Erdoğan's Afrin dilemma

If I had a dollar, or even a Turkish lira, for each time President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vowed to drive out Kurdish militants from Afrin in northwestern Syria, I would be a rich man. 

Such threats have been piling up since the onset on the Euphrates Shield operation in August 2016. But all we have seen so far is the repeated shelling of the self-proclaimed canton, which encompasses the city of Afrin and 360 villages, as well as the neighbouring town of Tel Rifaat. 

These days, the drums of war are beating ever louder. Erdoğan is saying the incursion of the Turkish Armed Forces and their Free Syrian Army allies is imminent.

Will tough talk lead to action?

Potentially, yes. Erdoğan feels he needs to do something in response to the build-up of Syrian Kurdish forces lest he looks weak, both domestically and internationally. The U.S. announcement of plans to fashion a 30,000-strong border force out of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) greatly angered the infamously short-fused Turkish leader. 

It speaks to Turkey’s marginalisation. The war in Syrian is turning into a contest between Iran and the United States. For the Pentagon as well as for other stakeholders in Washington, the Kurds are the principal counterweight to the Islamic Republic’s ambitions to take over the entirety of Syria. Turkey’s concerns are, at best, politely overlooked. In the meantime, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iran are mounting a full-blown attack on the rebel-held Idlib pocket, causing much consternation in Turkey, which is a co-guarantor to the “de-escalation zone”.

The U.S. move in Syria comes as Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is trying to seal its de facto merger with MHP aimed to smoothen Erdoğan’s victory in 2019 presidential polls. It is a bad time to appear unpatriotic, especially as Meral Akşener, the leader of the newly created Good Party, is angling for nationalist votes.  

On the positive side for Turkey, Afrin is not of direct U.S. interest. No U.S. troops are deployed in the enclave isolated from the main region controlled by the SDF and the Pentagon says Afrin is not part of its area of operations. Some common ground with Turkey could be found. Turkish Chief of General Staff General Hulusi Akar had a face-to-face meeting with his U.S. counterpart General Joseph Dunford during a NATO meeting in Brussels on Jan. 16.

Still, Erdoğan is facing a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. Staying idle is less and less an option. Acting on threats can cause problems.  

Conquering Afrin will not be possible without the blessing of Russia. For starters, its airspace is under Russian control. Euphrates Shield would not have worked without the sign-off by Putin, not to mention that the Russian air force support for Turkish and FSA troops at critical junctures, such as the arduous fight to dislodge Islamic State from the town of al-Bab in late February 2017. The operation in Afrin has to be pre-authorised by Moscow.

Second, Russia’s collaboration with the SDF is no secret. Russian military monitors have been deployed in Afrin, at least since last August. Together with the Assad troops, the Russians created a buffer zone in September separating the Kurdish enclave from the territory controlled by Turkey’s ally, the FSA. In early December, YPG commanders visited the main Russian air base near Latakia. Moscow has also been arguing for a long time for including the Kurds into the Astana talks on the future of Syria.

Erdoğan has repeatedly insisted Russia is sympathetic to his concerns. But after his call with Putin on Jan. 11, he could not say much beyond “telephone diplomacy continues”. Though, Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar and Intel Chief Hakan Fidan were in Moscow on Thursday to petition Russia’s support for the Afrin operation.

He might be right. Yet, at the end of the day, why would Moscow throw the Kurds under the bus? It already has enough on its plate – from responding to the recent attack on its Syrian air base, to avoiding getting caught in between the impending showdown between the United States and Iran, to keeping at least the semblance of peace talks on Syria going. 

Alienating the Syrian Kurds, who have cooperated with Assad on-and-off, makes little sense. Especially, given Moscow’s vision of a power sharing deal, possibly a federal arrangement, as the realistic solution to the Syrian drama. As long as its troops remain in Afrin, chances are Russia is not prepared to green light a Turkish-led incursion. Or at least, not an operation leading to the complete rout of the SDF.

What might follow therefore is some sort of limited military action allowing Turkey to flex its muscles without running too high a cost. Tel Rifaat, southeast of Afrin, could turn out to offer what Erdoğan is after. Driving out SDF from the town it took in February 2016, taking advantage of the Russian air strikes against Ahrar al-Sham, a group supported by the Turks, will not be easy. But it is doable. Russia might well look the other way, too. A victory in Syria would give a badly needed boost to Turkey and show it remains in the game. What it will not do, however, is resolve Turkey’s Kurdish problem.