Turkey plays its latest card in the New Great Game
President Tayyip Erdogan's 'Olive Branch' operation appears to have support at home and in Moscow, but failure would spell problems
“Olive Branch” is the Orwellian-named Turkish invasion of a chunk of Syria. The operation comes as no surprise. President Tayyip Erdogan had hinted for nearly a year that a move was likely in the Syrian Kurdish canton of Afrin.
With Ankara staging a full-scale offensive into this small piece of Syrian real estate, which is roughly 40 kilometers long and 30 km wide, the endgame looks a foregone conclusion.
After all, it is defended by a minimally equipped force of no more than 10,000. Turkish soldiers should take it in record time.
Diplomatic sources confirmed to Asia Times that the Turkish offensive was directly approved by Russian generals after a visit to Moscow by Hakan Fidan, second in command at the MIT, the Turkish secret service.
For his part, Aldar Khalil, the co-chair of the Movement of a Democratic Society in Afrin, has been quite vocal about Moscow’s strategy. “Syrian Kurdish forces were given an ultimatum over the weekend,” Khalil said. “[We were told] leave your positions to the Syrian regime or face the wrath of Ankara. They chose to stay.”
This decision was taken after the Russians had asked the Kurds to make at least a gesture of appeasement towards Ankara. Washington’s plan to support, finance and weaponize the formation of a Syrian Kurd statelet in northeast Syria in the mold of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq was an absolute red line for Ankara.
Even offering Erdogan a much cherished “safe zone” was not enough to appease him – considering a US-proposed “border force” of 30,000 could always be able to stage incursions into southeastern Turkey in the near future.
Internally, Operation Olive Branch is a shrewd move for Erdogan. Turkish nationalism is at fever pitch, so public opinion is largely behind the operation. For the Turkish president, this is an electoral bonanza.
Still, conversations with analysts reveal there is no guarantee Ankara has the military competence to hold on to Afrin. The Turkish military is largely demoralized after being gutted by Erdogan during the last several years following the 2016 coup attempt, which was carried out by a faction within the armed forces.
There is also deep suspicion among the top brass that the army is being used as cannon fodder.
As long as the operation is portrayed as “the defense of the motherland,” motivation in the army will hold up. But if it derails into meddling in an intractable Arab civil war, Erdogan will start to face insurmountable problems.
If the Turkish military fails, his credibility will be in tatters. The threat is eminently plausible. Imagine if the Syrian Kurds decide to ally themselves with Damascus to confront the Turks, fearful that an Arab jihadist enclave might be revived in Afrin.
As it stands, we are facing quite a juicy paradox. We could have a secular Syrian President Bashar al-Assad watching from afar as a NATO ally of the US takes responsibility for smashing what could easily become yet another recycling assembly line of jihadists.
Remember, Erdogan is at the mercy of Russia’s goodwill, even though Moscow and Ankara are currently in total synch on the key issue, which is that Washington must be deprived of any leverage in Syria.
Things will come to a head on Monday when Russia hosts the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi. Sochi, not Geneva, is the forum where the endgame for the Syrian proxy war will be decided.
Damascus is on board. So is Tehran. Ankara may also be, as long as it reins in those “moderate rebels” it controls in Idlib province and brings them to the table in Sochi. And Moscow was happy to back Olive Branch; one day after the operation was launched, Russia announced a final list of Sochi attendants. Of course, Turkey was on it.
The bottom line is the Kremlin has Erdogan on board, but he will have to tread a fine line. Moscow is unlikely to sacrifice a prime piece of Syrian real estate, along with carefully choreographed relations with Tehran and Damascus, for Ankara to deliver a bunch of Sunni hardliners to the Sochi table.
For its part, Ankara announced that “our operations will continue until the separatist terror organization, the YPG [Yekineyen Parastina Gel] is fully cleared from the region and around 3.5 million Syrians who are now sheltered in Turkey are able to securely return to their homeland.”
From Ankara’s perspective, this implies there will be no US-backed Syrian Kurd statelet. In turn, this is bad news for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which trusted Washington’s balkanization gambit and were trained by US special forces.
If that was not bad enough, the SDF is also accusing the Russians of treason. NATO’s southern command is in disarray, with question marks hanging over the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. The US needs Ankara’s cooperation to use it.
NATO also needs Turkey for access to the Black Sea for any future operations against Russia and Crimea. What is absolutely certain is that the Sochi Three – Russia, Iran and Turkey – have all agreed that Washington should have no influence in Syria.
In this latest chapter of the New Great Game, Turkey is bang in the middle. It will now depend on Russia and Iran for energy, with Moscow building power stations and delivering an S-400 missile defense system to Ankara.
Turkish trade will also involve China’s New Silk Road, or the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Eurasia Economic Union of Iran, Russia, Central Asia and China. “Go East” – not West – will now be the mantra.