The Syrian conflict has entered a new dark phase. On January 20, Turkey began an offensive against the members of the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG in the Syrian region Afrin. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan seesthem as an extension of the Kurdish PKK movement, which he regards as aterrorist organization because for decades, the PKK waged rebellion against the Turkish state. The goal of Operation Olive Branch, as the offensive is called, is to protect the Turkish border, the Turkish president has stated. So far, more than 1700 ‘terrorists’ have been killed by Turkish forces. Syria’s state has sent pro-Assad forces to Afrin to “join the resistance against the Turkish aggression”. The Syrian Kurdish militia are supported by the U.S., who consider them the most reliable and effective ally in the fight against the Islamic State.

Recently, Operation Olive Branch has drawn another party into the battle. According to the Washington Post, the pro-Assad militias arriving at Afrin to support the Syrian Kurds are backed by Iran. This makes the conflict even more complex and entangled: Turkish troops in a messy battle against pro-Assad militia with linkages to Iran, which is defending Syrian Kurds who are supported by the U.S. Especially due to the involvement of Russian troops in Syria, the conflict that first focused on fighting IS has become a concentrated geopolitical battle between major powers. Syria has become a melting pot of confronting superpowers.

Over 700 social media users and nearly 100 politicians and journalists have been arrested for criticizing the operation. Turkey’s attacks and crackdown on critics have led to international criticism and a deteriorating relationship with the U.S. and EU. Turkey’s efforts to repair relations with the U.S. and Europe, undertaken after the threat of losing investment, have been undercut by Ankara’s oppression of critics. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Ankara seems to have reduced tensions somewhat. But the relationship between the two NATO allies remains under strain, as anti-Americanism rises in Turkey and the U.S. continues to support the Kurds. Turkey is on a course to more autonomy.

The seventh year of the Syrian conflict sees Turkey extensively affected by the turmoil. While Turkey used to serve as a figurehead of democracy to the region, to the Middle East and to the North African countries of the Arab Spring, now the country has slid towards authoritarianism and conflict with the West. Kemal Kirişci, author of the recently published Turkey and the West: Fault lines in a troubled alliance (2017), signals two dramatic geopolitical consequences if Turkey continues to steer its current course. The ongoing conflict in Syria risks bringing Turkey and the U.S. into a military confrontation, which was unheard of in the 70 years the states were allies. This could result, first, in Turkey’s retreat from the trans-Atlantic alliance and its languishing commitment to the tenets of international liberal order or even a withdrawal from NATO. Second, a divided trans-Atlantic community would mean more instability for the region. For example, Russia would take this advantage to strengthen its influence in the region.

The local battles in Afrin thus risk a wider range of geopolitical consequences. It shows that the Syrian war is becoming ever more complicated and can lead to more regional instability and insecurity.

RISKS MARKED ON THE RISK RADAR AS NUMBER 1:
LARGE-SCALE MIGRATION, TENSIONS THROUGHOUT THE MIDDLE-EAST