CAIRO – 25 March 2018: Following the withdrawal of Kurdish civilians and YPG forces to the towns of Tel Rifaat, Nubul, and Zahra, the Turkish Armed Forces and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition rebels poured into Afrin city centre and raised the Turkish flag in a symbolic recognition of Turkey’s expansionist aspirations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vowed that Afrin is just the beginning of an outward-looking campaign in Syria, and has threatened to conduct military operations across six locations: Manbij, Kobani, Tel Abyad, Ras al-Ayn and Qamishli in Syria, and Sinjar in northern Iraq.
The decades-long reputation of Afrin as a PKK stronghold means that the Turkish-backed victory is symbolic. The strategically important area in northwest Syria lies close to the Turkish border, and has long been viewed by Turkey as a centre of hostility against the Turkish state; the Turkish victory in Afrin indicates that Turkey’s presence in northern Syria will be ongoing.
However, Afrin’s association with the PKK means that the battle is not yet over. Many YPG fighters blended with the civilian population during the evacuation of up to 150,000 people, while many have remained in Afrin and have vowed to fight an insurgency against the Turkish forces and their allies. Kurdish forces shaped their evacuation as necessary to prevent further loss of civilian life, however they are under intense pressure on multiple fronts, and have failed to maintain the support of the U.S. outside of the fight against ISIS.
Just south-east of Afrin, recent pro-Turkey demonstrations in A’zaz and Tel Rifaat have called for Operation Olive Branch (OOB) to be extended to Tel Rifaat, and for an Afrin-style military operation to oust Kurdish militiamen. The protests, likely coordinated with Ankara’s blessing, will help legitimise Turkey’s expected advancement, however it is unclear if this would include the capture of Menagh airbase.
The hastily conducted Operation Olive Branch has displaced nearly 100,000 people across the Afrin region according to the United Nations, however Kurdish officials believe the number of displaced peoples totals at least 200,000. The majority, upwards of 75,000 people, have fled to Tal Rifaat, which is already under intense pressure as a result of internal displacement. The UN makes note of 16 schools in Tal Rifaat that are being used to shelter displaced Syrians, interrupting education and testing the pre-existing community. The knock-on effect of military campaigns such as OOB are often ignored as casualty figures steal the headline, but the burdens of conflict are felt far and wide.
Kurdish officials said last week that more than 800 YPG fighters have been killed since the operation began, and estimated that 500 civilians were killed. The UK-based monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, puts the number of civilian fatalities at over 280, and added that more than 1,500 Kurdish fighters were killed. Figures from the Turkish side tell a slightly different story. Erdoğan said last week that 3,603 “terrorists had been neutralized.” Neutralized being an ambiguous term favoured during military campaigns, and likely also includes those who surrendered and were taken captive.
A Turkish-backed Syrian militant tows looted items in a trailer after seizing control of Afrin on March 18, 2018 - AFP
Ankara believes that rallying a number of Kurdish units to fight alongside the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces during the campaign will help to prove that OOB is not an attack on Kurdish identity, but is aimed at eliminating the "terror corridor" on the Turkish-Syrian border. With the withdrawal of YPG forces from Afrin city, it will fall under the control of Syrian opposition factions supported by Ankara, including fighters from the Kurdish arm of Ahrar al-Sham. However, the hope that these factions would present themselves as a unifying force was over before it may have been possible. With the Turkish-backed forces came opportunist looting and mistreatment of the local population, which will only help to legitimise and bolster support for the YPG forces who have vowed to stay behind and disrupt the Turkish-backed occupation of Afrin.
Turkey has bold ambitions in Syria, and Erdoğan must make a decision on what will take precedence over the coming months. Idlib remains an important bastion for the Syrian opposition, and Turkish support for the rebels there, in addition to its strategic observation posts, will help to maintain Turkish interests in the area. Following the Syrian government’s assault through eastern Ghouta and the withdrawal of opposition forces, Idlib will likely become the focus of the Syrian government and its allied forces. If Turkey forcibly opposes Assad’s drive to re-establish control over Idlib, it will face substantially greater opposition from the likes of Russia and Iran.
Turkey is working to establish a new forward position on this fault line in Idlib with pro-regime force, and on Feb. 15 the Turkish military set up the sixth observation post in the northern Syrian province. Under the “de-escalation” agreement that Turkey signed with Tehran and Moscow to reduce fighting, Turkey agreed to set up 12 observation posts in Idlib and surrounding provinces.
The deal largely collapsed in December when pro-government forces, notably under the cover of fierce Russian air power, launched a major offensive to capture territory in Idlib. If the Turkish military continues to grow in confidence, the likelihood of military conflict between foreign powers will increase.
All major powers in the conflict are aware that territory will be the principal bargaining chip in any political resolution in Syria, and Turkey will face less opposition from pro-government forces if it pushes eastward across northern Syria. However, there is a time-limit to the Syrian-government’s patience, and a Turkish-backed campaign against the Kurds will only be tolerated while the Syrian government is focused elsewhere.
"Turkish presence is so deep in Syrian territory and its control over vast swathes of the north of Syria (which may extend to other areas) has become the only thing protecting these areas from being retaken by the forces of the Syrian regime," Asaad Hanna wrote for Chatham House in January.
In the short-term, the continuation of an eastward looking military operation under an anti-Kurdish frame will pit Turkey against the U.S., and could threaten the U.S. military and diplomatic presence in the cities of Manbij and Kobani.
Russian and Iranian attempts to undermine the U.S.’s presence in the Middle East have been reinforced by Turkey, a NATO ally of the U.S., and they may continue to encourage Turkey to conduct operations in areas that would make U.S. forces vulnerable.
Yazidi people search for traces of their missing relatives at the site of a mass grave discovered by Kurdish forces in the Sinjar region, Feb 3, 2015 – AFP
An advance towards Manbij would likely be interpreted as a threat by the U.S., who has diplomatic and military representation in the territory just west of the Euphrates, in support of the YPG who controls the area. Although an attack on Manbij, and Kobane on the western side of the Euphrates, would certainly be treated as hostile by the U.S., the YPG may be interpreted as vulnerable in eastern Syria owing to its continued fighting against Turkey and its commitment to wage an insurgency in Afrin.
"We'll continue this process until we completely abolish this corridor," Erdogan said. "One night, we could suddenly enter Sinjar."
Sinjar, the north-western Iraqi town is infamous as the site of one of the Islamic State's worst atrocities, committed against the local Yazidi population; it is also an area of interest for Ankara. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu previously announced that Iraqi counterparts had agreed to conduct joint operations against PKK elements in northern Iraq, to begin after Iraq’s elections which are scheduled for May 12. Not only would this help consolidate Turkish aspirations to eradicate Kurdish militancy, it could severely disrupt U.S. and YPG supply lines through the Fishkhabour border crossing. However, regardless of Iraqi government support, Turkey must get the blessing of Iran, whose militias dominate in Iraq, before a campaign can commence.
Turkey is already underway with a sporadic campaign in northern Iraq, with Turkish jets attacking suspected Kurdish rebel camps across its border.
If U.S. forces are forced to retreat in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, and a power vacuum is created in the midst of confrontation, opportunities for an ISIS resurgence rise to the surface. As Hassan Hassan writes in the National, the conflict against Turkey in Afrin has taken the attention away from the ongoing fight against ISIS, and has stretched forces and resources thin.
“With the YPG’s refocus on Afrin, the fighting situation became even less tenable,” Hassan writes, referring to the U.S.’s reliance on air power as allied forces on the ground dwindle. “After the operational pause, local reports indicate that ISIL has seized the calm to reorganise its forces.”
Operation Olive Branch had the opportunity to seriously strain the delicate balance of power in Syria, and the capture of Afrin city affirms Turkey’s ambitions in the long term. Looking further down the road, as the conflict drags on Turkey risks directly opposing the likes of Russia and Iran. The Syrian government has confirmed its ambition to recapture the whole of the country, and if Ankara continues to support the opposition and consolidate territory in Syria, Russia will be forced to enforce Syria’s sovereignty at the request of Damascus.