BEIRUT — The Turkish attack on the Syrian border town of Afrin, controlled by Kurdish fighters, has been long anticipated — Turkish officials have been threatening to launch the offensive and preparing for it for months.
However, Ankara’s stated strategic goals for the operation codenamed Operation Olive Branch come with a great deal of bluster and little clarity.
Some Turkish officials have said the main aim is the creation of a 30-kilometer (20-mile) deep “secure zone” in Afrin, which Turkey says is essential for its security. Others say the operation aims to oust a militia of between 8,000 to 10,000 fighters affiliated with the People’s Protection Units or YPG, a Syrian Kurdish group that has controlled territory in northern Syria and a proven top U.S. ally in fighting the Islamic State group.
Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey. Founded in 2004, the group is the main defense force for the Kurdish areas in northern Syria, and has sought to expand Kurdish control and autonomy in the course of Syria’s war.
On Wednesday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey’s concern was to facilitate the return of 3.5 million Syrians who live in Turkey to their country. The shifting goals reflect Turkey’s own evolving involvement in Syria’s civil war.
Here’s a look at some of the recent remarks by Turkish officials on the goals and extent of the Afrin offensive:
TURKISH PRIME MINISTER BINALI YILDRIM said the strikes on Afrin marked the start of a campaign to “eliminate the PYD and PKK and Daesh elements in Afrin,” referring to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party respectively, and using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
THE FACTS: The Islamic State group is not known to have any presence in Afrin. Turkey has long maintained that it is in Syria to fight both the YPG and the Islamic State group, but its priority has largely been to limit Syrian Kurdish expansion and keep the powerful Kurdish militia from linking up its territory east and west of the Euphrates River. In 2016, Turkey launched a cross-border operation with Syrian opposition forces into Jarablus. That operation cleared the Turkish border and routed much of IS from the area but it also aimed to prevent the YPG from linking the Afrin and Kobani Kurdish enclaves.
In the current offensive, Turkish troops and the Syrian rebels it supports have only been targeting Kurdish fighters. A senior U.S. official says Washington is concerned that Turkey’s military offensive in Afrin could distract from the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and could be exploited by extremists to re-supply or create safe havens.
TURKISH DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER BEKIR BOZDAG has told a group of foreign journalists in Istanbul that “700 rockets attacks have taken place on the Turkish side of the border with Syria” in the past few years and that civilians have also been targeted. Other officials have said the aim is to secure Turkey’s border and guard against “terror” attacks.
THE FACTS: The YPG is not known to have claimed or actively carried out any terror attacks inside Turkey. However, the Turkish government equates the YPG with the PKK and treats them as a single organization and the PKK has indeed carried out large-scale attacks in inside Turkey. Turkey claims that the PKK is infiltrating into the country from Afrin and using it as an operating base.
TURKISH PRESIDENT ERDOGAN said on Wednesday that “this operation will continue until every last member of the terrorist organization who has been equipped over the past few years (by America) with 5,000 trucks and 2,000 aircraft full of weapons is neutralized. We see it as our obligation to cleanse all terrorist organizations.”
THE FACTS: While the U.S. has provided training, weapons and logistical support for the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces it dominates, that aid is not known to have extended west of the Euphrates to Afrin. Afrin has been a much more problematic Kurdish-controlled area for Washington, because it is a separate entity in western Syria. Turkey had said it will not accept YPG presence west of the Euphrates.
U.S. officials speaking in Ankara on Wednesday said the Syrian Kurdish fighters in Afrin are not part of the group that received help from the U.S.-led coalition in driving out IS from most of northeastern Syria. They also denied the Turkish government’s claims that the U.S. had delivered thousands of trucks of weapons to Syrian Kurdish forces, saying most of the supplies instead went to U.S. forces, and that the resources also included ammunition, food and humanitarian supplies.
The American officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
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