Turkish operation in Afrin could result in calamity for Ankara

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, threatened on Jan. 13 to begin a military operation “in about a week” to evict Kurdish militants from Afrin in northwestern Syria. Erdoğan has repeatedly threatened to “cleanse” Afrin of the fighters over the last two years. It turned out he really meant it this time: on Jan. 20 Turkey commenced Operation Olive Branch against Afrin.

Kurdish forces, affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have constituted an important element of the Coalition’s ground force in Syria against the Islamic State (ISIS) since late 2014, expanding their “Rojava” statelet by capturing vast swathes of territory from ISIS in northern and eastern Syria that is connected to Afrin under a deal with the pro-regime coalition—Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Russia.

Any Turkish government would see this situation as a threat, and be angry at the United States for supporting the Kurds. The PKK regards Rojava and the ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD) as strategic elements in its long war against the Turkish state. Indeed, Kurds in Rojava have already provided at least logistical support for PKK attacks inside Turkey.

The Western refusal to even enforce agreed limits on the PYD was crucial to Turkey’s re-orientation of policy in late 2016, prioritising the Kurds over Assad and moving into Syria directly to push back ISIS and PYD militants. To avoid fighting on three fronts, Turkey cut a deal with the Russians that allowed Aleppo city to fall.

Soon after, a Russian-directed tripartite “peace process” with Iran and Turkey began at Astana, focusing on “de-escalation” mechanisms that the pro-Assad coalition ended up using to sequence its war. It also served to politically ratify the pro-Assad coalition’s military gains, so they could be imported into the internationally-recognised Geneva process to create a settlement on the regime’s terms.

Turkey, recognising defeat and trying to salvage what it could—namely denying legitimacy to the PYD in a Syrian settlement—went along with Astana until the pro-Assad coalition, which has extensive ties to the Kurdish administration, tried to smuggle them into the process. On Dec. 27, Turkey’s patience appeared to run out, with Erdoğan reviving his rhetoric that Assad had to go.

There were other signs of distance between Ankara and Moscow.

First, Russia’s base at Hmaymeem was attacked, on New Year’s Eve and again overnight on Jan. 5-6, by swarms of drones. It is perfectly possible that the assault was carried out by a non-state actor, but the possibility of Turkey’s involvement cannot be discounted.

Then, on Jan. 11, Turkey opened the floodgates to its rebel allies in Idlib, allowing a counter-offensive that appears to have been halted by the regime coalition, for now.

Thirdly, there was Afrin. Russia’s protection of the province and its leverage to create even more problems for Turkey had previously prevented Ankara from acting. The sharp rhetorical break from Moscow earlier this month was, therefore, important.

For the West, this nascent rift between Turkey and Russia was an opportunity to begin healing the wounds within NATO, counter-balancing the Russia-Iran-Assad coalition, and reaching a durable settlement to keep ISIS down, since the current configuration in Syria—the product of years of short-sighted policy—is incredibly volatile, as demonstrated in Afrin, a long-predicted crisis. The primary change needed for the United States to bring Turkey back into the fold was a re-balancing of relations with the Kurds.

But instead, as the crisis mounted, the U.S.-led Coalition not only disavowed having any influence over Afrin—a posture of neutrality that belied the significant U.S. responsibility for this latest round of trouble—but announced that it was building a Kurdish-dominated border force for the Rojava area and rolled out a Syria policy that gives Rojava an indefinite security guarantee.

The United States also ignored the protests in Minbij that broke out over the last week after PYD authorities tortured to death two Arab prisoners. Washington could have mediated, forcing the Kurds to implement the accord they signed in 2016 to leave Minbij to govern itself, so long as Turkey would hold off on Afrin. By the time the United States tried to back-pedal on the border force announcement, the chance to bring Turkey back under U.S. leadership in Syria and have Ankara see the U.S. presence as in its interests was lost. Turkey is left sharing the pro-Assad coalition’s view that a U.S. departure would best serve its interests.

This is a shame because Turkey can play a constructive role in Syria by securing Idlib against pro-Assad forces, an issue more urgent than Afrin—even for Turkey itself. A Turkish presence to block the regime coalition and accelerated efforts to remove the HTS pretext from the pro-Assad coalition would make Turkey’s life politically much easier in Syria, spare a lot of people a lot of misery, and prevent another destabilising wave of refugees into Turkey.

Divided from the West, Turkey is left seeing the PYD as the overriding, immediate priority. Turkey’s intelligence chief was in Moscow on Thursday, presumably preparing the ground for an Afrin operation. The public messaging from Russia was designed to embarrass Turkey. And Moscow’s client, Assad, threatened to shoot down Turkish jets over Afrin—something his anti-aircraft systems haven’t managed in 100 attempts against Israel. But Turkey evidently got what it needed; what that turns out to be is now the most interesting question.

Russia probably could not have stopped a Turkish invasion of Afrin, with Turkey so far out on a limb, so Moscow positioned itself to support Turkey’s operation, something denied to Turkey by the West. It is possible Russia agreed to Turkey occupying all of Afrin, which could result in calamity for Turkey. From Ankara’s point-of-view, it might pull Kurdish forces from further east into Afrin, weakening the whole Rojava infrastructure, but the battle against dug-in Kurdish soldiers, able to draw on widespread popular sentiment, would inflict a terrible cost, and it is unlikely Turkey can establish stability in the aftermath. Such a quagmire would suit the Russians, who can then offer help—in exchange for concessions.

It might be, however, that a deal similar to that over Aleppo city has been struck, where the Russians have agreed for Turkey to take the Arab-majority areas around Tel Rifaat, which the PYD captured two years ago with the help of Russian airstrikes, and maybe enough to link the Euphrates Shield area and the Turkish observation posts in northern Idlib, in exchange for Turkey signing-off on the pro-Assad coalition taking over Idlib up to Abu al-Duhur Airport. This would conform to the leaked maps from the Astana process. The Russians would thereby have appeased the Turks and done minimal damage to their relations with the Kurds.

In either case, Turkey is left in Moscow’s orbit and the pro-Assad coalition steps closer to neutralising the final insurgent bastion—victories for Russia at a moment when it’s in control of the situation in Syria appeared to be in decline.