Operation Olive Branch Implications for U.S., Turkish, Russian Relations
By Nathan Purtell
In late January, Turkey began an air and ground campaign into Afrin, the northwestern and Kurdish-controlled region of Syria, codenamed Operation Olive Branch. The official goal, according to Turkish military officials, is to “drive out terrorism”, meaning the Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish fighters resisting the Assad regime. While Turkish disdain for the Kurds is nothing new, the decision to begin a unilateral military operation against them represents a serious turn of events.
The U.S. has in the past been highly supportive of the Kurdish people and its military branches operating in the North of Syrian and Iraq. As occupiers of a semi-independent region having territory in both countries, the Kurdish people have been a cornerstone of the U.S. strategy to defeat IS and ensure stability in the region. Washington has provided assistance via air support and military training to the Kurdish people, and recently announced intentions of creating a border security force along the Syrian-Turkish border, thirty miles wide. While this may allow greater security to the region by preventing IS from gaining a foothold and reducing the human flow into Europe, Turkey opposes the action. Erdogan likened the action to “creating a terror army” along the southern border, according to The Centre for Research on Globalization.
Relations between Turkey and Russia in the past have been tense. In November of 2015, Turkish military shot down a Russian military aircraft over its territory, escalating tensions between Russian and the NATO member nation. The assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara also put a serious strain on relations. Russia has been the most significant supporter of the Assad regime, and seeks to keep him in power. Therefor, the undermining of non-Assad forces in Syrian territory has also been supported by Russia. According to the Washington Examiner, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has praised the measures for their supposed legitimacy, stating “there is legitimate presence based on an invitation from official authorities, but there is illegitimate one, namely presence of the U.S.-led coalition and special forces’ troops from a wide range of foreign countries who nobody has invited.”
Behind this seemingly sudden interest in international legitimacy (ahem, Ukraine), Russia also aims to become the predominate foreign influencer in the region, effectively usurping the U.S. There also exists similarities between Russian operations across the Caucuses and this Turkish operation, as both are used to boost national morale and increase legitimacy of their ruler. With Erdogan’s sweeping new powers won in the national referendum, Afrin represents a prime opportunity to solidify his legitimacy as protector of the Turkish people and assert the military clout of the nation.
As a NATO member nation, Turkey has supported U.S. global security measures in the past, such as hosting U.S. military capabilities during the Cold War. While the Turkish policy with the Kurds has been long standing, the U.S. decision to use them as a security device is relatively recent. The potential for discordance between U.S. and Turkish security aims has existed for a long time, especially due to the U.S. still capitalizing on the Kurds’ strategic regional hold. The official U.S. position remains tepid, with Defense Secretary Jim Matthis only saying he thinks Turkey has “legitimate security concerns” according Reuters.