On January 20, Turkey launched a full-scale military operation into the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in the farthest reaches of northwest Syria. Operation “Olive Branch” included air strikes, artillery bombardment, and a cross-border land incursion from six different points. It is intended to drive independent Kurdish military forces out of the district, which protrudes like a thumb into Turkish territory. Days before the start of the operation, senior Turkish officials – Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s Chief of Staff, and Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s Head of National Intelligence – traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian Chief of Staff, Valery Gerasimov, ostensibly to ask for permission to use Syrian airspace, which Russia controls, and to allow for the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Afrin district.
Russia assumed responsibility for security in Afrin in August 2017, although Afrin was not part of the broader diplomacy that created Syria’s four “de-escalation” zones last summer. Initiated in advance of the Russia sponsored Congress for Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi (January 29-30), Turkey’s offensive against the Kurds of Afrin begins a new phase of the Syrian war. While Turkey’s incursion into Afrin may have complicated Syrian diplomacy in Sochi, ultimately it works in favor of Russia’s broader global interests and underscores the grim reality that Syria’s future continues to be shaped more by global and regional powers than by Syrians.
Afrin is governed by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party/Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat(PYD) and declared itself an autonomous canton in January 2014. Turkey views the PYD as part of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party/Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê(PKK), which the U.S. and EU have designated a terrorist organization, and which has conducted an intermittent thirty-year guerilla war against the Turkish government. Turkey sees the PYD’s military forces, the People’s Protection Units/Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units/Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (YPJ), as no different than the PKK.