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

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, already published, an overview of the evolution of relations between Turkey and the Kurds was presented; secondly, what is happening in the region of Afrin (in Syria) and what the operation “Olive branch” consists of was explained. In this second part of the article 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 Turkish advance in Syria
On February 21st 2018, a month after the Turkish invasion in the Syrian border area in order to create a buffer zone and curb the Kurdish threat, President Bashar al-Assad sent a convoy of about 50 vehicles and Syrian pro-government militias in order to guarantee the unity of the Syrian people. According to the commander of pro-Assad forces, the Syrian army’s objective was to support the local population in order to repel the Turkish army and free up the occupied areas. A few hours later, the Ankara government spokesman warned the Syrian forces, saying that the Turkish government had no intention of stopping its advance and that Syrian militias, following their arrival, were considered as targets by the Turkish army. The next day, the Syrian military forces, allied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, arrived in Afrin thanks to an agreement between the Syrian government and the Kurdish militias, supported by Iran and Russia (the two main allies of Assad). The arrival of the Syrian forces further limited the modest results of the Turkish offensive: in a month of fighting, the Turkish army and their allies failed to reach the main cities of the area, despite having conquered several smaller villages along the border with Turkey. Even conquering of the city of Manbij, where the United States has a hub for “Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve”, is difficult for the Turkish army.
On 26th February, the Turkish government spokesman, Bekir Bozdag, announced that in response to the Syrian intervention to protect the unity of the country, Ankara would have deployed special forces in northwest Syria in anticipation of urban clashes with Kurdish militias of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), with the intention of starting a “new strategy”: moving from small and rural villages to wider and populated areas thanks to the particular experience and training of some members of the Turkish army able to move in inhabited centres. The message that Bekir Bozdag wanted to pass was the intention of the government to continue the advance up to Afrin. This “new strategy” officially started on 2nd March with the intensification of fighting in urban centers. The following day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 36 Syrian pro-government fighters died in Turkish air strikes over the Syrian town of Kafr Jina, in the province of Afrin. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that the army managed to conquer the city of Rajo, at about 25 kilometers away from Afrin. At the same time, in Jinderes, a city 21 km south of Afrin, there was a violent battle between the Turkish forces and the Syrian Kurds of the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), helped by the Syrian democratic forces (SDF). The soldiers of Ankara and their allies of the free Syrian army (FSA – a Syrian opposition group, founded during the Syrian Civil War on 29 July 2011 by officers of the Syrian Armed Forces who said their goal was to bring down the government of Bashar al-Assad) increased the intensity of the attacks on the city, trying to surround it.
On 8th March 2018, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced his intention to carry out an operation against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, following the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2018, adding that Turkey intended to close the operation in Syria by May. So far, the Turkish army claims to have “neutralized” (killed, wounded or captured) over three thousand enemy combatants, losing 41 soldiers and 159 allied Arab militiamen to the ground. On March 13, the Turkish forces surrounded the city of Afrin, controlled by the Kurds of the militia People’s Protection Unit (YPG). However, the National Defense Force (FND), a Syrian militant group organized by the central government, created a security cordon around some cities near Afrin. In this sense, the Syrian government forces have collaborated, following internal agreements, with the YPG and the SDF, which until the Operation Olive branch have always refused to cooperate with the forces of Damascus. On 18th March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey’s allied Syrian forces took the control of the Afrin center and expelled Kurdish fighters. According to the National Observatory for Human Rights, the Turkish army conquered half the city and fighting was going on and after two months at least 150,000 civilians had to leave the area. According to the high-ranking Kurdish-Syrian official, Othman Sheikh Issa, the war against the Turkish army entered a new phase. For the YPG the aim was to pass from the clash directed to the guerrilla: hit and run away until the liberation of the occupied zone.

The theoretical approach
The Turkish Operation Olive branch in Syria stimulated the experts’ opinions: the invasion of the Afrin region has influenced the strategic relations of several third countries involved in the Syrian conflict. Indeed, Marc Pierini, policy expert of the Middle Eastern and Turkish policies for the think tank Carnegie Europe, in his essay “A tale of dual Turkey” thinks that Turkey, especially under the presidency of President Receipt Erdoğan, adopted an ambiguous political strategy that caused repercussions both to Western countries and to Russia and Iran. In July 2016, following the attempted coup against the central government, President Erdoğan has adopted drastic measures (such as purges or hostage strikes) against alleged coup leaders, and this was perceived by Western countries as a provocation, especially from the European Union (EU). The expert notes that interactions occurred throughout 2017 with Russia have led to an estrangement from both the EU and NATO. In fact, in 2011, at the beginning of the civil war in Syria, Turkey had an unfavorable position to the regime in Damascus, supported instead by Russia. However, Turkey and Russia have different points of convergence of interests: both want to weaken the strategic weight of the United States in the Middle East, and especially Turkey (after the failed coup) perceives the mistrust of European countries about its domestic and foreign policy. Turkey and Russia have three main points of greatest convergence:

– During the negotiations session of Astana Russia, Iran and Turkey were able to find a common agreement on the escalation of the conflict in Syria: the pacts established the creation of four buffer zones in Syria, with the aim of reducing the tensions between the forces of the regime and those of the opposition.
– The construction of two Russian gas pipelines (TurkStream and Nordstream) that will move from Turkey to bring gas to Europe. The European Commission prepared to propose the extension of the EU rules on the internal energy market to the offshore pipelines of the Nord Stream 2 to prevent Moscow from proceeding with complete autonomy. According to the EU rules, all the import pipelines can not be directly owned by the suppliers, they will have to apply non-discriminatory tariffs and be managed in a transparent way by making at least 10% of the capacity available to third parties.
– In December 2017, the Undersecretary for the Defense Industries of Turkey announced that a contract was signed with Russia for the acquisition of the S-400 long-range missile technology. The Russian S-400 could guarantee Turkey the know-how necessary to develop its future missile defense capability, incompatible with NATO installations deployed in Turkey.

According to the expert, these three events destabilize Turkey’s relations both with the EU and with NATO. The Turkish-Russian missile agreement has a political significance because it establishes the ever closer ties between the two countries, and distances Turkey from NATO.

Concerning relations with the EU, the situation is quite complex because Erdoğan’s policy has an impact on the accession process. As stated by Marc Pierini in his two essays “A Sea change for Turkey in Europe” and “Middle East Game Much Bigger Than Turkey – The course that Turkish leaders choose to follow in the Syrian war will have long-term consequences for their country and for the world”, since the beginning of 2018, Turkey’s position in Europe has undergone significant change, starting on 5th January with the meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, during which Turkey wanted to recall the interest of the EU. However, France’s position turned out to be cautious: France is ready to slow down Turkey’s accession process, joining the positions of the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany. Actually, the estrangement from the EU began in July 2016 when, in the name of the country’s unity, President Erdoğan dismantled the rule of law by attacking the coup leaders with purges and eliminating any form of dissent. On 15th March, the European Parliament adopted a new Resolution that criticizes the human rights situation in Turkey: an imminent review of EU financial support for Turkey regarding the assistance on the issue of migrants could be possible. The Operation Olive branch in Syria is making the dialogue with the EU even more difficult, showing that Turkey aims at strengthening its internal and external policy and the centralization of the presidential powers.
Furthermore, United States, which coexists with Turkey in NATO, support both the EU approach to slow down its membership and the Kurdish resistance against the Turkish army in Syria. In fact, Aaron Stein, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, in his essay “Strategic Incoherence in Syria”, explains that Turkey’s cross-border intervention demonstrates that the external actors (Russia, Iran, USA) are strategically adrift and potentially unable to find a common solution. The United States intends to remain in the north-east of Syria for the foreseeable future, countering the Turkish advance and at the same time opposing Iran and Russia that support the central government of Damascus. According to Aaron Stein, it must be considered that for Turkey the American presence in Syria ensures both a close link between the US’s special forces and the Syrian democratic forces (SDF) led by Syrian Kurds, and the threat for the formation of an autonomous Kurdish government in Syria, which will have repercussions on the independence aspirations of the Turkish Kurds. In addition, in the essay “Turkey’s Afrin Offensive and America’s Future in Syria”, Aaron Stein points out that even if Turkey wants to continue the advance and arrives in Iraq after the parliamentary elections, the United States will not be able to stay in Syria much longer. The long-term issue, of course, is that the US military will not stay in Syria forever. The only scenario that would allow the US withdrawal, according to the expert, is based on an agreement negotiated between Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Kurds of the SDF in order to reject the Turkish army. In this way, there would be a stable policy in the eastern part of the country and the United States will know that thanks to Russian and Iranian support to the central government it is possible to force Turkey to withdraw its army from Syria.

Consequences for the Turkey accession to the EU
On 25th January, a few days after the Turkish operation in Syria, Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR), met in Brussels with the Turkish EU Minister for Economic Affairs Ömer Çelik, in order to discuss of the Turkish operation in Afrin. From the bilateral meeting, it emerged that the EU expressed its commitment to keep open the dialogue with Turkey in order to maintain a link to create a communication bridge on the evolution of the operation in Afrin. A week later, the Turkish army showed its intention to advance further by setting strategic and military targets. This was a matter of concern on the part of the HR who on 7 February, during the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, highlighted the complexity of the humanitarian situation in Syria and the relationship that the EU, for different reasons, must maintain with Turkey. Indeed, according to the HR, the EU must first of all take into consideration that Turkey is an important regional actor that shares the same geographical space and therefore needs to keep an open dialogue, remembering that despite the continuous meetings and agreements, especially after the attempted coup in 2016, human rights violations continued, affecting important figures of civil society. If on the one hand, it seems that Turkey has not made great progress to adapt itself to the conditions for the accession, on the other it is true that, according to the HR, the country suffers terrorist attacks on its territory, has a difficult refugee crisis and a war just on the South of its border. Thus, the head of European diplomacy has hinted that the EU intends to maintain a dialogue with Turkey open.
On 13th March, in Strasbourg, the HR reiterated the EU’s concerns about the Operation Olive branch in Syria, considering the continued advance of the Turkish army in the Afrin region, the intervention of the Syrian government army to defend its borders and Ankara’s express intention to cross the Syrian borders to continue the operation in Iraq. Already at the end of February, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2401, calling for a ceasefire of 30-days throughout Syria, with the exception of operations against Daesh and Al Qaeda. Therefore, on 26th February, during the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, the HR continued to affirm the full and immediate implementation of the Resolution and urged the Foreign Ministers of Russia, Iran, and Turkey to guarantee the process of Astana and the access of the humanitarian aid. For this reason the Turkish intervention in the Afrin region complicates the political solution to the conflict. This is why, by the end of April, Brussels will host the second conference on the future of Syria to support negotiations, already started by the United Nations in Geneva, to reiterate the ceasefire in Syria, the drafting of a new constitution, and the elections to let the Syrian people decide their own future.
On 15th March, in Strasbourg, the European Parliament, meeting in plenary, voted a Resolution calling on Turkish troops to withdraw from Afrin. In the text is written that the European Parliament: “Strongly condemns, once again and in the strongest terms, all atrocities and the widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed during the conflict, and in particular the acts perpetrated by forces of the Assad regime, including with the support of its allies Russia and Iran, as well as by the UN-listed terrorist organisations […]expresses its grave concern over the spiralling violence in many parts of the country, as is the case in Eastern Ghouta, Afrin and Idlib;[…] Expresses deep concern at Turkey’s intervention in areas of Syria which are controlled by Kurdish forces; continues to be seriously worried about the escalating situation in Afrin, including the possible confrontation between Turkish forces and Assad or Russian forces and rising tensions with the United States; calls on the Turkish Government to withdraw its troops and play a constructive role in the Syrian conflict, which is also in Turkey’s national interests”. This Parliament Resolution echoes the meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council on 19 March, during which the Foreign Ministers discussed the latest developments in Syria with Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special envoy for Syria and the humanitarian situation in Afrin. In the provisional version about the outcome of the Council meeting it was possible to underline that Ministers wanted to push for a political solution to the Syrian conflict, and expressed their full support for these efforts in order to find a political solution to the conflict. After the meeting, the HR, during the press conference, stated that the EU will continue to work for a cessation of hostilities and full humanitarian access in Syria and stressed that all countries involved in the conflict, above all Turkey, Iran and Russia, have to work in order to find a political solution avoiding any military operation because the EU will not provide any support if a solid process of a political transition is not in place under UN auspices.
According to official sources, at least until the moment, since the beginning of the Olive Branch Operation, there have been no official statements regarding Turkey’s accession process. Except for the statements made by the spokespersons of some European member states (especially France, Germany and Austria), who expressly stated that the Turkish operation in Syria is increasingly moving Ankara away from the EU, Brussels is continuing to reiterate its commitment to finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis. At the same time, following two plenary sessions of the European Parliament and as many Foreign affairs Councils, the European institutions continue to rely on UN Resolution 2401 and respect for the Astana agreements made (and not respected) by the countries involved in the conflict, Turkey included. The ambiguous relationship between Russia and Turkey, and the Operation Olive Branch, continue to push Turkey away from the European perspective. However, according to the HR declarations, Turkey remains a country with which the EU must continue to maintain a frank and open dialogue. Indeed, the fact that the EU continues to focus its attention more on the Syrian conflict itself and on the solution based on political dialogue between the parties involved, underlining the urgency of the humanitarian crisis, could mean that for Brussels the process of accession of Turkey has the same value that until now Ankara has attributed to it. It seems clear that Turkey’s priority, especially after the failed coup d’état of 2016, is to defend itself from all kinds of external and internal threats, which is legitimate as long as the respect of fundamental human rights (on which the EU is founded) is not violated, especially after the funds that the EU gave to Turkey to manage the flow of migrants from Syria. The Olive Branch Operation is a further evidence of the value that Turkey attaches to the accession process. The intention to continue the war against the Kurds up to Iraq could worsen Turkey’s position both for the accession process and inside NATO.


Maria Elena Argano

For further information:
European Council Website “Remarks by High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini at the press conference following the Foreign Affairs Council”:
European Council Website “Outcome of the Council meeting”:
European Council Website “Foreign Affair Council”:
European Parliament Website “Texts adopted”:

Foreign Affairs Website “Strategic incoherence in Syria”:
Foreign Affairs Website “Turkey’s Afrin Offensive and America’s Future in Syria”:
Carnegie Europe Website «A Sea change for Turkey in Europe»:
Carnegie Europe Website “Operation Olive Branch: a political military assessment”:
Carnegie Europe Website «A Middle East Game Much Bigger Than Turkey”:
Carnegie Europe Website «A tale of a dual Turkey » :
Huffington Post Website «La Turchia minaccia i curdi: dopo Afrin attaccheremo in Iraq”:
Euronews Website “Siria: miliziani pro-Assad sono entrati ad Afrin”:
Tgcom Website « Turchia: entro maggio fine offensive in Siria, poi toccherà all’Iraq”:
The New York Times Website «Syrian militias enter Afrin”:
Difesa e Sicurezza Website “Siria: la Turchia e gli alleati lanciano una violenta offensiva a Jinderes”:
Sky Website «Siria: bombardamenti turchi su Afrin: morti 36 combattenti”:
Euronews Website “Afrin: prosegue l’operazione turca Olive Branch, dopo l’arrivo delle forze di Assad”:
Euronews Website “La Turquie veut maintenir le dialogue avec la Turquie”:
EEAS Website «Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini at the European Parliament plenary session on the situation in Syria”:
EEAS Website “Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini at the European Parliament Plenary Session on the human rights situation in Turkey and the situation in Afrin, Syria”:
Le Figaro Website « Ankara envoie ses forces speciales pour une nouvelle bataille » :
La Repubblica Website «Turchia : Abbiamo circondato Afrin – I curdi: falso, è propaganda”:
Energia Oltre Website “Gazprom: il Turkstream arriva in Turchia. Più Gas per Europa”:
Il Giornale Website “Adesso è ufficiale, la Turchia ha acquistato gli S-400 russi”:
ANSA Website «L’esercito russo festeggia la conquista di Afrin”:

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