By Wyatt Hartwig
In January 2018, Turkish president Erdogan announced the beginning of Operation Olive Branch, an ironically named military operation to remove the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mainly Kurdish military group in the Syrian Civil War, from the Afrin area of northwestern Syria. At this point, Afrin has been taken by the Turkish military and Turkish supported rebels; however, the fight against the Kurds continues. Additionally, this fight is not limited to the Afrin region, as Turkey has begun advancing on the town of Manbij, nor is it limited to Syria as Turkish forces began incursions into Northern Iraq in the first week of April. According to on the ground sources, by April 3, 2018, Turkey had advanced up to 17 kilometers into Northern Iraq. This poses a significant challenge to Western policy goals in both states, as well as a risks further escalation of the fighting in the relatively peaceful regions of Syria and Iraq.
Turkey is one of the strongest Middle Eastern states in terms of population, economic size, development, wealth, military, and geostrategic importance to the West and the East. Due to their strength, they have the capacity to overpower rebel groups in Syria, as well as the Peshmerga in Iraqi Kurdistan. Internally, Turkey has separatist movements and sentiment from the Kurdish population in the South East part of the state that causes unrest in Turkey and problems for Erdogan, both politically and in regard to citizens’ security. From this internal dynamic, they have the ability to intervene and remove Kurdish influence in bordering states.
However, this has not happened without opposition. Syria, Russia, the United States, Iraq, Iran, and France have all made statements urging restraint on behalf of Turkish forces. Iran, for example, demanded that Turkey hand over Afrin to pro-Assad forces immediately on April 4, 2018. Ankara refused to comply, citing security concerns and the possibility of ‘terrorist’ elements taking control of the region if their forces left the Afrin area. In addition, on April 3, 2018, French forces began patrolling the Rojava-Turkish border, and Macron offered to assist in mediation between the Kurds and the Turks. However, Ankara yet again refused to comply and responded to the French statements with hostility, demanding that they “pick a side” between Turkey and the YPG militia. Turkey fully intends to continue operations eastward into Rojava, if one believes the rhetoric of Ankara. So far, statements and actions from the West have not encouraged a change of tact, nor have statements and actions from supposed allies of Turkey in Syria, Iran, and Russia.
Focusing on Iraq, the Turkish policy has been equally flagrant in demanding concessions and in pursuing their own operations in Iraqi Kurdistan. One example that characterizes this is Turkey’s intention to build and maintain its influence in the region through the establishment of military bases. Though certainly not large and imposing, the three newly-built outposts serve to increase Ankara’s footprint in Iraqi Kurdistan as well as prove their intent to remain and have their policy goals addressed by Iraq, Iran, and the United States—the three important actors in Northern Iraq. Turkey demanded action on Iraq’s part, to which Iraq consented, releasing a statement that said they would prevent Kurdish forces from staging attacks on Turkish forces in the region which is yet another example of the diplomatic and military capital Ankara holds in the Syria-Iraq region. Furthermore, Ankara views the two regions as connected, evident from their bombing of an Iraq-Rojava border gate on April 4, 2018 in the Sinjar region. This region also saw all Kurdish forces withdraw on April 3 and 4 toward Rojava, the same destination as many fleeing from Afrin.
The moves by Erdogan in Syria and Iraq are far from surprising, yet they are no less consequential. Depending on the responses from other regional stakeholders, this may spill over into an entirely new phase of the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars, where there are thousands of more deaths and refugees from Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava. As of April 6, 2018, Erdogan has not gathered any allies or supporters in their operations in Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite Ankara’s rhetoric, it is likely that the United States will continue to support the SDF in Rojava as evident from the continuing aid shipments to the SDF. While not pro-Assad forces, the SDF has largely not fought against Assad forces and have declared goals of a federal Syria after the War. Therefore, for the time being, it is not in Assad’s interest to allow Turkey to gain influence in Northern Syria. This is evident from reinforcements sent to Rojava by Assad’s Syria. Likewise, while stated allies of Ankara, Iran, and Russia are likely to continue to oppose operations that lead to Turkish gains as it weakens their own hand in a final settlement, should there be one. It is also not in Iraq’s interest to cooperate and continue to buckle to Ankara’s demands as they move forces into Iraqi Kurdistan.
Thus far, Ankara has acted unilaterally in Afrin, Rojava, and Iraqi Kurdistan without the materialization of serious consequences or opposition. However, this is likely to change in the coming months as the chance to infringe on American positions on the ground increases and regional stakeholders build defenses against possible Turkish assaults. Success or failure in Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan is measured in a completely incompatible method by the involved powers. Turkey may be a NATO ally, but they have failed to behave in the collective interest of the defense union, though one can hardly blame a state for pursuing its own geostrategic interests. Ankara has an opportunity to slash external support for their internal separatist movements while extending their regional influence, so they are acting on that opportunity. What is important to consider is whether the world now sees the beginning of the partition of Syria, the beginning of the next Middle Eastern war, a Turkish break from the West, or a combination of these possibilities. It is still too early to determine how the situation will be resolved, but from an American and European perspective, the current attitude and actions of Ankara are simply incompatible with Western interests. The Western powers, as well as Iran and Russia, will need to decide how stringent of line they will draw and where those lines will be.
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