The cynical Washington arithmetic that overshadowed Afrin conflict

As Kurds fled, the Arab and Turkish forces raised the Turkish flag over a local municipality building and pulled down a statue of a Kurdish mythological hero named Kawa.

Turkey's operation in Syria's Kurdish-controlled Afrin region has "de facto" begun with cross-border shelling. (Reuters)
It’s hard to know which is the most symbolic of the photos taken the day Turkish-backed Syrian rebels poured into Afrin city in northwest Turkey. As Kurds fled, the Arab and Turkish forces raised the Turkish flag over a local municipality building and pulled down a statue of a Kurdish mythological hero named Kawa.
One image, of a man brandishing a giant knife and shouting, seems more poignant. It’s hard to pin down the most important result of the two-month Afrin operation by Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies. But these are the eight major issues that overshadowed the conflict:
Power rivalry
The Kurds in Afrin and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that ran Afrin since 2012 were victims of a great power rivalry. Turkey wanted to send a message to the US that backing the YPG, which Turkey labels a terrorist group, would not go unnoticed. Since Turkey couldn’t fight the US directly in eastern Syria, it decided to focus on Afrin. Russia, which previously had amicable relations with the YPG’s political wing, the PYD, also sacrificed Afrin to foster relations with Ankara.
Russia is the Syrian regime’s main backer, but it felt that Afrin could be given to Turkey and the Syrian rebels in exchange for other concessions in the rest of Syria. Russia also wanted to undermine the YPG’s relations with the US, and it knew that allowing a major conflict in Afrin would strain YPG-US relations in eastern Syria and create tension. Iran and the Syrian regime didn’t want Turkey and its rebel allies rolling into Afrin, but it saw that it could consolidate gains elsewhere in Syria, particularly in Eastern Ghouta.
No more interventions
Kurds in Afrin thought the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and NATO would do something to restrain Turkey. In 1999, the US had prodded NATO to stop the former republic of Yugoslavia’s actions in Kosovo. Like the war in Afrin, Serbian forces accused the Kosovars of supporting terrorism and cracked down. Unlike Turkey’s war in Afrin, the Serbs were technically fighting inside what remained of Yugoslavia. After reports of killing of civilians, NATO intervened in a bombing and military campaign to stop the conflict.
In 2018, the international community shrugged its shoulders. There was no equivalent of the Rambouillet conference on Kosovo. In an opposite way, Turkey is a NATO country and NATO deputy secretary-general Rose Gottemoeller went to Turkey just after the offensive started and praised Turkey’s democracy and its need for security. No matter what the Kurds said was happening in Afrin, there was no interest among the international community to listen.
This isn’t surprising. The international community has done almost nothing to stop the Syrian regime’s seven-year war in which millions have been driven from their homes and 500,000 have been killed. The international community basically did nothing to stop persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar.
‘Complicated hellhole’
Since the Syrian war began, international media have presented the war as “too complicated” to understand, with graphics and cartoons mocking it as a war of “everyone against everyone.” Racism has also led to the stereotyping of Syria as a place not worth understanding. Since Syria is seen as too complex a conflict to understand, calls to care for Afrin or Eastern Ghouta or other places fall on deaf ears. With the exception of those who have been keenly observing the war, or are partisans of one side, it was difficult for Kurds to explain the Afrin conflict.
Cynical trade-off
The Syrian regime launched a massive offensive to destroy the Syrian rebel stronghold near Damascus at the same time Turkey launched its offensive to take Afrin. The cynical trade-off was a clear calculation. Syrian rebels, now working closely with Turkey, would be used to clear out a Kurdish canton, while the Syrian regime would remove Syrian rebels from Ghouta. It would be a kind of exchange, except the Kurds would lose out while the Syrian regime would win.
In the end, the regime got “territorial integrity” around Damascus, and Turkey and its rebel allies got “territorial integrity” along the Turkish border. Whether this agreement was quietly made in Moscow between Assad’s emissaries and those of Turkey is unclear. Turkey sent a high-level delegation to Moscow on the eve of the January 20 offensive in Afrin. It might be that something like this was discussed.
A score to settle
Since the Syrian civil war began, the Syrian rebellion has become increasingly Sunni Arab, hard-line and trending toward more extremist elements. The Kurdish areas tended to come under the control of the YPG, which is a secular and left-wing organization, and the YPG tended not to fight the Syrian regime. For the rebels, the YPG was therefore seen as “collaborating.”
In the battle for Aleppo, which ended in 2016, the YPG held a section of Aleppo and did not work with the rebels. Afrin was a kind of payback for that. The numerous cases of imams in Turkey who portrayed Afrin as a “jihad” with religious overtones was not lost on some in the rebel groups who held up swords and shouted religious slogans as they tore down a Kurdish statue on March 18 when Afrin fell.
US weakness
The US was put in an awkward position of wanting to stop Turkey, a NATO ally, from attacking its Kurdish partners in Syria. Trump phoned the Turkish president when the operation began and asked him to limit it. But Turkey had a different message. It offered an “Ottoman slap” to the Americans. It correctly understood that chaos in Washington would mean the US could not respond. It also meant the US couldn’t drum up an international response while the US was in chaos and losing allies in Europe and dealing with allegations of Russian meddling in US politics.
A different US president or US administration might have been able to do more. But the US sent inconsistent messages to Ankara. Rex Tillerson was fired as secretary of state just before Turkey took Afrin, further undermining US consistency.
America’s ‘Turkey and rebels first’ defeats ‘anti-ISIS first’ strategy
The US State Department and the CIA have been invested in an anti-Assad and pro-Turkey and Syrian rebels policy since the Syrian conflict broke out. Since 2014, they have been on the losing end of US policy, as the Pentagon ran the anti-ISIS campaign. The Pentagon put down roots in eastern Syria. Turkey’s Afrin offensive was quietly approved by those in Washington who want a “Turkey and rebels first” strategy. This was their first major policy win since 2014.
Allies vs partners
Turkey is a US NATO ally. Even if Ankara and Washington don’t always pay lip service to that, a 66-year alliance was up against a three-year US partnership with the Kurds in Syria. In the end, the US can’t easily disabuse itself of such an old relationship. Although the Afrin conflict and Turkey’s sometimes unsavory allies among the Syrian rebels seem inappropriate to the NATO alliance, the US can’t put all its eggs in one basket in eastern Syria.
For Washington, Afrin was worth the sacrifice, and it hopes it can reestablish trust in eastern Syria. After all, to whom else can the Kurds turn, other than to US partners among the Syrian Democratic Forces? They have become US clients just as the rebels are a Turkish client. That’s the cynical arithmetic of the Afrin conflict. That 150,000 people were displaced and thousands were killed and wounded is just collateral, as far as most policy-makers are concerned.