Euphrates Shield Operation: ‘Successfully completed’ or abruptly halted?

A picture of Turkish soldiers' uniforms, equipment, and vehicles near al-Bab after a tandem suicide attack carried out by the Islamic State killing 16, published by users close to IS on social media 21-22 December 2016.

By Loris Liutkevic

On 29 March 2017, the National Security Council of Turkey announced the end of its Euphrates Shield Operation in northern Syria that had begun on 24 August 2016, five weeks after the failed coup attempt that shook Turkey on 15 July.

Insincere incentives

Initial announcements related to the operation referred to a suicide bomb attack in a Kurdish neighbourhood of Gaziantep during a street wedding on 20 August that killed 54 and wounded hundreds, many of whom were women and children. President Erdogan then claimed that the massacre in Gaziantep was the reason behind the operation, initially presented as a clean-up mission targeting areas held by Islamic State (IS) along the Turkish-Syrian border.

However, the National Security Council meeting where the final decision to launch the operation was taken, ended around 18:00 local time on 20 August, four hours before the suicide attack that devastated the Kurdish community in Gaziantep. The real reason behind the operation was the capture of Manbij, the second largest city in Aleppo province liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with support from the US Army on 12 August after two months of bloody clashes with Islamic State fighters.

The Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu, had announced as early as June 2016 that Turkey would not tolerate the presence of Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) west of the Euphrates once the capture of Manbij was completed.

“It is a different matter if the YPG wants to provide logistical support [against IS] in the east of the Euphrates, but once the [Manbij] operations are over, we do not want a single one of them in the west,” Cavusoglu said during a live program aired on state-run TRT Haber on 7 June 2016, right after the city was sieged by the SDF composed mostly of the YPG.

Aversion turns into incursion

The first clashes between the Euphrates Shield and YPG units were reported on August 26, just two days after around five hundred Syrian rebels – most of whom belonged to the Sultan Murad Brigades – backed by Turkish special forces, tanks and warplanes entered Jarablus. “The YPG will be targeted until it moves east of the Euphrates River,” repeated Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on August 29 during a press conference in Ankara; “they need to move to the east side of the Euphrates River as soon as possible, as they had announced and as the US had promised.”

Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik appearing on NTV the night of the first clashes between The Euphrates Shield Forces and SDF units on August 26 summed up the real logic behind Turkey’s military incursion into Syria by saying that the Kurdish PYD, the political arm of the YPG, wanted to conjoin Kurdish-controlled cantons east of Jarablus with those further west: “We cannot let this happen,” added Isik; “Islamic State should be completely cleansed, this is an absolute must. But it’s not enough for us… The PYD and the YPG militia should not replace Islamic State there.”

“If the PYD does not retreat to the east of the Euphrates, we have the right to do everything about it,” the minister said in the same television interview, announcing the beginning of a chess game in the area between Turkey, the PYD, Russia and the US.

Euphrates Shield forces entered the border town of al-Rai on 3 September in order to establish control on the Jarablus-Azaz axis, pushing Islamic State fighters further south.  “We entered Jarablus, and then al-Rai, and now we are moving where? To Dabiq. We will declare a terror-free safe zone of 5,000 (square) kilometers,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on October 15, speaking in his hometown Rize on the Black Sea coast.

Turkey was careful not to announce the scope and target of Operation Euphrates Shield as it planned to sell-on its diplomatic goals to other actors present in the area, based on fait accomplis on the ground. Turkish jets targeted positions of the Kurdish-led SDF in three villages northeast of the city of Aleppo, which the SDF had captured from Isis, on 19 October. This led to the first major warning by Syria and Russia that they would not tolerate attempts by Turkey to extend Operation Euphrates Shield without reaching an agreement with other players in the region first.

Russian rebuke 

The 19-20 October attacks – the heaviest against the YPG since Turkey had launched its military incursion into Syria – came hours after President Tayyip Erdogan warned that Ankara could act alone in rooting out its enemies abroad. Syria’s military called strikes by Turkey an act of “blatant aggression” and said it would bring down any Turkish war planes entering Syrian air space. The Russian air force targeted Turkish backed fighters near Tel Madiq on 25 October, in coordination with a ground assault by Kurdish forces.

Syria activated its air defense system to include the area where the Euphrates Shield forces were operating on 22 October, practically closing Syrian air space to Turkish jets. The last attempt by Turkish jets to enter Syrian air space came on 28 October. Syrian and Russian authorities warned their Turkish counterparts that the jets would be shot down if they remained in Syria and the planes returned.

Just days before a major attempt by rebels in Aleppo to break the city’s siege by government forces, Turkey’s bombing of SDF units near Afrin had the result of bringing Kurdish and Russian forces into closer cooperation. Turkish jets’ activity in Syrian air space was strictly limited from then on – only bombings of Islamic State positions were to be allowed.

When a month later on 23 November, the Turkish army attacked SDF troops in Manbij and Syrian army positions around Latakia with artillery fire, Russia’s response was clear and sharp. On 24 November, the anniversary of the downing of a Russian jet that had briefly entered Turkish air space a year earlier, Turkish special forces who had already reached the outskirts of al-Bab were targeted. Three soldiers died and 11 were wounded in the attack; Russia first claimed its jets mistakenly targeted the Turkish soldiers but later denied its jets ever took part in the attack. Turkish authorities later gave contradictory explanations as to what happened in what seemed like clumsy attempts to hide the fact that their moves in Syria were bound by Russian approval.

al-Bab: stop-over becomes final destination

The fiercest battles that the Euphrates Shield forces were involved in in Syria were around al-Bab, an Islamic State stronghold. The Turkish army and the Syrian rebels started the siege of the city in November but could only enter the city on 8 February, after five major attempts that failed. The city fell to Euphrates Shield forces on 23 February after two weeks of intense fighting; the remaining Islamic State fighters escaped from sewage tunnels.

As soon as al-Bab was finally captured by Turkish backed forces, the Sultan Murad Brigades attacked the Syrian regime militias in Tadef, just south of al-Bab on 26 February. Syrian forces had advanced and obtained control in the area south of al-Bab succeeding in conjoining with areas controlled by the SDF in the east of the city. The Sultan Murad Brigades began to clash with the SDF in several towns north east of al-Bab on 1 March. The Manbij Military Council (MMC) then announced that the defence of towns located in the west of Manbij will be left to the Syrian Arab Army, after a deal was reached between the council, Russia and the Syrian army on 2 March.

Militias from the Sultan Murad Brigade in prayer after the conquest of al-Bab 23 February.

The message given to Turkey was clear: If Operation Euphrates Shield was to expand toward Manbij as Turkish authorities claimed it would, Turkey had to clash with regime forces as well. A statement by the Pentagon the same day called on Turkey and the Free Syrian Army to concentrate on the battle against the Islamic State. US Army troops were stationed in an around Manbij the same day, making it clear that all actors in the field were on the same line when it came to Turkey’s aspirations to push the SDF out of Manbij.

Diplomatic traffic towards a cul-de-sac

The Turkish Army’s Chief of Staff, General Hulusi Akar, met with his Russian and American counterparts in Antalya on 7 March in an attempt to convince the global powers to exclude the SDF from the operation to capture Raqqa, the last stronghold of the Islamic State in central Syria. The alternative proposal by the Turkish general to open a corridor around Tell Abyad for the Turkish army to descend towards Raqqa was not acceptable for anybody. Murat Yetkin, Ankara bureau chief for the daily Hurriyet reported that after General Dunford made clear that this is not a viable plan, Russian General Gerasimov half-jokingly said to General Akar that it is time for Turkey to leave Syrian territory.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan travelled to Moscow on 10 March to meet with President Putin in a last-ditch attempt to convince the Russian President to stop cooperating with the PYD but failed. Russian troops entered Afrin, the western Kurdish enclave that could have been the next target of the Euphrates Shield operation on 21 March, effectively leaving no options for another Turkish attack on Kurdish forces.

Three generals from left to right: Valery Gerasimov (Russia), Hulusi Akar (Turkey), Joseph Dunford (US).

A week later, on 29 March, the National Security Council announced that “Operation Euphrates Shield has been successfully completed.” Was the operation a success? Based on President Erdogan’s proclamation that Turkey will “clean” an area of 5,000 square kilometers, the operation failed to reach half the distance Erdogan had in mind – Turkish backed “Free Syrian Army” forces now control an area of 2,000 square kilometers in the south of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Counting the cost

There is no doubt that Turkey’s next step will be to repopulate the area it controls with Arabs and Turkmens who are not sympathetic to the PYD’s political project in northern Syria. already reported three days ago that 400 Turkmen families from Homs had been relocated in al-Bab. Gaziantep’s mayor Fatma Sahin announced on Friday that a hundred thousand Syrians living currently in Gaziantep will be relocated to al-Bab as soon as possible.

71 Turkish soldiers, most of whom were special forces lost their lives and hundreds were wounded during Operation Euphrates Shield. The initial Turkish Army participation in the operation was around 500 but this number went up to 5,000 after the siege of al-Bab started. Close to 500 members of the FSA (a big majority belonging to the Sultan Murad Brigades) also died, while more than 1,800 were wounded.

The operation failed to secure the entry of Turkey-backed troops into Manbij and the participation of Turkish troops in the Raqqa Operation instead of the SDF, two major targets that President Erdogan repeated many times.

Will Turkey make other attempts to push the SDF further east in the near future? There is no doubt that when the final push by regime forces towards Idlib starts, Turkey will try to benefit from the situation. But the battle for Idlib will probably be as long as it will be complicated and the cards in Syria may be reshuffled by then.