On March 18, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels occupied the Kurdish-held city of Afrin. While Turkey initially entered into the conflict in Syria for the purpose of uprooting the Islamic State, following the fall of its de facto capital, Raqqa, Turkey has shifted its attentions to the Kurds of northern Syria. The capture of Afrin not only creates a power shift in Syria, but also creates reverberations across Turkey’s domestic and foreign relations.
Bolstering Support at Home
In Turkey itself, popular support has been growing for Operation Olive Branch, the codename for the Turkish campaign in Syria. A poll found that 90% of the population supported the offensive. Even if Turkish government reporting skews this figure, the amount of support is still significant. Naturally a major source of opposition is in the Kurdish part of Turkey.
But the connection between Kurds in Turkey and Syria is one of the roots of Turkish interference. Turkey has long vilified the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist Kurdish organization that also engages in terrorist activities, and by extension it has also frequently criticized expression of Kurdish identity. The anti-Kurdish fervor amongst many in the Turkish population has made Operation Olive Branch not a foreign invasion, but a necessary campaign to protect Turkish interests and integrity at home.
The campaign has also served to bolster the strength of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan vowed to “clean” the entire border between Turkey and Syria; the capture of Afrin shows that Erdoğan’s statement is not mere puffery, but is backed with blood and steel. Erdoğan has indicated that Turkish military forces will continue campaigning, including moving against Kurdish Manbij.
Instilling Fear Abroad
The Kurds of northern Syria, and the Syrian Democratic Forces to which they belong, are on the defensive against Turkish forces. Assad’s government is likely also unnerved, given that the Turkish incursion into Syria creates another strong competitor and potential rival. After all, Erdoğan explicitly said that Assad must go only a few months ago.
But Syria is not the only Turkish neighbor to look on with apprehension. Erdoğan’s government has been particularly hawkish in recent months.
In February, Erdoğan said, “Whatever Afrin represents for us, our rights in the Aegean and Cyprus are no different from those in Afrin.” Turkey has been aggressive towards Greece in the Aegean Sea over contested islands, and has even detained two Greek soldiers. Greece has called for European Union diplomatic pressure to try and back Turkey down.
Turkey has threatened to use its navy to prevent Cyprus from offshore drilling for natural gas. In addition, Turkish insistence on maintaining troops on the island has mostly scuttled reunification talks between the Greek and Turkish halves of the island.
Further to the east, Iraq has been wary about Turkish interference in Mosul, which is part of irredentist lands that the remnants of the Ottoman Empire claimed after World War I in the Misak-ı Milli (National Pact). Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, affirmed that this area of northern Iraq (plus northern Syria) rightful belonged to Turkey. In a speech in 2016, Erdoğan cited the Misak-ı Milli when referring to Turkish interests in Mosul. Iraq understandably felt threatened.
Iran has generally been supportive of Turkish efforts against moves for Kurdish autonomy, given that it has its own Kurdish population. However, Iran, along with Russia, supports the Assad regime, which Erdoğan actively denounced. The Turkish seizure of Afrin is likely a mixed result for Turkish-Iranian relations, but at least creates some apprehension about what will happen next.
The Kurds have been the major American proxy in Syria, which has been a sour point for American-Turkish relations. Afrin brought the conflict in American foreign relations to a breaking point, and now the United States seemingly must decide between the Kurds and Turkey to be an effective player in the Syrian crisis. Either choice, however, creates its own issues as backing the Kurds would cost the United States a valuable ally and backing the Turks would cause other countries to lose faith in the United States.
All eyes look to their own defenses and regional interests while warily watching for what Turkey’s next move will be after the conquest of Afrin.