Turkish military operation in Afrin
In January 2018, the Turkish military launched a military operation, code-named by Turkey as Operation Olive Branch (Turkish: Zeytin Dalı Harekâtı), in the SDF-controlledAfrin District and the Tell Rifaat Subdistricts. The offensive is against the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party in Syria (PYD), its armed wing People's Protection Units (YPG), and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) positions surrounding the Syrian city of Afrin. Turkey also claims it is fighting ISIL, though the group does not exist in Afrin. Afrin and the surrounding area is claimed by the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria as Afrin Canton, part of its Afrin Region. It is the first major military operation by Turkey in Syria since Operation Euphrates Shield.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stated that the operation in Afrin would be followed by a push in the northern town of Manbij, which the US-backed SDF captured from ISIL in 2016. U.S. generals said they will respond "aggressively" if such a provocation is made against them. The YPG announced that it would protect the people of Afrin and respond to the Turkish army. Between 235 and 240 civilians have been reported killed and at least 16,000 civilians have been displaced since the operation started. Other war crime allegations include the mutilation of female corpses by TFSA fighters, the killing of civilians due to indiscriminate shelling by Turkish forces, the use of chemical gas by the Turkish army, and the indiscriminate shooting of refugees fleeing from the conflict area into Turkey by Turkish border guards.
Erdoğan has threatened there will be a "heavy price" for those who have protested against the military offensive. Hundreds of individuals have been detained for demonstrating against the operation. Over 800 social media users and nearly 100 politicians and journalists have been detained for criticizing the operation. Turkish authorities have also arrested numerous leaders and high-ranking members of pro-Kurdish and left-wing political parties.
In the course of the Syrian Civil War, pro-Assad government forces pulled out of Afrin in the spring of 2012. The People's Protection Units (YPG) took control of the city soon afterwards. Afrin Canton as a de facto autonomous part was declared on 29 January 2014 and the territory has virtually been spared from civil war combat, with ISIS never having attacked the city. Afrin managed to maintain some trust with both the Syrian government and its neighboring rebel groups. In February 2016, during the latter part of the Battle of Aleppo, Syrian government forces cut-off the rebel supply route to Aleppo. Subsequently, the SDF moved east out of Afrin and successfully attacked the rebels, capturing the Menagh Military Airbase and the town of Tell Rifaat. In response, Turkish forces shelled SDF positions across the border to protect the rebel-held town of Azaz. In 2017, Russian military troops stationed themselves in Afrin as part of an agreement to protect the YPG from further Turkish attacks.
Turkey had been fighting PKK and other groups in southeastern and eastern Turkey for several decades. The Kurdish–Turkish conflict is estimated to have cost 40,000 lives. The Turkish government has publicly stated that it does not recognize a difference between the Syrian YPG forces and PKK, and claims both are terrorist organizations. While the PKK has been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States, the United States' position on the YPG is that it is not a terrorist organization, a stance that has generated much conflict between the two NATO allies. Despite this, the CIA named the PYD as the "Syrian wing" of the PKK in its World Factbook on 23 January 2018. However, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) remarked that "Turkey supports anything that harms the Kurds," and stated that Turkey has consistently been allowing jihadist fighters to cross the Turkish border into Syria to fight Kurdish forces since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. On 14 February, Director of National Intelligence described YPG as the Syrian wing of PKK in its new report.
The offensive came amid growing tension between the Turkish and American governments over the latter's support of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are made up primarily of Kurdish fighters of the YPG, which Turkey considers to be a branch of the PKK. In particular, Turkey objected to announced plans by the US to train and equip a 30,000 strong SDF border force, which Turkey claimed posed a direct threat to their security. "A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a speech in Ankara. "What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it's even born."
According to media reports with reference to sources in the Syrian Kurdish leadership, shortly before the Turkish incursion, as an alternative option, Russia proposed that the Kurdish authorities in Afrin recognise the Syrian government′s control in the region; the proposal was rejected at the time.
In the days prior to the offensive, Turkey and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army exchanged artillery fire with YPG militants along the Turkish-Syrian border near Afrin. The YPG shelled the TFSA-held town of Azaz. The Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency reported that Russian military observers in the Afrin area began withdrawing on 19 January 2018 in anticipation of a Turkish offensive on YPG positions in Afrin.
On 12 February, Turkey’s Interior Ministry added former PYD co-leader Salih Muslim Muhammad to its "wanted terrorists" list along with several new names and offered money for information on his whereabouts. On 25 February, Salih Muslim was detained in Prague at Turkey's request. Turkish officials said that Muslim will appear before a court in Prague. Turkish Deputy PM Bekir Bozdağ said that Turkey is requesting Muslim's extradition. However Czech court released Muslim. Turkish Deputy PM said this was "a move in support of terror".
Composition of forces
The Independent reported that Turkey was accused of having a contingent of ex-ISIS fighters within the ranks of its military and were likely spearheading troops in Afrin. An ex-ISIS fighter stated: "Most of those who are fighting in Afrin against the YPG [People’s Protection Units] are Isis, though Turkey has trained them to change their assault tactics." Faraj, the name of the former ISIS member, added: "Turkey at the beginning of its operation tried to delude people by saying that it is fighting Isis, but actually they are training Isis members and sending them to Afrin."
Other jihadist fighters were also seen fighting alongside the Turkish-backed forces. A video clip surfaced on the Internet which showed several TFSA combatants singing praise of previous battles that they've fought including Tora Bora (former headquarters of Osama Bin Laden), Grozny, and Dagestan and then concluding: "And now Afrin is calling to us".
In late January, there were multiple reports that Western foreign fighters, including Americans, British, and Germans among others, had moved into Afrin to aid its defense against Turkish-led forces. On 12 February, 2 foreign fighters, French citizen Olivier François Jean Le Clainche and Spanish citizen Samuel Prada Leon were killed in Afrin. On 24 February, Icelandic activist Haukur Hilmarsson, who was fighting on the behalf of YPG, was killed in a Turkish airstrike in Afrin. On 9 March, 3 Turkish citizen foreign fighters belonging to MLKP were reportedly killed in Afrin.
Initial FSA-Turkish advances
The Turkish government announced the start of the offensive on 19 January 2018, with Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli stating, "The operation has actually de facto started with cross-border shelling." He added no troops had crossed into Afrin. Turkey intensified its shelling later, while People's Protection Units (YPG) claimed that 70 shells had been fired overnight. After days of shelling, Turkish fighter jets on 20 January 2018 carried out air raids on the border district targeting positions held by the PYD and YPG groups.
Turkish media reported that 20 buses carrying Turkish-backed Syrian opposition rebels had crossed into Syria through the Öncüpınar border crossing. An AFP photographer stated that 30 buses carrying Syrian fighters had also crossed through the Cilvegözü border crossing.
On 20 January, the pro-PYD Hawar News Agency reported that fighters of the Army of Revolutionaries in the Shahba Canton inflicted damage to the ranks of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army as they killed 4 SNA fighters, and wounded 5 others, in a claimed response to the recent mortar and artillery bombardments of civilian areas. YPG forces fired rockets on Turkish border towns Kilis and Reyhanli, where at least one civilian was reported killed amongst a number of wounded. Turkey announced that its airstrikes had hit 150 targets in Afrin.
The Turkish General Staff made the announcement in a statement published on its website, saying the objective of the mission is to "establish security and stability on our borders and region, to eliminate terrorists of PKK/KCK/PYD-YPG and ISIL." On 21 January 2018, Turkish state media reported that Turkish ground forces had begun to move into Afrin. and had advanced up to 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) into the territory. SOHR reported that Turkish troops had clashed with Kurdish militias on the northern and western borders of Afrin and entered the towns of Shankil and Adah Manli to the west.
By 22 January 2018, Turkish forces announced the capture of seven villages, although the YPG recaptured two. The same day, the first Turkish soldier was reported killed in the fighting. By 23 January, territorial gains of the pro-Turkish forces were still "limited". Both sides claimed to have inflicted numerous casualties on each other, including a high-ranking TFSA commander, amid the back-and-forth fighting for several strategic points at the border. Meanwhile, about 5,000 civilians had fled the Turkish advance in the contested areas, relocating into the central areas of Afrin Region.
On 27 January, in the first case of a Kurdish suicide attack against Turkish forces, female Kurdish YPJ fighter Zuluh Hemo (a.k.a. "Avesta Habur") allegedly threw a grenade down the turret of a Turkish tank, destroying the tank and killing two Turkish soldiers and herself. The speculated attack took place during fighting in the village of al-Hammam. The Turkish military denied that any Turkish soldiers had been killed or injured in the incident, and also claimed that Hemo blew herself up with a grenade in her mouth.
On 28 January, pro-Turkish forces achieved their first major victory by capturing the strategic Barsaya mountain after several previous attacks on the mountain since 22 January failed due to stiff Kurdish resistance. According to Kurdish reports, Kurdish fighters once again pushed back the Turkish-led forces from the mountain The following day, although Turkey disputed this, with Turkish commander Lt. Gen. İsmail Metin Temel, who was leading the operation, reportedly visited Barsaya.
At the start of February, some rebel factions fighting on behalf of the Turkish army reportedly withdrew from Afrin in order to fight the Syrian army.
On 6 February, a convoy from the eastern parts of SDF-controlled Northern Syria carrying YPG as well as YazidiYBŞ and YJÊ fighters passed through government-held territory and arrived in the city of Afrin after an agreement for the transfer was approved by Damascus. Their number was unclear, but estimates ranged from 500 to 5,000. There had been speculation that the agreement as well as a recent halt in Turkish airstrikes on the Afrin region was approved after the Turkish troop deployment in the Aleppo province and the downing of a Russian Su-25 by rebels in the Idlib province, located close to Turkish troops on 3 February. A commander among the pro-Syrian government forces also said that the army had deployed air defences and anti-aircraft missiles to the frontlines that are near Turkish positions and cover the airspace of the Syrian north including Afrin. However, according to Turkish sources, Russia temporarily closed Syrian airspace to Turkey to establish an electronic defence mechanism against the shoulder-launched missiles since the night of 4 February. According to the report, Turkish armed drones can still operate in Afrin.
On 9 February, the Syrian airspace was reopened for Turkish jets. On 10 February, a Turkish T129 ATAKattack helicopter crashed with both crewmembers being killed. According to Turkish president Erdoğan, the SDF, and SOHR, the helicopter was shot down. The Turkish Prime Minister also confirmed that a helicopter had been downed, while the Turkish military did not give a cause for the crash but stated an investigation was being conducted. The SDF on 17 February claimed a cross-border attack on Turkish forces and its allies in Kırıkhan. Turkish media had reported two Turkish soldiers and five Syrian rebels being wounded when a police station was hit by mortar fire in Kırıkhan.
Entry of pro-Syrian government forces
On 19 February, Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported that Syrian government had reached a deal with YPG in Afrin. Turkish FM Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu responded that they welcomed Syrian forces if they wanted to fight YPG, stating, "If so, there is no problem. However, if they are entering [Afrin] to protect YPG/PKK, nobody can stop the Turkish army". Nuri Mahmoud, a YPG spokesman, told Al-Jazeera that they had called upon pro-Syrian government forces "to preserve a united Syria" but added they hadn't arrived yet. However, a while later Nuri denied they had reached an agreement with the Syrian government.
On 20 February, Erdoğan stated that Turkey had thwarted the possible deployment of pro-Syrian government forces into the Afrin area after talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the situation in Afrin could be resolved through direct dialogue between Damascus and Ankara. On the same day, TFSA linked Bulbul area with Azaz, after controlling Deir al-Sawan village.
Later on 20 February, pro-Syrian government militias calling themselves the "Popular Forces" entered YPG-held Afrin. The Baqir Brigade, part of the Local Defence Forces (LDF) militia network, announced that it would be leading these forces. A convoy of pro-Syrian government troops entered the region to support YPG but was hit by Turkish forces who fired "warning shots". Anadolu Agency claimed they withdrew 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) from Afrin town because of the warning shots. SANA confirmed Turkish artillery involvement but didn't mention any retreat. President Erdoğan said that the militias were repelled by Turkish artillery, adding that the convoy consisted of "terrorists" who acted independently. He also stated, "Unfortunately, these kind of terror organizations take wrong steps with the decisions they take. It is not possible for us to allow this. They will pay a heavy price."
Ex-PYD co-chair Salih Muslim Muhammad meanwhile denied any political agreement with the Syrian government, stating the agreement about Afrin was purely military. The Syrian state media on 21 February announced the arrival of more pro-Syrian government forces. A commander of an alliance fighting for the Syrian government stated that pro-government militias in Afrin had retaliated after being attacked by Turkish-backed rebels during the preceding night.
By 26 February, YPG had been pushed back from most of the border with Turkey. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag during the day announced deployment of police special forces in Afrin for a new battle. Turkish government stated on 28 February that United Nation's recent Syrian ceasefire resolution didn't cover Afrin and that Turkey wasn't a part of the Syrian conflict. On the next day, SOHR reported that Turkish forces and its allies had taken complete control for the border which was also confirmed by Turkish media. They were also fighting to capture the towns of Jandairis and Rajo.
The TAF stated on 1 March that eight Turkish soldiers were killed while 13 were wounded in clashes. SOHR stated that Turkish airstrikes at the village of Jamaa killed 17 pro-government fighters overnight night. A Doğan News Agency report claimed that a Turkish helicopter evacuating wounded had to return when it was hit. 36 militiamen belonging to the NDF were killed in Turkish airstrikes two days later on a camp in Kafr Jina, according to SOHR.
On 3 March, the Turkish-led forces said they had captured Rajo, one of the major Kurdish strongholds in western Afrin. It was reported that Turkish-led forces quickly breached its defenses and captured it in an hour. However, SOHR reported that the town was still contested, although the TFSA had captured 70 percent of it. The TFSA/TSK also claimed the capturing of six villages, including two on the Jinderes district axis, as well as the Bafilyun mountain west of Azaz, making quick gains in recent days. The next day, Rajo was still under heavy Turkish bombardment as the TFSA was attempting to take full control of the town. The SDF confirmed pro-Turkish forces had entered the town and that clashes were continuing during the morning. Later in the day, the SOHR reported large parts of Rajo were captured, while the TFSA had also entered Shaykh al-Hadid. On 5 March, Rajo was confirmed by the SOHR to had been captured by the TFSA.
On 6 March, the SDF announced that it had shifted 1,700 personnel from their frontlines in the Middle Euphrates river valley in Deir ez-Zor to Afrin. Between 8 and 9 March, the Turkish army alongside the TFSA captured Jandairis and the 17 April dam, reaching the outskirts of Afrin on 10 March.. On 13 March, Turkey announced its forces were in a position to attack the center of the city, and the city was largely surrounded, with the attack on the city imminent. The next day, eight pro-government fighters were reportedly killed in Turkish air strikes on their checkpoint along a road to Afrin.
Various casualty estimates were made during the operation. The pro-Syrian opposition activist organization the SOHR documented 406 SDF and 367 TFSA fighters were killed, as well as 91 pro-Syrian government militiamen, 71 Turkish soldiers and 227 civilians. The SCWM site reported the death of 528 TFSA and 591 SDF fighters, 49 Turkish soldiers, 41 pro-Syrian government militiamen and 483 civilians.
Turkey claimed 3,524 SDF fighters were killed, wounded or captured. Pro-Turkish sources also reported the deaths of 159 TFSA fighters, 44 Turkish soldiers and 7–9 civilians in Turkey. According to the SDF, 1,588 TFSA fighters and Turkish soldiers were killed, while they themselves lost 283 fighters. The SDF also reported 230 civilians and 56 pro-Syrian government militiamen were killed.
War crime reports
According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW), Turkish border guards have been indiscriminately shooting at refugees attempting to flee the conflict zone into Turkey. The deputy Middle East director at the HRW said: "Syrians fleeing to the Turkish border seeking safety and asylum are being forced back with bullets and abuse." Several witnesses who were asylum seekers affirmed that they were beaten, suffered abuses, and were denied medical care. The official statement from the HRW calls on Turkey to "respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits rejecting asylum seekers at borders when that would expose them to the threat of persecution, torture, and threats to life and freedom. Turkey must also respect the right to life and bodily integrity, including the absolute prohibition on subjecting anyone to inhuman and degrading treatment." A senior Turkish government official denied the report on Saturday.
On 19 January 2018, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) stated that 14 people in a psychiatric hospital in Azaz, a town held by Turkish-backed rebels, had been wounded due to shelling by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in response to Turkish artillery shelling. An SDF spokesman denied the allegation.
In late January 2018, Kurdish officials accused Turkey of dropping napalm, a weapon that is prohibited in combat, during the operation. There has been no independent verification of this claim. Turkish Armed Forces denied usage of prohibited bombs.
Less than a week after the operation having began, Redur Xelil, a senior SDF official, claimed that at least 66 civilians had been killed by aerial and artillery bombardment by Turkish forces and accused Turkey of committing war crimes.
Several videos have emerged showing Turkish backed rebels mutilating the bodies of YPG fighters. One such video showed the mutilated body of a dead female YPJ fighter with her breasts cut off. The fighters that surrounded her were Turkish-backed FSA fighters who called her a "female pig" and said "shame on them for sending women to fight" while stepping on her breasts and mocking her. Rami Abdulrahman, the head of the SOHR, condemned the act and called it a "crime" and said this act "is more brutal, more ugly even than ISIS; they didn’t mutilate bodies like this, put their feet on someone’s chest." According to the pro-PKK Firat News Agency, she was a YPJ fighter named "Barin Kobanê" who fought until the end and blew herself up. The Free Syrian Army has said that it will investigate allegations that its fighters mutilated the corpse of a female member of the YPG.
Another video emerged on social media which showed Turkish soldiers stepping and kicking the corpse of a YPG fighter. More videos on social media then emerged including one such video that showed Turkish soldiers beating a Kurdish civilian while questioning him.
Syrian news media outlets and Kurdish fighters have accused Turkish forces of bombing schools. The SOHR also stated that Turkey had bombed the main water plant of the city of Afrin, which supplies water to more than 100,000 civilians. Turkey said these reports are untrue.
On 16 February, Turkey was accused by YPG forces of a chemical gas attack that wounded several people in Afrin. The SOHR then confirmed the incident and added that there were several individuals who had difficulties breathing and had dilated pupils. Also, Syrian state news agency SANA, citing a doctor in a Afrin hospital, mentioned the incident. Turkey later denied usage of chemicals, calling the accusations "baseless".
On 22 February, Turkey was accused by Syrian government news outlets of bombing humanitarian aid convoys that were on their way to Afrin. As a result, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent stated that they suspended all aid convoys to Afrin because it was unsafe for them to do so.
On the same day, video surfaced that showed Turkish backed rebels executing a civilian driving a farm tractor. This was followed by another video by the same group that showed a summary execution of six civilians including one woman near Jendires. In another bombing in the same area, Turkish air strikes killed 13 civilians including several children. The SOHR called the bombardment a "massacre".
The HRW has criticized Turkey for having "failed to take necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties" in several instances during the offensive. The report specifically cited three attacks which left 26 civilians dead of which 17 were children. Lama Fakih, the deputy Middle East director at HRW, stated: "It appears that vulnerable civilians are facing displacement and death because of the way Turkey’s latest offensive is being conducted." The HRW noted that such attacks have been conducted near farms, homes, and civilian shelters. The HRW stated that such attacks are a violation of international law: "Turkey should thoroughly investigate these strikes, make the findings public, and provide adequate redress to civilian victims or their families. It should hold to account those responsible for violations of international humanitarian law arising from the attacks."
Amnesty International reported that civilians were being killed by the Turkish army due to indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, an act that is in violation of international law. According to Amnesty, the situation "painted a grim picture" throughout numerous villages in Afrin wherein which civilians were subjected to indiscriminate shelling that lasted for hours. Amnesty also reported the shelling by the YPG of Azaz, though these actions were to a lesser extent. Lynn Maalouf of Amnesty International stated: "The use of artillery and other imprecise explosive weapons in civilian areas is prohibited by international humanitarian law and all parties should cease such attacks immediately."
On 5 March, Turkish airstrikes reportedly left 13 civilians dead. The dead included two children and three women.
Turkish-backed jihadist fighters, who have been spearheading the offensive, have released a video threatening to cut off the heads of Kurds whom they consider "infidels". The fighters stated: "by Allah, if you repent and come back to Allah, then know that you are our brothers. But if you refuse, then we see that your heads are ripe, and that it's time for us to pluck them." Rami Abdulrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that the "video is 100 per cent authentic" and added that if Afrin falls to the Turkish-backed jihadist fighters, there is a serious concern for the ethnic cleansing of Kurds in the area.
Damage to archaeological and cultural sites
On 24 January, a rocket was fired from inside Syria, hitting the 17th century Çalık Mosque in Kilis, Turkey. The explosion killed two people who had been in the mosque for prayers and injured 11. The dome of the mosque was destroyed.
On 28 January 2018, Syria’s antiquities department and the SOHR, said that Turkish shelling had seriously damaged the ancient temple of Ain Dara at Afrin. Syrian government called for international pressure on Turkey "to prevent the targeting of archaeological and cultural sites". Satellite imagery has shown that more than half of the temple is destroyed. Turkish Armed Forces denied the claim.
Turkish PM said that Turkey's economy would not be affected by the operation.
On 7 March, Moody's Investors Service downgraded Turkey’s debt, warning of an erosion of checks and balances under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and saying that the Afrin offensive, having strained ties with Washington and drawn the country deeper into the Syrian civil war, had added an extra layer of geopolitical risk.
Reactions in Turkey
Rising anti-American sentiment has also occurred since the start of the operation. A poll conducted in Turkey during the operation revealed that 90 percent of respondents believed that the United States is "behind" the PKK and YPG.
According to a poll by pro-Turkish government A&G company, 89% of Turkish citizens see PYD as a threat.
Groups in Turkey
The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), İYİ Party, Republican People's Party (CHP), Patriotic Party and Democrat Party all supported the intervention, while the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), Turkish Communist Party and the Labour Party opposed the intervention.
Less than a week after the operation began, İsmail Kahraman, the Speaker of the Grand National Assembly in Turkey and deputy of AKP, called for an open jihad in Afrin. He said: "Look, we are now in Afrin. We are a big state. Without jihad, there can be no progress, one cannot stand on their feet." When on 7 March a HDP deputy criticised the government for planning "ethnic cleansing" in Afrin, deputies of the governing AKP party physically attacked their HDP colleagues in parliament, leaving two HDP deputies injured.
The Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople said that Turkish Armenians are praying for Turkish soldiers "who are fighting against terrorists". Yetvart Danzikian, the editor-in-chief of Turkish-Armenian Agos newspaper in Turkey, asserted that it is wrong to state that the Armenians support the Patriarch. He added that there are "strong nationalists winds" in Turkey and going against the operation would lead to arrest and imprisonment. In a letter, addressed to President Erdoğan and published by Turkey's Hürriyet daily, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, has also lent his support to the Turkish military operation. Hürriyet's report is reproduced by Greek media, some of which stress, however, that the letter is not uploaded in the Ecumenical Patriarchate's official website.
The Turkish Medical Association stated that the war could end in large-scale human tragedy to which Erdoğan responded by calling the doctors of the association "filth", "agents of imperialism", and "terrorist lovers". The Turkish interior ministry then opened an investigation into the association. At least eleven doctors were then arrested. Erdoğan stated that the association will lose it "Turkish" tag in its official name and clarified that the organization "will not be able to use the notion of Turkishness, nor the name Turkey." He then added: "This institution has nothing to do with Turkishness and nothing about them is worthy of the notion of Turkishness."
Turkish mainstream newspapers featured front page titles such as "We said we would strike despite the US and Russia. We struck the traitors", "We hit them in their den", "Iron fist to terror, olive branch to civilians", and "Our jets hit Afrin. Turkey’s heart beats as one" from the Sözcü, Sabah, Habertürk, and Hürriyet newspapers respectively. İbrahim Karagül, editor-in-chief of the pro-AKP Yeni Şafak, wrote that the US is the real enemy and that it has a plan to "divide and destroy Turkey" by allying itself to PKK and ISIS. He called for the Incirlik Air Base to be shut down as "since the Syria war started, terrorist organizations are being controlled from this base." He also remarked that if it is not closed down "there will come a time when thousands of people surround and siege the İncirlik Base."
The Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT World) reported that Free Syrian Army "has captured a weapon from the YPG, which is thought to have been supplied to the SDF by the United States."
A newscaster who worked for Akit TV, a television channel that is a part of Yeni Akit, a conservative and Islamist Turkish news outlet that supports the AKP and has close ties with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, resigned after threatening to kill civilians that lived in Turkey's secular neighborhoods in response to accusations of the civilians being killed in Afrin by the Turkish army. Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International's senior adviser on Turkey, stated that there has been an "alarming" increase of similar rhetoric in Turkey. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Gardner added: "But inciting to violence is something different and it is on the rise in Turkey. This is harmful for human rights and harmful for the society."
Media restrictions in Turkey
Turkish government ministers ordered the Turkish press to follow a 15-point list of "expectations" for reporting on the conflict, which included not mentioning attacks on civilians or protests against the operation, relying on Turkish government statements and ignoring statements by "domestic arms of the PKK", which include the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), ignoring any protests against the Afrin operation, and keeping in mind "national interest" and "patriotic journalism". Journalists were admonished not to "report news that boosts the morale of the PKK/PYD". Reporters without Borders notes that the goal of these directives is to essentially "put the Turkish media at the service of the government and its war goals." On 21 January Erdoğan warned that anyone in Turkey protesting against the operation would pay a "heavy price." Erdoğan then added: "Know that wherever you go out on the streets our security forces are on your necks."
In a 1 March 2018 report titled "No one in Turkey dares report accurately on the war in Syria", The Economist assessed that "the climate of fear, the ongoing state of emergency and the nationalist zealotry unleashed by the coup have made objective coverage of the war in Afrin impossible" and pointed to arrest as "the weapon of last resort" as well as a "nuanced system of incentives and sanctions". As of 23 January 2018, at least 24 journalists writing columns against the operation had been arrested in Turkey. In addition to the arrest of journalists, hundreds of known arrests occurred of social media users who criticized the operation. The Anadolu Chief Public Prosecutor's Office said that the posts were violations of the following crimes proscribed by articles of the Turkish Penal Code, including Article 301, which prohibit insulting public officials or the president, degrading the Turkish nation, and spreading terrorist propaganda.
During a news segment on Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), a newscaster is now being investigated by TRT's news division after she stated on air that civilians died due to Turkish bombardment. The news division stated: "After this sad mistake, our speaker has immediately been withdrawn from the air, and a new friend was assigned to replace her. Also, an investigation has been launched against our speaker."
Restrictions of free expression and arrests in Turkey
After the Turkish Medical Association stated that "every clash, every war, causes physical, psychological, social and environmental health problems and causes human tragedy", they were issued arrest warrants against 11 board members of the Turkish Medical Association for spreading terrorist propaganda.
Turkish authorities have arrested numerous leaders and high-ranking members of pro-Kurdish and left-wing political parties. On 6 February 2018, Mehmet Arslan, co-leader of the Democratic Regions Party, has been arrested for criticizing the operation. Days later, more have been arrested which include Onur Hamzaoğlu, a spokesman for the Peoples' Democratic Congress (HDK), Musa Piroğlu, chairman of the Revolutionary Party, Naci Sönmez and Eylem Tunceli, Co-Chairs of the Green Left Party (YSGP), Fadime Çelebi, Deputy Chair of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed, Kezban Konukçu, spokeswoman for the Socialist Solidarity Party, and Ahmet Kaya, co-chair of the Socialist Refoundation Party (SYKP). More arrests occurred on 19 February when dozens of politicians and journalists were arrested overnight including provincial heads of several Turkish cities that belong to the HDP. Among those arrested also included members of the Human Rights Association (IHD) and leaders of the Democratic Society Congress, a pro-Kurdish NGO.
Turkey has detained over 800 people for social media posts and protesters who opposed the offensive. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the Foreign Minister of Turkey, called those who criticize the operation as being nothing but "Marxists, communists, and atheists" who are no different than the YPG. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated that those social users who make posts that criticize the operation or depict the military incursion as an attack on Kurds would be considered the "biggest villainy".
On 19 February 2018, Turkish authorities announced that all protests, meetings, rallies, and concerts held in Turkey's capital Ankara will be prohibited for the duration of the operation.
Reactions in Syria
The Syrian Foreign Ministry condemned "the Turkish aggression against the town of Afrin", calling it "an inseparable part of Syria". President of SyriaBashar al-Assad denounced the Turkish invasion as terrorism, saying "Turkey’s aggression in the Syrian city of Afrin cannot be separated from the policy pursued by the Turkish regime since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis and built on support for terrorism and various terrorist groups".
Other regional actors
- Syrian National Coalition supported the joint operation of the Syrian National Army and the Turkish Armed Forces considering it as continuation of the struggle against "the tyrannical regime and its allied Iranian terrorist organizations." The Coalition called Kurdistan Workers' Party, People's Protection Units and Democratic Union Party as terrorist organizations and urged to remove "their danger from Syria." The Syrian Coalition emphasized that "elected local councils will take on the administration of the freed towns and villages away from the authority of terrorist groups and the status quo they sought to establish."
- Syrian Turkmen Assembly: Emin Bozoğlan, ex-councilhead of the assembly stated "We were informed that the terror group PYD/PKK will transfer its arms to Raqqa, where they used to work with regime forces for years." He also said Turkey should "definitely" take necessary measures in this regard.
- Kurdish National Council: KNC condemned the Turkish military operation in Afrin. In a statement on 22 January, the KNC "categorically rejected" the SNC statement supporting the operation, stating that the SNC statement was released without consultation with the KNC. The KNC also demanded a halt to Turkish bombing and military operations in Afrin. YPG also stated that the Russia is a "partner of bloodshed" with Turkey in Afrin.
- The YPG stated that "they will respond to the Turkish provocation since civilians have been attacked". General Command of YPG in Afrin stated: "We know that, without the permission of global forces and mainly Russia, whose troops located in Afrin, Turkey cannot attack civilians using Afrin airspace. Therefore we hold Russia as responsible as Turkey and stress that Russia is the crime partner of Turkey in massacring the civilians in the region."
- Syrian population in Idlib Governorate: local population denounced the move of rebel troops to serve Turkey in its focus on Afrin while the Syrian government led an active and successful offensive against rebel groups in the region.
- Azerbaijan: Spokesman of Ministry of Foreign Affairs Hikmət Hacıyev said that Azerbaijan fully understands Turkey’s security concerns against the "terror threat". Hacıyev also said: "Azerbaijan, which suffered from terrorism, condemns all forms and manifestations of terrorism and supports the efforts of the international community in the fight against this menace."
- Bulgaria: The President of Bulgaria Rumen Radev condemned the operation and insisted that the European Union should intervene to stop it.
- Cyprus: The Republic of Cyprus condemned the Turkish invasion in Afrin as "illegal" and stressed that the Syrian crisis cannot be resolved by military means.
- Egypt: Egypt condemned Turkey's military operation in the Afrin region and stated it was a serious threat to Syria's sovereignty.
- France: Minister of Foreign AffairsJean-Yves Le Drian called for an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting hours after the Turkish incursion into Afrin. On Twitter he indicated that the meeting would also cover the situation in Ghouta and Idlib. President Emmanuel Macron stated on 31 January 2018, that if the Operation Olive Branch intends something different than securing Turkish borders against terrorists and evolves into an attempted invasion this becomes a real problem for France Macron also said, Turkey must respect Syria's sovereignty. On 7 February France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that Ankara should not worsen the Syrian conflict: "Ensuring the security of its borders does not mean killing civilians and that should be condemned. In a dangerous situation in Syria, (Turkey) should not add war to war." On 13 March, France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers in parliament that Turkey’s operation against the YPG in the Afrin region was not justified, the strongest language yet from Paris regarding its NATO ally’s intervention in Syria.
- Germany: The assistant spokesman from the Minister for Foreign Affairs said that "Turkey has legitimate security interests along its border with Syria. We hope and expect that Turkey will continue to exert political and military restraint". Breul also added that Germany believes that the focus of military activities in northern Syria should be on ISIL and its successor terrorist organizations in the region. Due to the ongoing Operation Olive Branch, Germany halted the upgrading of the Leopard 2 tanks. According to Sigmar Gabriel, the German government decided it was better not to deliver arms to conflict zones. In the German parliament on 1 February, all parties criticised the Turkish assault on Afrin. As Turkey has been reportedly used Leopard 2A4 tanks (which are German-made) in the operation, the leftist parties Die Linke and Die Grüne demanded a halt to all military cooperation with Turkey. After meeting with Turkish officials in Munich, the leader of the Green party, Cem Özdemir, who is a critic of the operation, received special police protection after being called a “terrorist” and receiving various other threats from the Turkish delegation. On 21 February, the chairman of the Bundestag foreign affairs committee. CDU's Norbert Röttgen, said that Turkey should entirely withdraw from Syria, return to a political path in its conflict with Kurds.
- Iran: A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: "Iran hopes that this operation will be ended immediately to prevent a deepening of the crisis in the border regions of Turkey and Syria. A continued crisis in Afrin may boost (..) terrorist groups in northern Syria." Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran, demanded Turkey to immediately halt its operation.
- Iraq: The Iraqi government condemned the operation. Iraqi foreign minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari stated: We reject any foreign nation from intervening in the affairs of another country."
- Netherlands: The Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Halbe Zijlstra, said that Turkey had the right to defend itself and its border, but at the same time pleaded with Turkey to show restraint. He also mentioned in his letter to the Dutch parliament that the Turkish offensive in Afrin would impact the joint fight against ISIL. He believes this to be the case, because the Kurdish YPG fights alongside the international coalition against ISIL, and are now being attacked by Turkey. Furthermore, he hopes to get more information from Turkish authorities concerning the operation, however, if this is not the case then he will ask for more clarity at the next NATO meeting.
- Qatar: Spokeswoman of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lulwah Rashif Al-Khater said that: "The launching of the Turkish military operation last Saturday was motivated by legitimate concerns related to its national security and the security of its borders, in addition to protecting Syria's territorial integrity from the danger of secession. Turkey, a NATO member, has always been a stabilizing factor in the region." She also added that Turkey's counterterrorist operation in Syria's Afrin region was motivated by legitimate security concerns.
- Russia: The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that Moscow was closely following the situation in Syria's Afrin and was concerned by the news about the Turkish military engagement in the city. The Russian Ministry of Defense said that Russia was withdrawing its troops from Syria's Afrin, the target of the Turkish offensive. Chairman of the Defense Committee of the State DumaVladimir Shamanov said: "Not to recognize the Turkish interests in Afrin is impossible." Assistant to the Secretary of the Security Council of RussiaAlexei Venediktov said: "The Kurds are being boosted with advanced weaponry. The deliveries of modern weapons and encouragement of separatist sentiments among the Kurds have in fact provoked Turkey into carrying out the military operation in Syria’s northern Afrin region."
- Sweden: The Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden Margot Wallström cancelled her visit to Turkey that was due in two weeks to protest the Afrin invasion.
- United Kingdom: Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said: "Watching developments in Afrin closely. Turkey is right to want to keep its borders secure. We share the goal of reducing violence and keeping the focus on the most important task: a political process in Syria that leads to the end of the Assad regime." On 26 January, PMTheresa May called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, both have agreed that civilians must be protected in his country's offensive against a Kurdish militia in Syria. Downing Street spokesman said: "The leaders discussed the ongoing Turkish operation in Afrin in Syria, with the Prime Minister recognising the right of Turkey to secure its border."
- United States: A spokesman for the Pentagon stated: "We encourage all parties to avoid escalation and to focus on the most important task of defeating ISIS." The spokesman then added that the United States understands Turkey's concerns about the PKK, but would like to see a deescalation of violence and instead focus on fighting ISIS. US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called on Turkey not to engage in any invasion of Syria's Afrin, reiterating a statement made by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who also assured that the US had no intention of building a Syria-Turkey border force, saying the issue, which has incensed Ankara, had been "misportrayed." A day later, Tillerson then added that the United States is "very concerned" and that the operation should remain limited in scope and should show restraint. In a phone call on 24 January 2018, President Donald Trump urged Erdoğan to "deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced persons and refugees." Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag urged the United States to halt its support for Kurdish YPG fighters, saying: "Those who support the terrorist organization will become a target in this battle." After Turkey has urged the USA to remove its troops from Manbij, saying that otherwise they might come under attack from Turkish troops; however, US General Votel confirmed an American commitment to keeping troops in Manbij. In an interview Defense Secretary James Mattis stated that Turkey is the only NATO state which has an insurgency inside its borders, and has "legitimate security concerns". He also said that Turkey warned the US, before they launched the operation against the SDF. On 12 February, the United States Department of Defense released a budget blueprint for 2019 which with respect to the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) included $300 million for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and $250 million for border security. Former US Ambassador to TurkeyJames Franklin Jeffrey said: "We totally screwed up. We are sitting with the SDF, which is a front for the YPG, which is a front for the PYD, which is a front for the PKK." February 13, 2018, former United States Ambassador to Turkey Eric S. Edelman published an article in politico.com: "Turkey Is Out of Control. Time for the U.S. to Say So. - There’s a real danger of a clash between U.S. and Turkish forces. The administration should make clear that it won’t tolerate any more bad behavior—now." Two days later, US Secretary of StateRex Tillerson went to Ankara.
- European Union: The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security PolicyFederica Mogherini said she was "extremely worried" and would seek talks with Turkish officials. She expressed her concerns for two reasons: "One side is the humanitarian one — we need to make sure that humanitarian access is guaranteed and that civilian population and people are not suffering from military activities on the ground." The second issue was the offensive "can undermine seriously the resumption of talks in Geneva, which is what we believe could really bring sustainable peace and security for Syria". On 8 February, the European Parliament condemned the mass arrest of critics in Turkey of the Afrin operation, and criticized the military intervention as raising serious humanitarian concerns. "[MEPs] are seriously concerned about the humanitarian consequences of the Turkish assault and warn against continuing with these disproportionate actions," the parliament's statement said.
- NATO: Secretary GeneralJens Stoltenberg said during a press conference in Madrid that Turkey is "the NATO Ally which has suffered most from terrorist attacks over many years and Turkey, as all of the countries, have the right to self defence, but it is important that this is done in a proportionate and measured way."
- Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe: OSCE has criticized the Turkish government over the detention of social media users for criticizing the operation.
Other political entities
- Iraqi Turkmen Front: Aydin Maruf, lawmaker of ITF said: "We are well aware that this operation targets terrorist organizations in Afrin and not local residents or our Kurdish brothers. The armed groups currently based there, in Afrin, pose a serious threat to Turkey and the wider region. Iraq's Turkmen, as always, stand with the Turkish Republic. We believe this operation will serve to restore peace, prosperity and brotherhood to the area. The PYD/PKK terrorist group's presence in the Iraqi district of Sinjar disturbs all of the region's ethnic groups. We believe therefore that it is important to launch another such operation in Sinjar."
- Kurdistan Regional Government: Kurdish Parliament condemned the Turkish military operation in Afrin, calling on the United Nations and the international community to stop the attacks.
- Kurdistan Workers' Party: PKK's women wing YJA member Ulkem Guneş, who uses Ciwal Simal as her nom de guerre, said: "Afrin resistance will open the northern revolution of Kurdistan and Turkey." She also called for uprising inside Turkey. Her speech ended with "Long Live Afrin Resistance" and "Leader Apo" slogans.
- Kosovo: Kosovan Police prohibited a pro-Kurdish "Freedom to Kurdistan" event from taking place. Official reasons by the police given were there was the organizers lacked permits and that "unnamed individuals might try to cause an incident during the event that could result in consequences". Turkish media praised that ban, claiming that the event would spread pro-terrorist propaganda. Minister of Public Administration Mahir Yağcılar condemned the planned event, calling it a "provocation" and urged people to avoid activities that would damage Kosovo's image and the country's relations with Turkey.
- Northern Cyprus: Turkish Cypriot Prime MinisterHüseyin Özgürgün said his greatest wish is the successful outcome of the Afrin operation. Foreign Minister Kudret Özersay said: "We fully stand by and are a supporter of Turkey in its fight against terrorism and in its steps that have been taken to ensure its territorial integrity."
- The office of the Turkish Cypriot newspaper, Afrika, was attacked after Erdoğan pointed out in a public speech that the newspaper wrote an article entitled the "Yet Another Invasion by Turkey", referring to what they perceived to be the operation's similarities with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Erdoğan called it a "dirty headline" and suggested that "his compatriots in Northern Cyprus" should "give the necessary response to this" which provoked a crowd of 500 protesters to surround the newspaper's offices and hurl eggs, stones, and water bottles while some carrying flags of Erdoğan. The attacks damaged furniture, windows, and equipment. The police, who were at the scene, watched the incident and did not intervene. Mustafa Akıncı, President of Northern Cyprus, condemned the attack and went to the site during the rally to request extra security for the newspaper, only to be attacked by the crowd himself. A March for Peace and Democracy was organised by civil society in response to the attack.
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