Country Risk

Turkish intervention in Syria likely to force US to choose between NATO ally, Turkey, and the YPG

22 January 2018
Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters are seen as they prepare in Azaz region for Operation Olive Branch, launched in Syria’s Afrin region, on 21 January 2018. Source: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency

Key Points

  • If, as is likely, Russia chooses to restrict Turkey’s access to the airspace over Afrin, there will be an increased risk of unintended incidents between Turkish, Russian, and Syrian government aircraft.
  • If, as claimed by Turkish President Erdoğan, the operation is eventually expanded to target Manbij, there will be an increased likelihood of the US being forced to make a choice between its NATO ally Turkey and its trusted Syrian proxy force, the SDF. It would also risk giving rise to casualties among US Special Forces working with the SDF.
  • The likely high levels of domestic public support for the operation renders it likely that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will push for an early election in mid-2018, with a view to capitalise on the boost in popularity he will probably gain as a result.


On 20 January 2018, Turkey launched a cross-border military operation, Operation Olive Branch, targeting the Kurdish-majority district of Afrin in Aleppo province, northwest Syria.

Afrin is controlled by Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎: YPG). The YPG has close ideological and organisational ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan: PKK), which has been waging a 40-year insurgency against the Turkish government inside Turkey. Turkey sees the elimination of Kurdish autonomist ambitions in northern Syria, both in Afrin and further east, between the border towns of Kobanê and Hasakah, as an extension of its campaign against the PKK. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the operation would later be expanded to include Manbij, which is also controlled by the YPG, located east of Afrin.

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