THO Teleconference Offers Update on Operation Olive Branch

A former U.S. ambassador to Syria and a D.C.-based expert discussed the political and military elements of Turkey’s operation in Afrin
THO Teleconference Offers Update on Operation Olive Branch
On March 20, THO hosted a teleconference on “Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’: An Update on the Political and Military Situation.”

The teleconference was moderated by THO Executive Director Yenal Kucuker and featured the following speakers:

  • H.E. Amb. (Ret.) Robert S. Ford – Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria (2011-2014)
  • Oubai Shahbandar – International Security Program Fellow at New America and Defense Analyst for TRT World
Osama Abu Zaid, a former spokesperson for the Free Syrian Army, was expected to join the teleconference but could not do so due to technical difficulties.

Regarding recent developments in Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch 

Amb. Ford started off the conversation by noting that the relationship between the U.S. and the PKK-affiliated YPG in northern Syria has greatly strained relations between the U.S. and Turkey. In addition, Amb. Ford noted that the staying power of Assad in Damascus combined with the continued Iranian presence in Syria indicate that the Syrian civil war is not yet close to a resolution. On the U.S.’ strategy in Syria, Amb. Ford stated, “If the American broader strategy is to address the Iranian challenge, they’re going to have to think carefully about how to cooperate with Turkey on the ground in Syria.”

The timing of Turkey’s operation in Afrin

Shahbandar clarified that the timing of the offensive was mostly due to a resurgence of cross-border attacks on Turkey from the YPG, in combination with the U.S. plan to arm and train YPG forces near the Turkish-Syrian border. In addition, the operation served to prevent the YPG from connecting its three cantons along the border. 

Regarding the difference between American and Turkish perspectives on the operation 

Oubai Shahbandar noted that both the U.S. media and the Turkish government had denounced the recent reports of looting by the Free Syrian Army in Afrin. Shahbandar also underlined that the U.S. government is worried that the Afrin operation will detract from the fight against ISIS elsewhere in Syria. Pointing out a potential solution, Shahbandar stated, “Joint security supervision between Turkish forces and American forces in cities taken from Daesh [another name for ISIS] could be a potential blueprint for the way forward.” Shahbandar also advised that the U.S. government should take Turkey’s plan to continue pursuing its fight against the YPG very seriously. 

What Syrians living in Turkey think about the ongoing operation

Shahbandar commented that Syrians want to return to their country and that the Turkish operation will allow refugees to return to their homes. He also noted that Turkish-controlled territory in northern Syria has not been completely destroyed during Ankara’s military operations, thus providing better opportunity for returning refugees. On the Syrian perspective of Operation Olive Branch, Shahbandar stated that “[i]t is too early to tell” and “Syrians will wait and see what happens.”

Post-Afrin, Turkey’s potential next move is toward Manbij

Amb. Ford argued that given CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph Votel’s recent comments on the U.S.’ intention to defend Manbij, Turkey should not risk extending its operations in northern Syria further east. Amb. Ford also mentioned that such an extension would make a broader regional strategy against Iran even harder. He stressed the need for increased diplomacy not only in order to persuade the YPG to move back east of the Euphrates River but also because it is still unclear which security force will control Manbij in the YPG’s place. 

The strategic importance of Manbij and American involvement with the YPG 

Amb. Ford stated that “the political significance [of Manbij] far outweighs its military importance.” He also commented that Manbij is far west of the Euphrates River, which was the previously agreed border for the YPG. The YPG’s presence west of the Euphrates angers both Russia and Turkey. 

Shahbandar underlined the importance of Manbij to the YPG given the difficulty with which they took the city from ISIS. He also pointed out that Turkey’s current desired strategy in northern Syria is to create a joint security operation with the U.S. over Manbij. However, he noted that no such joint U.S.-Turkey operation had yet been realized.  

Regarding the Trump Administration’s operations in Syria

Amb. Ford stated that “the administration has ambitious goals for Syria.” He highlighted former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s five goals for the U.S.’ approach in Syria, which are: 1) defeating ISIS; 2) reducing Iranian influence; 3) reaching a negotiated solution to the Syrian civil war; 4) removing Bashar al-Assad; and 5) ensuring that Syria is not producing weapons of mass destruction. 

Amb. Ford noted that the current U.S. strategy has hardly changed since the start of the Syrian civil war and requires reevaluation. “I doubt that [the U.S. government] has enough resources to make these things happen,” he stated. He also noted that the U.S. government has a vision but lacks the strategy to achieve it. Amb. Ford stated that “by politically supporting the PYD in eastern Syria, the U.S. is isolating itself from other players [like Turkey].” 

U.S.-Turkey cooperation to defeat ISIS 

Amb. Ford explained that Turkish forces cannot reach the areas where ISIS is still operating in Syria without transiting through YPG-controlled territory. Amb. Ford urged the U.S. to understand Turkey’s security interests, stating that “Turkey sees the YPG on its border as a bigger threat than ISIS.” Amb. Ford made it clear that the U.S. and Turkey have far different priorities in Syria. He further pointed out that the U.S. is trying to dictate what the priorities should be instead of respecting the security interests of Turkey.

Regarding Russia’s strategy in Syria

Amb. Ford stated that “Russia gave Turkey the green light” to launch Operation Olive Branch in Afrin. He then noted that Russia denounces the American presence in eastern Syria but also said that Russia sees American gains as “an acceptable price” given the success of Assad in the Syrian civil war. According to Amb. Ford, the Russian objective is to make sure that Assad is not overthrown by a populist movement backed by foreign governments. “The Afrin operation doesn’t really change that,” he said. 

Tensions between different ethnic groups in northern Syria 

According to Shahbandar, after the recent fall of Afrin to Turkish and FSA forces, “[t]he myth of the YPG’s invincibility was severely punctured.” He noted that the YPG’s connections with the Assad regime have elicited bitterness from local communities toward the militia. Shahbandar also mentioned how the ability of Turkish forces and the FSA to take Afrin with less destruction compared to the Assad regime’s assault on eastern Ghouta has improved their image locally. Shahbandar stated his belief that a securely and effectively controlled Afrin or Manbij overseen by Turkey and the FSA would significantly counter the narrative of the YPG. He also explained that the Turkish offensive is not targeting Kurds but rather the YPG militia specifically.  

Amb. Ford commented that achieving security in Afrin will be much more difficult than expected. He argued that the behavior of FSA fighters hurt their credibility, which is needed to effectively control this territory. Amb. Ford stated that “Turkey has to hold the FSA accountable” and that “[p]ublic accountability is needed to start winning back trust.”