Afrin seized, but more effort needed in the aftermath
Turkey’s military operation in the Syrian District of Afrin has reached its intermediate target, which was the seizure of the city centre. Its ultimate target is the expulsion of the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the district and dismantling the autonomous canton, which was set up by the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, Democratic Union Party (PYD). After that, Turkey envisages setting up a local administration that will reflect the ethnic distribution of the district’s population. This last part of the mission requires tact, skill, fairness and adequate data.
On the 58th day of the operation, the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters seized several critical neighbourhoods in the city centre. Fortunately, street fighting did not take place as it was feared at the outset. Now that the Turkish army has started to establish its control of the city, massive resistance cannot be expected. In case the remnants of the YPG or local activists venture to carry out random attacks to harass either FSA fighters or the Turkish army, this will not change the military situation in the field, but may cause some additional casualties.
The Turkish army has to be praised for its professionalism and limited collateral damage. Turkey acted with determination by accepting, a priori, the risk of suffering casualties. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership played an important role in persuading Turkish public opinion to endure the casualties.
The operation cost around 50 deaths in the ranks of the Turkish army and around 250 in the Turkey-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA). The casualties on the side of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) are estimated at several thousand. If clashes were to continue in the urban part of the district, the casualties could be higher.
The YPG’s reason for avoiding an outright clash with the Turkish army is not yet known, but we may speculate that one of the following reasons or a combination of them may have prevailed:
Firstly, the PYD may have decided that there is no point in fighting a battle that seemed to be doomed at the outset.
Secondly, the United States may have suggested the YPG not engage in a confrontation with the Turkish army, because Washington may have wished to prepare the ground for an exchange of concessions with Turkey in Manbij.
Thirdly, negotiations initiated by Russia between Damascus and the PYD remained inconclusive, because the latter did not agree to hand over the administration of the district, thinking that it would be difficult to regain later the self-declared autonomy, whereas now, it may claim the autonomy if the circumstances turn in its favour. In the Syrian crisis, which is full of uncertainties, all parties prefer to keep the cards close to their chest.
Fourthly, the PYD may have wished to test first the Turkish army’s resolve; see whether it would give up after suffering casualties and consider withdrawal when it became unavoidable. By acting so, the YPG would not relinquish its claims on Afrin and continue to make its points regarding the canton’s autonomous status. Leaving Afrin to the Turkish army would not harm the PYD’s cause to the same extent, because sooner or later, Turkey has to withdraw its troops from Syria since it has already declared its support for the country’s territorial integrity.
With the progress achieved so far in Afrin, Turkey’s hand has become stronger in negotiations to be held with the United States on the expulsion of Kurdish fighters from Manbij.
For the new administrative structure that Turkey will set up in Afrin to be fair, the starting point has to be the pre-crisis data on the ethnic distribution of the district’s population. It may have been altered because of internal displacement. There is an additional difficulty: An important part of the Kurdish population in Syria was denied citizenship. If they were not counted during the census, the available data would give a distorted image of the pre-crisis ethnic breakdown of the district’s population.
Turkey will have to use all its administrative experience and diplomatic skill in tackling this sensitive issue.