“Disgust and anger, and fear for the innocent people of Afrin is all I feel at this moment,” one Kurdish sympathizer wrote on Twitter. “The world stood by, their silence tacit complicity, as Russia, Turkey and Iran destroyed the last part of Syria wholly untouched by war. And for what?”
On Sunday the city of Afrin and most of the province around it in northwestern Syria fell to the Turkish army and the Syrian rebel groups it supports. After two months and numerous casualties on both sides, with around 150,000 civilians displaced, the lush and mountainous area is now in Ankara’s hands. It represents a major change in Syria after years of war, as Turkey presses forward its military involvement in the conflict that began seriously in 2016.
For the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the defeat in Afrin was a serious one – after two months of tough battle against Turkey’s army, which possesses the latest American weapons and works closely with NATO. The ramifications of Afrin will be felt in Moscow, Damascus and Washington, as well as eastern Syria.
For pro-Turkish and mostly-Sunni-Arab Syrian rebels, the conquest of Afrin is a major victory. In the center of the city the Syrian rebel forces celebrated, driving around a statue with their armored vehicles. “No resistance was met,” one man tweeted. “Free Syrian army, backed by Turkey army, fully liberated Afrin city center from YPG terrorists.”
For the Syrian rebels this is the first military success in years, after watching the Russian- and Iranian-backed regime in Damascus slowly destroy Syrian rebel strongholds in Aleppo and then in eastern Ghouta near Damascus. The feeling among the Syrian rebels appears to be that, even if they cannot defeat the regime, they can defeat the Kurds. Turkey says its war in Afrin was not against Kurds; for hundreds of thousands of civilians who were displaced by it, that seems like lip service.
Dozens of videos have emerged from the Afrin conflict showing the Turkish-backed rebels mocking the local people. One shows a man riding a donkey on top of a Kurdish flag; others show tractors, local produce and animals being taken from villagers.
There have been few videos of locals greeting these groups as liberators. Statements by Turkish officials indicating that a million mostly-Arab Syrian refugees could be re-settled in mostly-Kurdish Afrin certainly do not bode well for the locals.
However, Turkish media has emphasized that aid trucks from Turkey are entering Afrin to help the locals. Anadolu, a Turkish media outlet close to the government, reported on Sunday that Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundations (IHH) – the same organization that helped organize the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza in 2010 – had sent 12 trucks with humanitarian aid to Afrin.
THE BATTLE for Afrin began on January 20. Turkey had been considering an operation against the YPG in the city since 2016. It had also built a wall along the border and accused the YPG of launching attacks from Afrin. When Ankara began the operation it did so after discussions in Moscow to ensure that the Syrian regime and Russian air force would not interdict Turkish planes.
The US indicated that although it was working with the YPG in eastern Syria, Afrin was outside of Washington’s sphere of interest because the YPG is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Turkey understood it had a free hand. The US warned, however, that the campaign would be a “distraction” against the war on Islamic State. So for the first few weeks, Turkish media claimed that its campaign in Afrin was also against ISIS. After a month, that pretense quietly fell away.
The US had mixed messages for Turkey on Afrin. President Donald Trump urged Ankara to de-escalate and limit its operations in January. However, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster refrained from critique in a call to Ibrahim Kalin, an advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also didn’t critique the operation during a meeting in Turkey in February. In fact, Tillerson reportedly went further and discussed allowing for an agreement in Manbij, another area controlled by the YPG in eastern Turkey that Ankara has threatened. Unlike Afrin, Manbij has US forces stationed there.
A month into Turkey’s operation, the Syrian regime allowed pro-regime fighters to enter Afrin to support the Kurds. It’s logic was to slow down the Turkish offensive and see if it could wring concessions from the YPG in eastern Syria and Aleppo City, where the Kurdish fighters controls a small area. A month into the operation Turkey said it had “neutralized 1,873 terrorists.” In addition, several hundred civilians had been killed according to the local Kurdish Red Crescent, along with two dozen Turkish soldiers and 100 Syrian rebels.
THE UNITED STATES, EU and UN all called for a cease-fire in late February and early March, but the operation continued. Turkey pressed forward, taking the major town of Jandaris; the YPG’s defenses began to fall apart. It had invested heavily in bunkers and trenches, but after a month and a half of fighting, the YPG could no longer hold out.
By March 15 Turkey said it had “neutralized” 3,544 members of the YPG and taken control of more than 1,000 square kilometers. Dozens of villages and towns had been taken as well.
By March 18 the EU Parliament was considering a motion condemning Turkey’s role in Afrin. But Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that his country had carried out the war “with great care for civilians so that they are not harmed.” Turkish media also asserted “the operation is being carried out under the framework of Turkey’s rights based on international law; UN Security Council resolutions; its self-defense rights under the UN charter; and respect for Syria’s territorial integrity.”
In and around Afrin on Sunday, civilians were fleeing. Their belongings packed in trucks and tractors, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a total of 150,000 of them had been displaced by the fighting.
In the center of the conquered city, video showed Syrian rebel groups pulling down a statue of Kawa, a mythical figure associated with the Newroz, the Persian New Year, and who is much adored in Kurdish regions. For Kurdish observers, the destruction of the statue in Afrin represents the beginning of the erasure of Kurdish culture. On Twitter pro-Syrian rebel accounts claimed they were merely taking down the image of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed Kurdish leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party.
The battle for Afrin was mostly ignored by the international community for two months while a series of scandals rocked the West. In the US, Trump was busy firing Tillerson and was tied up in salacious disputes over allegations of an old affair with porn actress Stormy Daniels. The UK was dealing with the poisoning of a former spy while Russia was in the midst of a run-up to a presidential election. Syria’s regime was also preoccupied with its decision to use the Afrin distraction to attack eastern Ghouta, hoping the world wouldn’t notice it if there was a second conflict in the country at the same time.
The question now is what comes next, not only for Afrin but also for other Kurdish areas in Syria. The war in Afrin has undermined confidence in the US role in eastern Syria. Turkey and the rebels are also emboldened by their success. The international community has largely remained silent on Afrin because it knows that after seven years of brutal war in Syria, there is no reason to get involved now.