“Afrin will not be easy prey for the Turks. The resistance will be stronger than Kobani,” a supporter of the Kurdish militia, People’s Protection Units (YPG), said on Sunday as Turkish armed forces expanded their operations in northern Syria.
The battle around Afrin, a Kurdish area in the north of the war-ravaged country, is the latest round of fighting in the Syrian conflict and pits the Turkish army and its Syrian rebel allies against the Kurdish forces it accuses of being terrorists. The unfolding battle also has regional and international ramifications that connect Moscow and Washington’s foreign policy in Syria.
France has called for a UN Security Council meeting on the crisis.
On Sunday, Turkish ground forces joined an air and artillery campaign targeting the YPG in Afrin. “So far, 153 targets used as shelters, hideouts and ammunition depots by the terrorist organizations PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union), PYD (Democratic Union Party), YPG and Islamic State, have been targets,” the Turkish General Staff said in a statement released to Turkish media.
Turkey accuses these Kurdish groups of running the Afrin canton in northern Syria and are viewed by it and other countries as terrorist organizations. Turkey says its campaign in Afrin is also directed against ISIS, although it is unclear where ISIS is located in Afrin and Turkey has not specified which ISIS targets it has struck.
Turkey's operation in Syria's Kurdish-controlled Afrin region has "de facto" begun with cross-border shelling. (Reuters)
Ankara has been adamant that its latest incursion into Syria is in line with “UN Security Council decisions, self-defense rights under the UN charter and respect to Syria’s territorial integrity,” the military said in a statement, reported by the Anadolu news agency.
According to Turkish sources, the objective of the operation, dubbed “Olive Branch,” is to reduce or remove the YPG presence from Afrin. This would prevent the creation of any kind of Kurdish road to the sea from the area controlled by the YPG and their allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in eastern Syria.
Turkey says that around 25% of Syria and 65% of the Syrian-Turkish border is currently controlled by the “terrorist organization.”
Turkey launched an operation called “Euphrates Shield” in August 2016 along the border from Jarabulus to Kilis to clear ISIS from the border and prevent the YPG territory in the north, which was moving west toward Afrin, from linking up with the larger YPG territory in the east.
Those opposed to the Turkish operation, particularly supporters of the YPG and Kurdish civilians in Afrin, have accused Turkey of supporting extremists among the Syrian rebel groups in northern Syria and using them to fight the Kurds in Afrin.
Gissur Simonarson, a co-founder of Conflict News, posted on Twitter that Turkey is seeking to replace Afrin’s YPG with “their jihadist lapdogs who are working on implementing sharia law in Idlib.” Kurdistan 24 reported that “Ankara sent Islamist militants carried in at least 20 buses from the Kilis province [in Turkey] into Syria.” Photos and video posted online have shown Syrian rebel groups supporting the Turkish offensive, insulting Kurds and insinuating they are fighting a “holy war” or “jihad” against the YPG.
The battles in Afrin are also stoking a conflict of ethnicity, not just between the mainly Kurdish YPG and the mostly Arab Syrian rebels, but also between the Kurds and Turkmen.
Tarik Solak, a commander in the Bayir-bucak Turkmen Region’s 2nd Coastal Armed Division, praised the offensive in comments to Turkish media and said it would help the entire Middle East. “The PYD and PKK terrorists force local Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen to migrate [from Afrin],” he said.
THE TURKISH incursion in Afrin adds a new front to the Syrian conflict. The Syrian civil war was already multisided but mostly boiled down to the regime and its allies in Iran, Hezbollah and Russia fighting Syrian opposition or rebel groups, including jihadists.
At the same time, there was ISIS fighting a war against both the regime and against the Syrian rebels. ISIS was also fighting the Kurdish YPG, and their supporters among the US-led coalition, along with the SDF who were working to liberate eastern Syria.
Yet, with the end of 2017 seeing ISIS gone from nearly all of Syria, the question was: What would come next? Turkey’s role in northern Syria has been growing since 2016 when it intervened in Jarabulus. That intervention was ostensibly aimed at ISIS, but Turkey and the US almost came to blows in March of 2017 when the US sent vehicles alongside its Kurdish and Arab allies in the SDF to warn off a potential attack by Turkey and Syrian rebels toward Manbij.
Since then, Turkey understood that the US had a redline in eastern Syria: There would be no attack on its partners. Instead, Turkey began to focus on reinforcing Syrian rebel groups in Idlib in northern Syria, encircling the Kurdish area of Afrin.
In July, it warned of an operation in Afrin, preparing the way verbally for an eventual operation, repeatedly claiming that Afrin was held by “terrorists.” Ankara sent troops into Syria several times from October to November, 2017.
SOURCES FAMILIAR with the situation in Afrin say that the current battle is about much more than just a few hills in northern Syria. It is also about much more than the estimated one million civilians in the Kurdish area.
Instead, the battle over Afrin is about Russia, Turkey and the US jockeying for leverage in Syria and the region. When the Syrian regime drew down its forces in Kurdish areas in 2012 to concentrate on fighting the Syrian rebels, the Kurdish YPG filled the vacuum. While the YPG had complicated relations with the regime, its main enemy in eastern Syria ended up being ISIS, who it fought a major battle with to defend Kobane and other Kurdish areas. Over time, the YPG and the SDF became the main allies of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS.
Russia initially had amicable relations with the YPG and its political parent, the PYD, and sought to include them in discussions about post-war Syria held in Sochi. However, Moscow hedged that relationship as a result of its warming ties with Ankara.
In 2017, Russia-Turkey ties grew closer with more than a half dozen personal meetings between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Russia is punishing the Kurds for its partnership with the US,” said an anonymous knowledgeable source. “Russia keeps asking the Kurds to hand over the Deir ez-Zor gas fields, plus Afrin, to the regime but the Kurds refused.” The SDF liberated the gas fields in September 2017 in eastern Syria. “The US will not hand over one square meter,” the source said.
This puts the Kurdish YPG in Afrin in a bind. In eastern Syria, the YPG is part of an umbrella of forces connected to the US, who is laying the groundwork for a long-term presence in eastern Syria. It is training more and more forces for “stabilization” in order to prevent the return of ISIS and both the Pentagon and the State Department are saying that the coalition is staying. But the coalition has also said its area of operations do not include Afrin, which has become an orphan of US policy.
Similarly, the Russians, which have had observers in Afrin, see leaving Afrin to Turkey as a sacrifice they are willing to make. The Syrian regime, allied to Moscow, initially said it would oppose Turkish warplanes over its territory, but Turkey said it carried out dozens of strikes with 72 fighter jets over the weekend.
Syria’s regime did not respond militarily but has condemned the operation. For the Kurds, there is a feeling they are once again abandoned and paying the price for the affairs of others. “It is a war on the US and its interests – the Kurds are paying a price for their alliance with the US. The plan by the US to build a new border force [in eastern Syria] triggered it,” says a Kurdish source familiar with the battles in Syria.
On January 16, reports emerged that the US wanted to build up a 30,000 strong local border force in eastern Syria as part of its growing presence there. After Turkey expressed opposition, the US scaled back talk of any new force. Those close to the YPG think the US will pressure Turkey to stop the offensive.
However, another source familiar with the Turkish position said that there are several factors impacting Ankara’s policy. One is the extent of the YPG influence between Afrin and the Euphrates and Turkey’s concerns about a YPG link-up.
Likewise, in Turkey, the source said that there is no real objection to this move. “I think the Turkish government doesn’t suffer from lack of support. There is a big support for the operation because of the sensitivity toward [there being] a Kurdish state,” he said.
In addition, he said, Turkey exploited the US support for the Kurds to claim a growing threat on its border. For Turkey, the growing US position in eastern Syria had to be confronted and Afrin has been the place to symbolically confront it. “This big and open support [of the US for the Kurds] cannot be hidden. I’ve witnessed the entrance of hundreds of units of military aid put on trucks for the YPG,” said the source.
Lastly, he discussed how the operation came only after the Russians withdrew from Afrin. “We knew the operation would start but we had doubts until the Russians withdrew,” he said.
TURKEY HAS hyped the offensive so much in the media that there is a feeling that Ankara must go all the way to Afrin now. “The victory will be when the Turkish troops force the YPG to withdraw from Afrin. Other than this, it will not be a victory and will cause problems for the government,” said a Syrian who supports the rebels and the Turkish operation.
The larger geopolitics, according to him, is that the operation in Afrin will bring Turkey and Russia closer. “Russia is in need of Turkish support for the political process in Sochi and if there is not Turkish support for the Syrian peace process it will not be successful,” he said.
In this narrative, Afrin is also being sacrificed by Russia and the Syrian regime to get Turkey to buy into the Sochi peace process hosted by Moscow and thus bring increased peace to northern Syria.
This also serves the agenda of Turkey and Russia who want to reduce the US role in Syria. “The US will not have any impact from now on west of the Euphrates,” says the Syrian source.
In short, the Kurds in Afrin are being left out in the cold and for the local civilians there is fear for the future. A family from the region, speaking through a relative who lives abroad, said they are facing daily artillery and missile attacks. More civilians have been killed than YPG fighters.
At the same time, there is also talk among the YPG that the battle for Afrin will be “the next Kobane” – a reference to the resistance against ISIS in the Kurdish city in eastern Syria in 2014 and 2015 that broke the Islamic State’s advance. However, with the Kurds in Afrin surrounded on three sides by Syrian rebel groups and the Turkish army, it is unclear how they can resist as they did in Kobane, where they had US air support. Kurds hope that the international community, such as France and other countries, will eventually do something to rein in the operation.