Turkey consolidating in Afrin

Since its incursion into Afrin began in January, Turkey has made significant progress in turning the military landscape in Syria in its favour. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has signalled that further operations are to come in Syria, and perhaps in Iraq, too. These next operations would present new challenges, particularly politically, an area where Turkey has not made quite as much progress.

Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch began on Jan. 20, with roughly 5,000 Turkish soldiers and 10,000 Syrian Arab fighters using the Free Syrian Army (FSA) brand involved. The intention was to clear the Afrin canton of north-west Aleppo that borders Turkey of what Erdogan called “terrorists” – the majority-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The PYD and YPG are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally-designated terrorist group that has run an insurgency against Turkey for more than thirty years.

The Turkish-led forces captured Afrin city on Mar. 18. The casualties are subject to much propaganda on all sides. Something over fifty Turkish soldiers were killed and at least 300 FSA fighters. The claim by the Turkish government to have killed over 3,000 YPG militiamen in Afrin seemed exaggerated. The civilian casualties were unclear, though the YPG claim – which made its way into Western press coverage – of 500 killed civilians is implausibly high. Estimates of 200 civilian casualties from the Olive Branch operation are likely closer to the truth.

Commentary in the Turkish press noted – not unreasonably – that Afrin had been swept of terrorists without the destruction visited on Mosul and Raqqa by the American-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS), let alone the unmerciful devastation in Aleppo as the Bashar al-Assad regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, crushed the rebellion in the city at the end of 2016. There is no comparison, morally, between what the anti-ISIS coalition did and what the pro-Assad coalition did, but they have become linked in the popular imagination of the region, and Turkey’s conduct avoided any association with these past events. But this requires two qualifications.

First, there was an outbreak of severe looting by FSA forces after the city fell, against both businesses and private homes, accompanied by needlessly provocative imagery that demonstrated how little the FSA’s public-relations capacity has developed. Turkey brought an end to the pillaging within hours and soon issued a public statement noting that FSA fighters who violated the rights of citizens would be dismissed. These penalties were implemented swiftly and recompense was offered to local victims, but there is no doubt that significant physical and political damage was done.

Second, the course of events in Afrin was far from predetermined. Had the YPG stuck with the course it had adopted early in the battle—transferring fighters from the east and contesting Afrin city—it would have played into Turkey’s “flypaper” strategy and further weakened the entire Rojava structure; it would have made the result, in terms of damage to civilians and infrastructure, look very different. Likewise, had the Russian-mediated deal to allow the partial return of the Assad regime not been rejected by the YPG. Lives would have been spared at the cost of Turkey’s political position.

Why events transpired as they did is not wholly clear. A major factor was obviously the YPG’s miscalculation about the level of support it had from America and Russia, and its perhaps ideologically-influenced refusal of a deal that would have spared it such a complete loss. Another factor is that the YPG was far less powerful than its advocates suggested, whether because the YPG was not so popular as it seemed in Afrin (and the discoveries about aspects of its repressive rule suggest reasons why), or the hard facts of air power, and likely both. Indeed, this has been a reality-check all around for the PKK and YPG, whose very skilful messaging through its vast Western networks – on full display during the Afrin operation – was much less of a strategic determinant than some of the PKK leaders seem to have expected it would be.

Turkey still has challenges in Afrin. The clearance of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) left by the YPG in Afrin is proving to be a thorny matter, inflicting death after they have departed. The YPG have vowed to continue guerrilla warfare, and while that seems unlikely in Afrin itself, indications have already appeared that it could spill back into Turkey. Overstated as YPG support might have been in Afrin, this does not translate into support for Turkey governing the area and it remains to be seen if the Turkish-backed Kurdish city council can establish legitimacy and security.

Perhaps most significant is Turkey’s desire to return Syrian refugees from Turkey to the Afrin zone. Such intentions has been evident for some time, even if the numbers some in Ankara imagine can be repatriated are fanciful. Despite efforts by the YPG to retain the population as human shields, there was displacement from Afrin; early signs are that Turkey is enabling the return of the internally displaced, contradicting activist claims of “ethnic cleansing”. The issue with bringing Syrians who are externally displaced into Afrin, apart from the logistical and other dangers of such a population transfer, is a political landmine: if this looks like demographic engineering, the costs for Turkey in the present will be significant and over the long-term it will make Turkey’s ability to control events in Afrin that much harder.

In the aftermath of Afrin, Erdogan said a Turkish offensive had begun in Sinjar, Iraq. This was not true, but it did force the withdrawal of some PKK cadres back to the Qandil Mountains. The PKK remains in the area, however, under the banner of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS). Whether this situation is acceptable to Turkey, time will tell. The logic in Sinjar mirrors Afrin: there is no American tripwire protection for the PKK in that area, and indeed Ankara can draw on at least tacit support from the nearby Iraqi Kurdish government and elements of the central government in Baghdad.

The most vexing immediate question is Manbij, a YPG-controlled city that does have American protection. (Russian forces jointly protecting the YPG in Manbij, alongside the U.S., reportedly withdrew in late January.) On Wednesday, ahead of the U.S.-Turkish meetings on Mar. 30, Turkey reiterated its intention to capture Manbij. There were concurrent rumours of American forces being removed, but American military officials have heretofore maintained that the U.S. will stand its ground in the city. Then on Thursday came President Donald Trump’s unscripted remarks that the U.S. is leaving Syria “very soon”, which if serious would reverse the policy laid out in February, and the deaths of two Coalition servicemen in Manbij. An American shift to a more even policy between Turkey and the PKK, starting with a settlement in Manbij, would help de-escalate a situation that, between the confused messaging and bluffing on all sides, presents a growing potential for a dangerous miscue.