Turkey’s Syria operation needs realistic exit strategy

The Turkish authorities have repeatedly stated they will take further steps after they achieve their initial goal of “clearing Afrin from the terrorists of the People’s Protection Units (YPG)”. These steps include the expansion of the operation to the area around Manbij, and to the east of the River Euphrates, and setting up a local administration to better reflect the ethnic composition of the region’s population.

Each of these steps has different features and has to be handled accordingly.

Controlling Afrin is a relatively easy target for the Turkish army because the area is surrounded from almost all directions by the Turkish army. To the west and north it borders Turkey. To the south lies the Syrian province of Idlib where there are Turkish forces, deployed under the de-confliction initiative of the Astana process. In the east, there is the Turkish army that entered the Syrian territory under the Euphrates Shield operation of 2016-7. The only open window for the YPG fighters is a narrow corridor to the southeast. Despite this relative advantage, in three weeks since the beginning of the Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, the Turkish army has suffered 16 fatal casualties and around 30 among Free Syrian Army fighters trained and equipped by Turkey.

The situation in Manbij is slightly more complicated. When this city was being liberated from Islamic State in 2016, Turkey was launching Euphrates Shield, its declared scope covered the liberation of Manbij as well, but the U.S.-supported YPG got there first. Turkey insistently asked the U.S. to withdraw YPG fighters to the east of Euphrates and the U.S. promised it would do so. This promise has yet to be fulfilled. Therefore the expansion of Turkey’s military operation to Manbij is no more than the fulfilment of this promise by the United States, but it is not certain that the YPG fighters would be willing to hand over to Turkey a city that it saved from ISIS occupation. They may put up stronger resistance to the Turkish army than their comrades in Afrin. Furthermore, there are U.S. soldiers in Manbij and a risk of clashing with them.  

As for the expansion of the operation to the east of Euphrates, this issue came later to Turkey’s agenda when the YPG began to be perceived as an important threat to its security. The area is much bigger than the city of Manbij and the capitals of two self-declared autonomous Kurdish cantons, Kobani and al-Jazeera, are located there. It is adjacent to northern Iraq, where the headquarters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is located.

The fight with the PKK has cost Turkey more than thirty thousand lives and tens of billions dollars, with no sign of an end on the horizon. The resistance to a possible Turkish military operation would probably be stiffer in this region.

The remainder of the strategy is no less uncertain. Turkey’s aim to set up a local administration in the north of Syria makes more sense in Afrin. However it is more difficult to achieve this goal in two self-declared Kurdish cantons to the east of the River Euphrates. Kurds are probably the biggest component of the population even if they do not constitute an absolute majority of the population in every community. Therefore if the ethnic communities are to be represented in a more balanced manner in the new administration, Kurds will again prevail in most of constituencies. Turkey’s contention is that even if the Kurds are in majority, all Kurds do not support the YPG. Supposing that this claim is true, there are other difficulties for Turkey: The local administrations to be set up are, after all, located in Syria and this country will be governed by Syrians. And Turkey has committed itself to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The exit strategy contains several uncertainties.