Turkey took a new step toward influencing the post-Daesh future of Syria by launching a military operation against the militants of the People's Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin. The French request for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, coupled with Russia's negative response and Britain's references to Turkey's right to secure its borders, are early signs of the new debate on Syria.
By launching the first-ever military incursion against the YPG-held Afrin, Turkey identified the group as a legitimate target. Statements by the United States, Russia and NATO about the legitimacy of Turkey's concerns about the PKK and border security suggest that the protective shield around the group has been penetrated. The main reason for this development was the coalition's plan to transform the YPG into a border security force.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was right to conclude that Washington's unilateral actions in Syria had frustrated the Turks. However, it is important to note that Russia's support for the operation in northern Syria means that it shared Ankara's concerns.
The launch of Operation Olive Branch, which had been in the making for some time, was the result of an agreement between Turkey and Russia. In this sense, it was a byproduct of the ongoing cooperation between the two countries, which is embodied by the Astana and Sochi processes. The green light was given when the U.S. made public its intentions to create a border force.
It was well known that Russia did not wish to hand over control of the YPG to the U.S. Instead, the Russians wanted to include the group in the Astana process and the Syrian regime was negotiating with the YPG for autonomy. But Moscow changed its mind upon realizing that the Americans would potentially support the creation of an independent, YPG-controlled state.
As a matter of fact, the group's push for "extended autonomy" in the cantons was considered unacceptable in light of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) referendum. The YPG was forced to choose between handing over Afrin or having to fight Turkey. In the end, Moscow picked the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) over the American-backed YPG. It would appear that Russia considered the YPG's ambitions detrimental to the territorial integrity of Syria and believed that the FSA would be easier to incorporate into the rest of Syria.
By supporting Operation Olive Branch, Russia was able to put Turkey and the U.S. against each other regarding the YPG presence in Manbij and east of the Euphrates River. Moving forward, the Turkish people will start asking why Washington, a NATO ally, would keep its promises about Manbij whereas the Russians hand over Afrin to the FSA.
Washington's YPG policy, which has been shaped by three soldiers left behind by the Obama administration, must either change in line with Turkey's security interests or result in additional tensions. After all, Turkey's broader agenda is to remove PKK militants from Syria and Iraq.
The Turkish military and the FSA clearly learned valuable lessons from Operation Euphrates Shield. Going forward, it could be possible to isolate the YPG by winning over certain Arab tribes that are currently aligned with the group. Meanwhile, Washington seeks to mount international pressure on Turkey by stressing the limitation of the operation's scope, civilian casualties and concerns over alleged damage to the fight against Daesh. Likewise, the Western media's claims about Turkey attacking the "Kurds" (versus the YPG) and anti-war campaigns at home serve the same purpose.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's statements made it clear that Turkey wanted to conclude the operation soon but will resist efforts to cut it short, "The Afrin operation, like Operation Euphrates Shield, will end when it realizes its goals. The U.S. says that the time of the operation should not be too long. Was it clear how long you'd stay in Afghanistan? Did that time end in Iraq? We are not interested in staying there longer than necessary. Nor do we have an interest in receiving permission from anyone."
Now it's Washington's turn to decide.