On January 20th, the Turkish military offensive into Afrin, known as “Operation Olive Branch”, began. Turkey’s goal is to eliminate an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 members of the Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, who control the area. Turkey claims the YPG has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a recognized terrorist organization who has been launching insurgencies within Turkey for decades. Therefore, Turkey also considers the YPG to be a terrorist group.
Complicating the situation is the U.S.’ dual relationship with the YPG, whom the U.S. does not consider to be a terrorist organization, and Turkey, a NATO partner, and U.S. ally. The U.S. has found the YPG to be a valuable resource in the effort to contain and eradicate ISIS in Syria. To strengthen the Anti-ISIS mission, the U.S. has provided the YPG with support in the form of training and arms. The strategy has been successful. However, Turkey perceives the YPG as an increasingly threatening presence, as they are gaining North Syrian territory along the Turkish border.
Turkey has condemned the relationship between the YPG and the U.S. Turkey claims that the YPG is using the U.S. supplied weapons against their troops and that these weapons make their way to the PKK in Turkey and are used in terrorist activities. Turkey has repeated its request that the U.S. stop backing the Syrian Kurds, only to receive non-committal answers. Its attack on Afrin comes days after the U.S. announced plans to train 30,000 soldiers for a border security force in Manbij, a city in Northern Syria. The YPG would play an integral role in this development. Turkey has declared it will destroy this border force.
This situation has heightened geopolitical tensions. Turkey is an important counterweight to Russia’s favorable relationship with President Bashar al-Assad, a leader who is considered a war criminal by most of the international community. But as the U.S. loses favor with Turkey, Russia gains influence in the region. This shift could have devastating consequences in the future with regard to human rights violations committed by Assad.
Immediate impacts of Operation Olive Branch on civilians in the area are grave. There are an estimated 800,000 citizens living in the Afrin District, 126,000 of whom were resettled there due to the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Nonetheless, the Turkish military carried out airstrikes on at least 100 different locations. Turkish ground troops and their partners in combat, the Free Syrian Army, have since advanced into Afrin. Sixty-eight civilian deaths, including that of 21 children, and over 180 wounded have thus far been reported by hospitals. The UN reported that 15,000 people have been displaced and that local authorities are restricting civilian movement, including attempts to flee. The UN Spokesperson for the Secretary-General also declared that “the risk to civilians is great. The continued fighting, the [and] military operations, has placed these civilians in harm’s way.”
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