Casualties Mount on Day Five of Turkey's Operation Olive Branch in North Syria
© AP Photo/ Lefteris Pitarakis
On January 19, Turkish forces began military action across their southern border with Syria in 'Operation Olive Branch'. They started by shelling Kurdish-held areas in Afrin, and soon followed with airstrikes and a ground incursion. This move came after Ankara's condemnation of the United States' intention to create a 'Border Security Force' of 30,000 men in northern Syria, formed out of Kurdish YPG/SDF fighters. This was the catalyst for the Turkish move, although it simply adds to Turkey's long-standing disapproval of the Americans' continuous supply of weapons and training to Kurdish militias, according to Turkey's former foreign minister, Yasar Yakis.

Judging by the Americans' inconsistent and uncommitted reaction to 'Olive Branch', Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's move caught the US by surprise. Having failed in the objective of toppling the Assad government by allowing proxy armies of mercenaries and jihadists to advance unchallenged, the second-best alternative for the US and allies was to play on the ambitions of the Kurds for an independent state of their own and seize a sizeable part of Syria's northeastern territory - the so-called 'Plan B' that would enable the permanent US (and perhaps Israeli) military presence in a subservient state of Kurdistan. The Border Security Force was an obvious step in this direction, and while there was nothing Syria could do about it without risking dire consequences, Turkey could.

Unable to directly confront Turkey, a key NATO ally which hosts the US nuclear airbase at Incirlik, and disinclined to give up entirely on their Kurdish pawns, American officials could only manage to send mixed, lukewarm messages:
  • On January 17, two days after Erdogan called the Border Security Force an "army of terror", which he promised to "strangle before it is born", US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to backtrack by declaring that the "entire situation has been mis-portrayed, mis-described, some people misspoke. We are not creating a Border Security Force at all." This was in spite of Colonel Thomas F. Veale's previous confirmation that the coalition was already working with the SDF and that 230 individuals had already passed training. Evidently, Tillerson was only sorry that the force had been revealed too soon.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Donald Trump

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Donald Trump
  • On the same day as Tillerson's apparent change of mind, Pentagon spokesman Adrian Rankine-Galloway dumped the thousands of YPG fighters in Afrin with this statement: "We don't consider them as part of our 'Defeat ISIS' operations, which is what we are doing there, and we do not support them. We are not involved with them at all."
  • On January 21, US Defense Secretary James Mattis recalled that Turkey is a NATO ally: "It's the only NATO country with an active insurgency inside its borders. And Turkey has legitimate security concerns... We'll sort this out."
  • Two days later Mattis changed his tone, but not drastically: "The violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area in Syria and distracts from the international effort to defeat [Daesh]."
  • Interestingly, the CIA World Factbook website's entry on terrorists groups in Syria now recognizes that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD, aka YPG) is the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). As the latter has long been classified as a terrorist group by several countries, including the US and Turkey, the CIA is admitting that the US has been allied to a terrorist group operating in Syria. The site was last updated on January 23.
CIA factbook PYD PKK
The YPG, by the way, is none other than the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet published the following on January 24:
It is beyond any doubt that the U.S. military and administration knew that the People's Protection Units (YPG)...had organic ties with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Washington officially recognizes as a terrorist group....The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the political wing of the PKK in Syria. They share the same leadership...the same budget, the same arsenal, the same chain of command from the Kandil Mountains in Iraq, and the same pool of militants. So the PYD/YPG is actually not a "PKK-affiliated" group, it is a sub-geographical unit of the same organization....

Knowing that the YPG and the PKK are effectively equal, and legally not wanting to appear to be giving arms to a terrorist organization, the U.S. military already asked the YPG to "change the brand" back in 2015.

U.S. Special Forces Commander General Raymond Thomas said during an Aspen Security Forum presentation on July 22, 2017 that he had personally proposed the name change to the YPG.

"With about a day's notice [the YPG] declared that it was now the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF]," Thomas said to laughter from the audience. "I thought it was a stroke of brilliance to put 'democracy' in there somewhere. It gave them a little bit of credibility."
As usual, terrorist groups are not terrorists as long as they are useful for imperial designs. However, with a history of kidnapping children to recruit as soldiers, drug-trafficking, killing civilians (including Kurds), ethnic cleansing of Christian and Muslim Arabs (only 40% of the population of Syria's 'Kurdistan' is Kurdish), and a peculiar radical ideological mix of Kurdish nationalism, Marxism, Leninism and feminism, the YPG/SDF can be rightly listed as a terrorist organization.

Kurdish child soldier

Kurdish child soldier
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary Jonathan Cohen visited Ankara from January 23 to January 24 to discuss 'Olive Branch' with a Turkish Foreign Affairs delegation. After the meeting, a US official told Turkish media: "We did tell them that we do intend to fulfill that commitment [of taking back heavy weapons delivered to the YPG]. But I can't give you a specific time frame."
  • On January 24, Rankine-Galloway added that if any element of the YPG said "Hey, we'll no longer fight ISIS and we are going to support our brothers in Afrin," they would no longer be considered a coalition partner. The SDF would only retain coalition support on military operations specifically focused on ISIS.
  • On that same day, President Trump spoke on the phone with Erdogan and asked Turkey to "limit its military action and avoid civilian casualties," according to a White House statement.
  • Up to this point, the US seemed to cautiously acquiesce to Turkey's military operation while asking for moderation in exchange for some vague concessions - like taking weapons away from the YPG... 'sometime'. However, Turkey is not taking half-measures. Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu demanded on January 27 that US forces withdraw from the city and region of Manbij, where 2,000 American soldiers are stationed. General Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command, replied by telling CNN that leaving Manbij is "not something we are looking into." Similarly, Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesperson for the US-led coalition, told Kurdish media: "The Coalition will continue to support our Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against ISIS. We have said this all along, and we have said this with the Kurdish elements of the SDF. We will provide them equipment as necessary to defeat Daesh." Talk about mixed messages from the US!
Note the possessive adjective "our" preceding "Syrian Democratic Forces", an organization formed by the US in Syria's far northeast just 10 days after Russia began military operations in the country in October 2015 (hence 'Plan B').

What Now?

The way US officials have handled the situation pleases neither Turks nor Kurds. Erdogan has long complained of the US alliance with Kurdish (and other) terrorists, and the situation in Manbij will only exacerbate the tension. Now the Kurds themselves are learning that they have been used by their American sponsors and might soon be entirely discarded:
"With the coalition, especially the US forces, we saw some double standards," a Kurdish military officer by the name of Khalil told RT's Ruptly agency. "What we demand from the US, in particular, is to fulfill the promises to the [US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces] - that is to protect the liberated areas, including Afrin, which, as we can see, has been fighting heroically and fiercely for seven days against Turkish occupation..."
Unless the Turks have a sudden change of heart and head back across the border, the US presence in Syria's northeast is increasingly untenable and the US military may soon find that all parties in the region are either distrustful or hostile. How realistic is it then for the US to retain their illegal bases in Syria purely by force? Politically, US credibility is very low in the eyes of all sides on the ground.

They have only themselves to thank for this situation. This is what happens when you intervene in a sovereign democratic nation under false pretenses, and those pretenses are exposed. Other nations, such as Russia and Turkey, have learned to see through the mask and to skillfully exploit US contradictions via diplomatic or military means. In the case of 'Olive Branch', Adam Garrie asks if Turkey checkmated the US. I think that, ultimately, the US checkmated itself - Turkey and Russia just helped in the process.

This does not mean that the conflict is over - the quagmire between Turkey, Syria, the Kurds and the US can deteriorate and force the involvement of other parties such as Russia or Iran. But it does mean that, whatever the US does now in Syria, plans A and B have failed, at least for the foreseeable future.

US soldiers Syria
What will those in the distant American halls of power, who make a living out of war, do now? An article published on Moon of Alabama takes note of two recent neocon op-eds that call on the Trump government to take "action" and engage in a larger war in Syria.

This strikes me as neocon wishful-thinking. It is unlikely that the US will make the mistake of a large-scale military operation simply because, historically, the US has only engaged in wars it estimates it can easily win at little or no cost - and only then if there are no proxy parties available that can be manipulated into doing the fighting for them. But Russia, Iran and the yet undefeated Syrian government stand in the way of the implementation of that scenario. And almost all Syrian factions - both for and against al-Assad - are currently meeting in Sochi, Russia, to hear out peace proposals.

Another possibility is that the fight is taken elsewhere. Writing on this issue, The Saker thinks the next stop could be Ukraine (again):
Remember how the USA ignited the Ukraine to punish the Russians for their thwarting of the planned US attack on Syria? Well, the very same Ukraine has recently passed a law abolishing the "anti-terrorist operation" in the Donbass and declaring the Donbass "occupied territory". Under Ukie law, Russia is now officially an "aggressor state". This means that the Ukronazis have now basically rejected the Minsk Agreements and are in a quasi-open state of war with Russia. The chances of a full-scale Ukronazi attack on the Donbass are now even higher then before, especially before or during the soccer World Cup in Moscow this summer (remember Saakashvili?). Having been ridiculed (again) with their Border Security Force in Syria, the US Americans will now seek a place to take revenge on the evil Russkies and this place will most likely be the Ukraine. And we can always count the Israelis to find a pretext to continue to murder Palestinians and bomb Syria. As for the Saudis, they appear to be temporarily busy fighting each other. So unless the Empire does something really crazy, the only place it can lash out with little to lose (for itself) is the eastern Ukraine. The Novorussians understand that. May God help them.
The 'reality-creators' of Washington will reignite conflicts around the globe again and again. But with every imperial adventure, the rest of the world, particularly the emerging Asian powers and their partners - Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Syria - are learning their lessons and growing in their ability to outsmart the arrogant empire.