By Bruce Mabley
The fall of Afrin on March 18th accomplishes one of the main objectives of the Turkish military operation code-named ‘Olive Branch’. Olive Branch is successor to ‘Operation Euphrates’ in 2016-7 but both of these Turkish military forays into Syria were essentially designed to contain a rising presence of US-armed Kurdish forces on the border with Syria. With Free Syrian Army (FSA) units in the lead, supported by Turkish air and land forces, Afrin, located along the Turkish-Syrian border just west of Manbij, was retaken. The Afrin bulge had been vacated by Syrian government forces early in the Syrian crisis in 2012 and was gradually populated by Kurdish YPG fighters.
In Turkey, the fall of Afrin has been met with great celebration. This type of nationalistic outpouring is exactly what Turkish President Erdogan has been waiting impatiently for. Many domestic Turkish observers and pundits have been critical of Erdogan’s Syrian strategy pointing to the financial hardship of housing so many Syrian refugees fleeing the battles. Now his Syrian gamble, which was to oppose Assad from the beginning, has appeared to pay off. A blow against the so-called Kurdish terrorists known as the YPG coincides with the 103rd anniversary of the great Turkish victory at Gallipoli over the French, British and Australians in 1915. The Turkish press, some fractious elements of which are either sitting in prison and or out of a job, have responded in kind to the immense outpouring of Turkish national ardor. Even the street on which the American Embassy is located in Ankara has been renamed Olive Branch street in honor of the ongoing military operation in Afrin and northern Syria.
With the fall of Afrin, the American dream of putting together an all Kurdish 30,000 force to repress any return of ISIL is now dead in the water. By the Turkish manouver, Ankara has also effectively crushed the Kurdish mini-state idea along the Turkish border and neutralized American-armed YPG forces in Manbij to the east. The US forces are now basically doing for free what the Turks have done in Afrin that is, managing and controlling their Kurdish allies and preventing attacks on targets inside Turkey. The Turks do not need to move east since the Americans are already doing their job for them. This fact also plays into the outpouring of Turkish nationalism, a part of which studies have shown to be based on anti-American sentiment.
Erdogan has effectively out foxed the belated American response to arm the Kurds. The fall of Afrin has struck a serious blow to the role of US forces in addition to safeguarding Turkish soil from any potential Kurdish attack. The Kurdish allies (PYD) are left holding the bag with no mini-state, no 30,000 man armed force along the Turkish border and now are required to watch the conduct of the Turkish operation. US forces cannot oppose Turkish forces even if they choose to move on to Manbij and further. The spectacle of two NATO partners duking it out in Syria would make Putin even smile. The present American mandate of arming and training the Kurds has been dealt a serious blow and gives credence to the Russian and Iranian view that America has no role in Syria. Meanwhile US forces must manage their YPG forces and prevent any attacks on Turkish soil. NATO obligations would require no less. The genius of Erdogan, given the US President Trump’s policy anarchy in Washington, is complete. The State Department is in disarray after the ugly firing of former US Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Rex Tillerson and its reaction to the fall of Afrin calling for caution smacks of a lack of leadership. The Turkish administration has vigorously criticized State’s response.
Trump’s rudderless foreign policy déconfiture has meant that Turkey is a key player in Syria. The US is not.
The loss of Afrin is a reminder for the Kurds that without a regional champion to support their cause for rights and a homeland, little can be accomplished. Poor leadership, generational and ideological cleavages and especially trusting the West has been their downfall. The West was content to have the Kurds take on ISIL and destroy it but payback may be very long in coming. When it comes to angering a NATO allay, all bets are off. Perhaps the best choice would have been to support the Kurdish youth when the Syrian crisis broke out and oppose Assad. Instead, the Kurds lacked unity and failed to support their natural FSA partners and activists.
The Turkish claim that the Kurdish ‘terrorists’ are united PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), PYD and others is simply false and is used as a pretext for Operations Euphrates and Olive Branch.
Ankara has declared that Turkish troops in Afrin are scheduled to leave once they have achieved full control by it and its FSA allies. According to Turkish PM, Turkey will hand over control to the local population. The question is whether the exodus sparked by the Turkish assault of Afrin has modified the nature and size of that same population. It indeed has and the streams of Kurdish refugees heading for Syrian government lines is proof positive. Why would the Turks hand over territory to a local population that became a PYD controlled area? This would compromise the main objective of operation Olive Branch. Resettlement by Sunni pro-rebel FSA men and their families is a distinct possibility.
Meanwhile in eastern Ghouta things are not going well for the Syrian rebels who are being pounded by Syrian state and Russian land and air forces. Some families have ‘escaped’ to government positions while pockets of resistance are being reduced. It. Was inevitable that sooner or later Bashar would need to address the rebel problem just ten miles from the capital Damascus. What will happen to those who have left eastern Ghouta remains to be seen. In the past, fears for the worse have often proved true in the case of Syrian state security agencies.
The events of March 2018 have some observers concluding that the days of easy victories may be over for Bashar and his allies. To the north, the fall of Afrin has put the Turks nearer to the front line and provided a badly needed victory for its FSA allies. Care will have to be taken by Russian and Syrian warplanes when attacking Idlib. In March, another Russian warplane was downed by rebels and its pilot, who ejected, was immediately shot rebels. Instead of diminishing, Russian casualties are growing. If the Syrian government insists on moving into Idlib, a remaining Syrian enclave, casualties will mount. There will be no mercy shown to any Russian or Syrian pilot. Increased casualties will have a direct impact on Russian public opinion, which is much more concerned by Crimea than it is regarding the Syrian intervention. Moreover, any comparison between the Russian invasion of Afghanistan iin 1979 and its intervention in Syria changes dramatically the tone of public opinion in Russia. The defeat of ISIL also eliminates a major obstacle to Russia downgrading its forces in Syria.
To the south, although they are clearing out the rebel enclave near the capital, government forces will have to take care attacking the rebel pockets to the south in Deraa as Israel has increased its military presence throughout 2017 and 2018. Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow in January 2018 was intended to warn Syria via Russia to stay well away from the Israeli border. Iranian and Iranian proxy support of Bashar al-Assad has contributed to Israel’s heightened interest.
The Turkish FSA victory at Afrin means that Syrian government forces, if they want to reduce Idlib like they did Aleppo and eastern Ghouta, will have to do it in front of the largest army in the region. Bashar should not jump to the conclusion that the Turks are now neutral given their adherence to the Astana Group and its peace efforts. The Syrian conflict has continued to boil and the Turkish armed forces are now taking a more active role. Erdogan’s preference is still a Syria minus Bashar al-Assad and his cohorts.
And what if Turkey decides to move south or west? It is improbable that it will but what if? From a longer-term perspective, who is going to rebuild the broken cities of Syria? In the absence of any visible international appetite for rebuilding Bashar’s Syria, the only reasonable option is Turkey. Its construction companies have considerable expertise gained in places like Iraq, Turkmenistan and elsewhere in the region. Turkey’s proximity to Syria is another reason for its future role. All this must be of concern to the Syrian government authorities as they begin to look beyond the conflict to postwar strategies of reconstruction. Their political crimes will continue to haunt them in this period and make Bashar’s continued presence in Damascus an unsuitable option.
In the Syrian conflict, of the three Astana process partners (Turkey, Iran and Russia), Turkey has the most cards to play as evidenced by the fall of Afrin.
*Dr. Bruce Mabley is a former Canadian diplomat having served in the Middle East, and is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau think tank in Montreal.