Operation Olive Branch was Turkey’s second large incursion into northern Syria after Operation Euphrates Shield, kick starting on the 20th January with the goal of striking blows against the YPG in Afrin, which Turkey regards as the PKK. If one noted which Syria ‘rebel groups’ assisted Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) in this operation, it was obvious confirmation of Turkish support behind such groups as Faylaq al Sham, FSA, Hayat Tahrir al Sham (Al Qaeda) and some pro-Turkish Aleppo groups such as the Hamza Division and the Sultan Murad Division.
The most striking feature of this entire operation however, is that it has the implicit support of Russia, Syria and most likely Iran, due to the Turkish air force having to use Syrian airspace. This further confirms the growing clout of the “tripartite + 1” axis of resistance – Syria-Russia-Iran-Turkey, common interests which all seem to be converging in Syria with regards to pushing back against US imperialism. The US is walking a tightrope in Syria in an increasingly untenable military position, having crossed Turkey’s red line of providing material support to the YPG in Syria. The recent announcement by Rex Tillerson (promptly denied) of a 35,000 -strong SDF ‘border force’ in Rojava was the final straw, albeit probably the pretext. Recep Tayyip Erdogan will have none of it, and has threatened to even march onto Manbij after Afrin. Manbij hosts US forces, and for the moment, the US is rather mute about Turkey’s moves, understanding that Incirlik means much more to NATO than NATO does to Turkey. The Incirlik airbase allows the US airforce to enter Syrian and Iraqi airspace with minimal headache, as opposed to any other base in the region, and this comes at what looks like an increasingly higher premium, having already thrown the Kurds in Afrin under the bus, which now look like they are caught in a mess without any allies, except some foreign volunteers.
It’s quite clear that Turkish and Russian intelligence, military and political figures have been holding high level talks for some time, making sure they are on the same page and careful to avoid clashes and hostilities. Russia has already moved its forces stationed in Afrin into Syrian government-controlled territory in preparation for the Turkish incursion. As such, it appears that the move was well coordinated with Moscow and Damascus, with perhaps Rex Tillerson’s announcement acting as the final straw to trigger the incursion. This demonstrates that Turkey is quite boldly moving away from NATO in the sense that it sees its interests as taking precedence over those of NATO, – this is not something weak lapdog NATO states like Bulgaria for example, would take, such as agreeing to renege on what could have been a profitable South Stream pipeline at the insistence of NATO. Turkey has ample reason to be highly mistrustful of NATO:
– Fetullah Gulen being hosted in the US
– The probable pro-NATO shooting down of the Russian Su-24 bomber and assassination of Turkish-Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov, in attempts to ruin relations between both countries
– The probable pro-NATO attempted coup in 2016
– The politicised US courtcase against a Turkish banker for helping Iran bypass sanctions
– Predatory price crashes of the Lira in FX markets
– Support of Kurdish rebels in Syria
– Threats against Turkey for purchasing the S-400
And the list goes on. In short, NATO is not treating Turkey as an ally, and Erdogan has ultimately realised that he too shouldn’t treat NATO as an ally either. What’s clear is that Vladimir Putin is pulling some high level strings in the backdrop, much to NATO’s chagrin. He has won over the Sultan, and is able to project a big slap in the face to the US’s downward spiral in Syria.
However, things can go wrong and backfire, particularly if Turkey prolongs the operation or messes it up. Russia could be put in an uncomfortable position and be forced to offer Turkey a more dignified way out of Afrin by coming to an agreement with the Kurds in allowing Syrian forces to protect Afrin again. The Kurds have so far shown terrible judgement, rejecting a Russian proposal to allow Syrian government forces in Afrin for no Turkish incursions. Instead, the Kurds preferred the Turkish incursion, which highlights how naively they thought the US had their back, if they considered that at all.
As Olive Branch rolls on, it will be imperative to take note of the military progress and the count of Turkish body bags, – something which could have a negative effect on popular support. This is a big reason why Turkey prefers to pay mercenary rebel groups to do the front-line fighting instead of TAF. But the key will be Manbij. If Turkey goes ahead and expands a buffer into Manbij, it could signal a real deterioration in US-Turkish relations. While neither side desires any clashes, this could suggest a significant difference in strategic objectives, which only goes to further confirm that Turkey is fast moving away from NATO strategic objectives. NATO could however, swallow its pride and be accommodating to Erdogan, but in the end, the only viable alternative to Incirlik that will satisfy US imperialism will come from some place in some part of a Kurdistan, and that means relations with Turkey will bear the brunt. The end-game here is most likely some quid pro quo between Erdogan and Putin – Idlib for Afrin, or perhaps giving the greenlight to Turkey, a fellow NATO member, to do the dirty work against US-backed Kurds, something Damascus, Teheran or Moscow are happy to outsource to the mad Sultan rather than take on themselves at the moment.