troops from the Russian army entered Afrin. Moscow stated that its soldiers were deployed simply in this enclave, located west of al-Bab, to ensure compliance with the cease-fire between the Turkish army and the SDF. The Turkish army and the rebels engaged in the operation were then completely blocked, unable to advance either to the south against the Syrian army, allied to Russia, nor to the east and in the west facing the SDF, allied to both the Americans and the Russians. This is why on 29th March, Turkey announced the end of the operation “Euphrates Shield”.
According to Aron Lund, researcher of the Carnegie Middle East Center, this operation was influenced by “foreign actors”. The United States have tried to improve Turkish cooperation against the IS, but they have struggled to divert Ankara’s opposition to the Kurds in Syria. Moreover, after resuming their relations with Ankara, the Russian government has tried to exploit these tensions to remove Turkey from the campaign against the Syrian central government. US support to the Kurds, and that of the Russians to Damascus, forced Turkey to withdraw from the Syrian territory on 29th March 2017.


The operation “Olive Branch”

On 20th January 2018, Turkey began the military operation called “Olive branch” in Afrin, a city in the north-western part of Syria dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara’s purpose is to create a 30-kilometer deep safety belt that serves as a buffer zone at its southern border, and to break the link between the YPG and the PKK. According to Valeria Talbot, Senior Research Fellow and Co-Head of the ISPI Center for the Middle East and North Africa and responsible for studies on the Middle East, Turkey’s main fear is the creation of an independent Kurdish state at its southern border that would act as an incitement for the autonomous instances of the Turkish Kurds. According to President Erdoğan, after Afrin, Manbij (another Syrian city controlled by the Kurds and where US forces are allocated) will be targeted. Already on 12th January, Turkey was strengthening its border with Syria, in order to hit the targets of the Kurdish militias supported by the United States.
The beginning of this attack has to be read within the regional scenario and the third countries’ interests involved in the fight against the IS. According to La Repubblica, an Italian daily newspaper, behind the large military offensive launched in Syria, there is Russia’s consent. As a matter of fact, a few days before the attack, some members of the Turkish army went to Moscow, after which the Russian Defense Ministry announced that the Russian military deployed in the Afrin area had been transferred elsewhere in order to prevent any provocations or threats against them. Moreover, a few days before the Turkish invasion, the United States had expressed its intention to send border forces to areas bordering Turkey.
On 23rd January, the Kurds of the Rojava region called for the mobilization in defense of Afrin. In fact, the continued Turkish advance worried the United States. According to the Syrian official news agency SANA (Syrian Arab News Agency) the Turkish intervention against the Afrin canton caused the death or wounding of 141 civilians. An intense bombardment of Turkish artillery would have hit some residential areas of Afrin, which is 63 kilometres north of Aleppo. The US response seems more determined than ever to avoid actions that risk leading to a clash between Turkish and American forces. A few hours later, Turkish President Erdoğan announces his intention to push his troops to Manbij, a city about 140 km east of Afrin, showing the interest of creating a “buffer zone” up to the border with the Iraq. In January 2014, ISIL had conquered the city, but in June 2016, the Syrian democratic forces (SDF), supported by the United States, launched an offensive in Manbij, and on 8th June they had completely surrounded the city. Now it is an integral part of Rojava. Manbij is also a centre for the joint formation of the Joint Task Force “Operation Inherent Resolve” of the new SDF recruits in the fight against IS and other Islamist militias in Syria. The United States announced their support for the security of the Manbij Military Council and as early as 2016, they had sent Special Forces and several military convoys into the city.
On 27th January, the head of the Turkish Diplomacy Mevlüt Cavusoglu asked the United States to withdraw from the city of Manbij. According to the Foreign Minister, the withdrawal of troops is essential to avoid eventual complications. Moreover, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he was determined to “crush like a roller” any threat. Only seven days after the operation in Syria had started, the first tensions arise between Ankara and Washington. In fact, General Joseph Votel, of the United States Central Command said that the withdrawal of US forces from Manbij was not a conceivable measure. In the American perspective, Manbij is a key point in the north of Syria. The US government has announced that their troops will not withdraw from Manbij: this means that US troops are likely to be involved in the military push of Turkey in northern Syria if Ankara continues with the commitment to advance in the area. According to UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Ursula Mueller, within a week of the operation, Turkish border towns have been regularly targeted by missiles launched by the Turkish authorities. Seven civilians lost their lives in these attacks, which also left about 100 wounded. In Afrin, about 15,000 people fleeing the fighting have been displaced in the region, while a thousand have found refuge in the neighbouring province of Aleppo. According to data provided by the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR) and detected by the Agence France Presse (AFP), 91 SDF fighters were killed during the outbreak of Turkish aggression. In addition, the clashes, but above all the indiscriminate Turkish bombing, killed a hundred civilians and wounded twice as much according to the local authorities of Afrin. Furthermore, on 3rd February, the humanitarian organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) denounced the use of force by Turkish border guards to stem fleeing Syrian asylum seekers. Many Syrians tried to cross the border with Turkey, but they were targeted by border guards who, according to HRW, fired indiscriminately and rejected them.
On 8th February, in an official statement, Nasrin Abdallah, leader of the YPG, reports the disinterest shown by the international community and the danger of Islamic extremist movements, which can take advantage of the clash between Kurds and Turks to conquer territories. The Kurdish leader pointed out that the army bombarded Afrin with aviation and heavy artillery, but at the same time, the al-Nasr militias (affiliated to al-Qaeda) and the jihadists are carrying out their battle. In addition, she pointed out that the Turkish army has almost a million soldiers and possesses the most sophisticated weapons in circulation: as a member of NATO, Turkey has some strategic capabilities for obtaining information and using satellite systems. The conflict continues to spread like wildfire and causes a chain effect that influences different national and non-national actors. The operation “Olive branch” carried out by Turkey has created frictions both within the Kurdish, Turkish, Syrian and soon perhaps also in the Iraqi territory, and at the same time has fuelled tensions with Washington.
However, at least until now, the European Union has not issued any formal declaration regarding the operation. This silence can be a cause for concern given that Turkey is a candidate country to join the Union. In this first article the events of recent weeks were shown, starting from a historical path useful to understand what is at stake. In the next article, under a theoretical and analytical approach, the possible impact of the “Olive branch” on the relations with the EU will be explained. In fact, the Turkish President Erdoğan, carrying out a real invasion, risks going beyond any possibility of cooperation with Brussels. However, the relationships between the two actors are based on multidimensional factors that could put the EU in difficulty.

Maria Elena Argano

For further information:
Human Right Watch Website:
Rojinfo Website:
Le Monde Website:
Il sole24ore Website:
CNN Website:
L’orient le jour Website:
RFI Website:
Reuters Website:
La Repubblica Website:
La Repubblica Website :
Liberation Website:
U.S. Department of State Website:
Treccani Website :
ISPI Website:
ISPI Website:
ISPI Website:
ISPI Website :
Chatham House Website:

Lascia un commento

Il tuo indirizzo email non sarà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *