Turkish-backed forces in northern Syria's Azaz. Photo: Ozan Kose/AFP
Two weeks into Turkey's Olive Branch operation against the Syrian Kurdish Afrin canton, it's already clear that this operation is a lot different from Ankara's prior Euphrates Shield operation, and not to its advantage.
Euphrates Shield (launched on August 24, 2016 and officially concluded last March 29) targeted both ISIS and the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in the 60-mile swath of border territory stretching from the west bank of the Euphrates River to Azaz, situated to Afrin's east.
From the get-go it was clear Euphrates Shield was as much, arguably more, about preventing the YPG from linking Kobane to Afrin as it was about combating ISIS. However, Turkey's efforts in removing ISIS from that area enabled it to seize that strategic border region and fulfill its objective of blocking any YPG corridor to Afrin without widespread opposition, or even much criticism, from regional powers or the United States.
With Olive Branch, this isn't the case. Turkey is targeting the YPG and has voiced its intention to essentially invade that small, surrounded, and isolated canton. This constitutes the first time Turkey invaded part of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) proper. Past clashes between Turkey's Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxy fighters and the YPG, during Euphrates Shield, were in and around the Shahba region – territories outside of the three Kurdish cantons between Kobane and Afrin, which most notably include Manbij and Tel Rifaat.
This has made the operation harder for Ankara to convincingly sell. There is no ISIS presence in Afrin despite Turkey's ill-founded claims, which an Associated Press fact check evaluating Ankara's pretexts for this operation debunked.
During the aforementioned Euphrates Shield clashes, Washington, which supported both sides against ISIS, invariably urged de-escalation. Furthermore, it never opposed the operation since it supported Ankara's aim of routing ISIS from the border and shared its opposition to the YPG connecting Kobane to Afrin.
Conversely US President Donald Trump has told his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Olive Branch is "undercutting our shared goals in Syria" and warned him against coming into confrontation with US forces. Trump was clearly alluding to the fact that Turkey is once again threatening to attack Manbij, where the US established a troop presence to prevent clashes from breaking out between Kurdish and Turkish-backed forces.
The operation's clear focus on targeting the Kurds has also sparked protests in European capitals and compelled Germany to withhold upgrades for Turkey's fleet of German-made Leopard II main battle tanks. This is significant given that the upgrades were expected to include improved armour and protection. Such upgrades are vital for Turkey's armoured forces given the fact they are regularly used to fight unconventional adversaries like the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who are known to possess formidable anti-tank missiles. Aside from its Leopards the backbone of Turkey's tank fleet consists of aging American-made M60 Patton tanks, several of which were taken out of action by anti-tank weapons during Euphrates Shield.
A fortnight into Olive Branch and Turkey, which possesses vastly superior firepower (the opening salvos of Olive Branch consisted of a whopping 72 Turkish warplanes bombing Afrin) and manpower (Ankara's FSA proxies alone consist of approximately 25,000 militiamen versus approximately 8-10,000 YPG and all-female YPJ fighters), has already faced difficulty in holding onto the swathes of Afrin they've managed to capture so far. For example, it had to capture the strategically-important Mount Besraya at least twice. Shortly after capturing it the second time, on January 28, the Turkish government planned to give the press a tour of the area only to cancel it due to a YPG counterattack.
"Turkish backed force takes territory by day [and] lose territory by night," is how one Afrin resident cited by journalist Amberin Zaman summed up the situation.
ISIS' tactical withdrawal from the border-city of Jarablus on the very first day of Euphrates Shield was, on the other hand, a boon for Ankara. Only later would it face a much tougher and drawn out battle against the militants in the city of al-Bab, 30 kilometers further south of the border.
Turkey's usage of FSA proxies in Euphrates Shield left a lot to be desired. They hadn't any adequate training in disarming ISIS' improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and, in the al-Bab battle, had to be bolstered by Turkish troop reinforcements to the extent that regular Turkish troops and special forces eventually equaled the number of those militiamen on that battlefield.
Following this experience Turkey said it was establishing a new FSA with better training and weapons for its future operations in Syria. Two weeks into Olive Branch and they haven't yet demonstrated any new capabilities on the battlefield.
The Afrin-based YPG/YPJ, on the other hand, are battle-hardened and have shown fierce determination in resisting the offensive. This was demonstrated by 19-year-old YPJ fighter Avesta Khabur blowing herself up in order to prevent the advance of a Turkish tank into Afrin and the group's killing of five Turkish soldiers in a single attack on another tank on February 4.
Erdogan claims that Turkey has no designs on Syrian territory and will leave once their objectives are met in Afrin. However the Turks have already retained substantial military forces inside Syria for 18-months with no sign of leaving anytime soon.
Less than 24 hours after the launch of Euphrates Shield the then Syrian Kurdish co-leader Salih Muslim spoke of Turkey entering the Syrian "quagmire" and predicted its ultimate defeat. With Ankara now openly speaking about long-term goals in northern Syria – Erdogan says Turkey will destroy the YPG in Afrin and return it to its "rightful owners", implying that it's not authentically Kurdish, and resettle the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey in northern Syria – Olive Branch could well drag on for many more months and prove disastrous for its perpetrators.