By Qasem Mohebali*
About 20 days after Turkey started its military operation in Syria’s Afrin region, it seems that Ankara has so far failed to achieve its goals through this operation. During recent days, Turkey’s military advances in northern Syria have remarkably slowed down and its forces have suffered high causalities. Turkey’s goal was to achieve its goal in Afrin through a rapid operation in a matter of a couple of days.
However, existing evidence shows that Turkey is not likely to achieve its goals on the Syrian soil in coming days at the speed that it wants. Syria is a ground for complicated games of big global and regional powers. Numerous foreign parties that are present in Syria have formed complex and multilateral coalitions and every one of them not only cooperates with others, but at the same time, also competes with them.
One can say that even within the present alliances and coalitions in Syria, there is some sort of increasing willingness toward confrontation through proxies. This means that even between two allied forces in Syria, one of them may force the other one to confront the enemy in order to reduce its own costs in Syria. One can also say that when Ankara started Operation Olive Branch, it was actually deceived by the two main sides of the Syria crises, that is, the United States and the Iran-Russia axis.
On the one hand, Americans were willing to pit Turkey against Iran and Russia, while on the other hand, Iran and Russia were willing to draw a wedge in the alliance that Turkey had with the United States and European countries.
It was for this reason that neither Moscow and Tehran, nor Washington took any position against Turkey’s operation in Syria at its beginning and waited for the opposite camp to oppose Ankara first. They believed that any side that would oppose Turkey first would be undermined before Ankara.
Now, after the lapse of more than two weeks of Turkey’s operation, the country is stuck. In fact, to the opposite of Turkey’s primary thinking, Kurds have the upper hand in this war and have been able to reinforce their positions in Afrin, because the United States has turned a close eye to this development, on the one hand, while Moscow and Damascus have also done the same, on the other. At the present time, despite their claim to be friendly and close to Turkey, all involved parties except Ankara have started to bet on the Syrian Kurds. Therefore, while believing that Kurds will finally come out of this war victorious, they are trying to make the most of this conflict to their own benefit.
I have no doubt that regardless of the military outcome of this operation, due to its miscalculations and strategic mistakes, Turkey will not be the final victor of this war. Turkey may be superior to Syria’s Kurdish militia in terms of military power, but when it comes to practical results, this operation is sure to cost Ankara very dearly in the long run.
The conflict that Turkey has started will not remain limited to Syria’s borders. Even if Turkey lives up to its claim and moves toward more eastern Syrian cities, it is very likely that the ensuing conflict will spill over across the border into Turkey’s territory. Syria’s Kurds have very close relations with Kurds in Turkey. Kurds living in Turkey and Syria are very close in cultural, organizational, theoretical and religious terms.
Therefore, there is no consensus in Turkey about the operation in Afrin. When there is no coherence and consensus in a country’s foreign policy, it will certainly face problems in achieving its goals. Certain reports have been circulating during past days noting that the government of Turkey has arrested a lot of people for criticizing Operation Olive Branch. However, at the end of the day, it is very unlikely that Turkey would emerge victorious due to the path it has chosen, because the country is sure to find itself stuck in a war of attrition in Afrin region.
This is why Turkey has so far decided to avoid expanding its operation toward the east and city of Manbij after observing the difficult conditions in the battle of Afrin and after it faced the possibility of prolongation of the operation. It seems that Turkey’s miscalculation has caused the country to find itself in hot water. Regardless of the final military outcome of this operation, there is no doubt that Ankara will be political loser of Afrin operation and will finally have to pay a high price for this mistake both in medium and long terms.
At the same time, this operation will not change Turkey’s position as a two-way ally. Turkey has tried since the beginning of clashes in Syria to maintain its position as an ally of both camps, which are involved in Syria crisis, through walking the tightrope and some kind of magic, and it is sure to continue to tread the same path.
On the one hand, Turkey will have to cooperate with the United States, while on the other hand, it will be forced to get along with Iran and Russia as well. Any change in this strategy of walking the tightrope by Turkey in Syria will be another strategic mistake, which will further increase Ankara’s costs in Syria.
At the same time, a factor that catalyzed Turkey’s decision to carry out this operation was an announcement by the United States to form a 30,000-strong force mostly comprised of Kurdish militia in eastern part of Syria. If Turkey had achieved its goals in Syria rapidly, perhaps it could have changed Washington’s mind about forming the Kurdish force.
However, in reality, a major goal pursued by the United States through forming such a force was not to deal a blow to Ankara, but to contain Iran and Russia on the Syrian soil. The United States decided to form a new force in northern Syria so that, in future talks on Syria, it would have a reliable playing card at its disposal, while preventing Damascus from leaning more toward Moscow and Tehran. The US plan to establish a border defense force had nothing to do with Turkey, but Turkey felt threatened by that plan.
At the present time, Turkey’s main problem in Syria is not survival of President Bashar Assad’s government, but empowerment of Kurds in northern parts of Turkey. The United States had no plan to incite Turkey, but after feeling threatened, Turkey embarked on a direct game independently on the Syrian soil, which is expected to end up very costly for Ankara. Unlike Ankara, which has not thought its plan over, Washington has ordered formation of a new force on the Syrian soil in line with its past experience.
Just in the same way that the United States succeeded to defeat the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan and force it to withdraw from that country through arming and organizing Afghan militias, tribes and Turkey Arabs, it means to do the same in Syria. After Russia got engaged in the Syria war in 2015, former US president, Barack Obama, noted that Russia had entered a quagmire. Since that time, the United States has been trying to turn Syria’s scorched land into a deep quagmire for Russia. Of course, it is difficult to predict whether the United States will be able to achieve this goal or not, but when it comes to nature of each country’s policy, Americans’ policy in Syria is designed for a much longer period of time and is much more foresighted than that of Turkey.
* Qasem Mohebali
Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Former Director General for West Asia