A Scorecard for Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 7

Turkish soldier (Source: al-Jazeera)

Turkey’s National Security Council announced the end of Operation Euphrates Shield on March 27, an unexpected move considering the many official statements that it was to be extended to Turkey’s next target, the People’s Protection Units (YPG)-held Syrian city of Manbij (CNNTürk, March 27).

The Operation, which began in August 2016, had two main goals — clearing the Turkish border of Islamic State (IS) and preventing the merger of cantons controlled by the YPG in the same area. The latter had a further goal, which was to push YPG forces to the west of the Euphrates River and in so doing clear Manbij of the Kurdish militia.

Rapidly changing dynamics on the ground in Syria hastened the decision to bring Operation Euphrates Shield to an end. But with the operation now officially over, observers are asking to what extent it was a success for Turkey and how it changed the political landscape of the Syrian conflict.

Achievements and Challenges

The first declared goal of the operation was achieved relatively quickly considering the operation began on August 24, 2016. The Azaz-Jarabulus line was cleared of IS militants by September 5, 2016 (Sabah, September 5, 2016). Regardless of the military demands, this part of the operation, along with the more recent al-Bab stage, was politically and diplomatically easier for Turkey to conduct. Ankara had little problem securing the consent of the key actors in the field — in contrast to the planned future offensives on Manbij and Raqqa — but such acquiescence did not mean any military support from the anti-IS coalition was provided, despite Turkey’s requests.

Once Turkey achieved its primary goal, and had added a further layer of security to its Syrian border with the al-Bab offensive, Turkish officials renewed their statements of Turkey’s goals vis-a-vis YPG-controlled areas. Two key points were repeatedly mentioned: Turkey’s intention to make Manbij the next destination for Operation Euphrates Shield, and its insistence that no YPG presence west of the Euphrates River would be tolerated (Sabah, December 15, 2016; DW Türkçe, February 28).

Turkish officials repeatedly stated that the United States had made promises regarding YPG withdrawal (al-Jazeera Turk, June 7, 2016). Nevertheless, similar to Turkey’s unanswered calls for its coalition partners’ assistance with the operation, some of the assurances about YPG withdrawal highlighted the division between Turkey and its key anti-IS coalition partners.

Questions Over Manbij

Several developments have confirmed Turkey’s perception that the “YPG issue” will only grow more complicated over time. The emergence of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the backbone of which is still the YPG, is seen by Turkey as a move to disguise YPG involvement. The establishment of the SDF has given the YPG and its allies the opportunity to present the YPG as part of a broader democratic, multi-ethnic group. That sits in contrast to allegations of reported human right abuses by the YPG, its links with the PKK and accusations of ideological indoctrination in the regions it governs in northern Syria. [1]

Following the end of the al-Bab offensive, U.S. and Russian deployments in Manbij were an irritant for Turkey. That was followed by the publication of images of U.S. forces with YPG badges and Russian forces with both SDF and YPG badges, including a photo of a Russian general sporting a YPG badge at a Nowruz celebration. For their part, the YPG started to use both U.S. and Russian flags on a number of buildings and vehicles to provide them with a certain amount of protection (NTV, March 10; T24, March 23, 2017; Milliyet, March 5; CNNTurk, September 15, 2016).

A trilateral meeting in early March that brought together Turkish Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, and U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford made little headway in resolving issues on the ground.

The United States gave direct support to the SDF’s offensive on the Tabqah Dam (al-Jazeera, March 28). Meanwhile, there was a widely held belief that the Raqqa offensive would be carried out by the YPG with the direct support of the United States, something that would provide the group with both further political power portraying itself as a key anti-IS ally, as well as give the YPG control over a broader geographical area and so empower its claims for an autonomous region. In another development, there were rumors — later dismissed by Russia — about a Russian move to establish a joint military base in Afrin with the YPG (NTV, March 20).

Taken together, these issues left Turkey with little choice. It was clear that, for the time being, the YPG dimension of Operation Euphrates Shield was unattainable without a diplomatic breakthrough between the concerned parties or a dramatic political or military shift on the ground.

Successes on Balance

Overall, Operation Euphrates Shield has been at least a partial success. Turkey successfully cleared its border of IS, a move that was achieved in quite a short period of time. Al-Bab, with its important transport links and strategic importance on the broader Syrian chessboard, followed soon afterwards.

With respect to the YPG, Turkey’s goal of preventing the merger of YPG-controlled cantons in Syria, which would form a unified de facto Kurdish autonomous region with links to the PKK, was also achieved. Moreover, Turkey secured itself a seat at the negotiating table over Syria’s future, demonstrated at the Astana talks and the Iran-Russia-Turkey negotiations over the evacuation of civilians from Aleppo.

The operation succeeded in establishing a more direct link, both politically and militarily, with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), along with the provision of a limited safe zone for the group itself. However, the goals of pushing the YPG to the west of the Euphrates and carrying out an offensive on Manbij became unachievable after the YPG, in the uniform of the SDF, reinforced its position, bolstered by arms and direct military support from several key actors in the field. For the time being, the group seems to be the United States’ preferred ally in the upcoming Raqqa operation, much to Turkey’s irritation.

Nevertheless, it is clear that diplomatic and military machinations in Syria are far from over.  On one hand, Turkey-FSA links are stronger than ever, with the FSA controlling a defined geographic area. On the other, the YPG has reinforced its position with a clear intention to establish a unified geographical area under its control in northern Syria, an area it will push hard to have recognized in any new constitution for Syria.

Making the situation more complicated U.S., European and Russian attitudes toward the YPG occasionally threaten diplomatic relations with Turkey and jeopardize the future of the anti-IS coalition and talks on the future of Syria. The political puzzle in Syria is still far from being solved.




[1] Allegations of human rights abuses by YPG forces have been highlighted by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International (HRW, June 18, 2014; Amnesty, October 13, 2015). See also: Breitbart, January 20, 2016; Middle East Eye, February 19, 2015; Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2015, Daily Sabah, January 8, 2017; VOA, October 13, 2015.