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Operation Peace Spring

October 24, 2019

Operation Peace Spring

Background

On October 9 Turkey launched an offensive in north-eastern Syria, which it called the Operation Peace Spring (Turkish: Barış Pınarı Harekâtı) with the aim of creating a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria where Erdogan said the 3.65 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey would be resettled. Whereas the proposed resettlement zone is heavily Kurdish, Turkey’s intention to resettle Arabic-speaking refugees on the border was criticized as an attempt to force a drastic demographic change.

Erdogan also wanted to weaken the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have retained a foothold on the Turkish-Syrian border.  Prior to the outbreak of the operation, Erdogan called Trump to notify him of Turkey’s ongoing preparations for an imminent invasion of Northern Syria. Before the operation began, Trump administration gave the green light for the withdrawal of American troops, which had been positioned in Northern Syria to support the Kurds. The U.S. has about 1,000 troops in northeast Syria that have been instrumental in the fight against the ISIS terror group. The operation officially lasted until October 17, after which the US and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire agreement for a period of 5 days. An estimated 130.000 civilians were displaced due to the conflict. The ceasefire agreement entailed the withdrawal of the SDF forces from the area between the key border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras Al Ain along a stretch of 20 miles.

 

Regional Impact and International reactions

The Turkish operation caused the Kurds in Northern Syria to let go off a strategic territory along the Turkish border, pushing them to the south. Regionally, while the SDF had worked hard to gain territory, the Turkish incursion dealt serious blow to the Kurdish dreams of establishing an autonomous region called Rojava. In fact, although the Kurds had had an uneasy relation of tolerating the Assad regime, the Turkish incursion, which took place with the collaboration of Islamist groups such as Sultan Murad Division, al-Hamzat Division, Ahrar al-Sharqiya and several smaller factions , forced the Kurdish forces to hammer out a deal with Assad. According to this agreement, the Syrian government was allowed to return to northern towns like Manbij and Kobane. The deal was brokered by Russia, which has been a strong actor in the country.

Syrian military re-entry into another part of Northern Syria also gave rise to a significant reshuffling of the lines of control in the country and most likely signals the end of seven years of Kurdish autonomy in the area. In fact, Syrian military forces were reportedly starting to enter the provinces of Hasskah and Raqqa and were also consolidating their hold on the Turkish border with the tacit permission of the Kurds. The Russian position, as a force mediating between the Kurds, Turkey, and the Syrian government has been reinforced by means of this operation as Russia has now become the key player in Northern Syria when the Americans chose withdrawal.

One of the biggest concerns in the immediate aftermath of the operation has been the ISIS prisoners and the possibility of this organization’s resurgence. In fact, there are least 10,000 ISIS prisoners and more than 100,000 ISIS family members and other displaced persons in several camps across northeastern Syria. There were reports that at least 750 ISIS prisoners had fled a displacement camp in north-east Syria following the heavy Turkish bombardment.

Meanwhile, the operation also elicited harsh international reactions both to Trump administration and Erdogan. The Trump administration was rebuked even domestically by some of his fellow republicans who condemned him for abandoning the Kurds despite their commitment to fight against the ISIS. According to many commentators, it also sent a bad message to American allies that they, too, could be abandoned sometime in the future, denting the credibility of America as a reliable partner. As for Erdogan, his administration started facing arms embargo from the EU. On October 14, all EU countries agreed to stop selling arms to Turkey, but this decision did not amount to a general arms embargo. The EU also issued a press release where it condemned “…Turkeyʼs unilateral military action in North East Syria which causes unacceptable human suffering, undermines the fight against Daʼesh and threatens heavily European security”.

 

The conflict in Syria has now taken a turn in which both Russia and Iran are reaching their common goal: the strengthening of the Assad government in Syria. Meanwhile, Turkey’s relations with the European Union are likely to encounter certain stumbling blocks in the foreseeable future whereas American credibility towards its allies has suffered a considerable setback under the Trump administration.

 

Vahid Yucesoy for iStrategic