This article was published in Arab News on July 11, 2017.
Turkish military action in Afrin is not the best remedy
There are persistent reports about the ongoing preparations for a Turkish military operation in Afrin, Syria. This is, in a way, the extension of another operation, launched on Aug. 24, 2016, and codenamed Operation Euphrates Shield, to occupy parts of Syria’s Manbij and cut off Afrin from what the Kurds call Western Kurdistan (Rojava). The Turkish army advanced into Syrian territory, up to the town of Al-Bab. Russia persuaded Turkey not to go further south, and the operation was ended on March 29, 2017.
After Turkey’s seizing of Al-Bab, the Kurds secured the link between Afrin and the remainder of Rojava by circumventing the Turkish occupied region from the south of the town. Turkey is now attempting to foil this circumvention by occupying Afrin and adding it to the area under its control in Manbij.
The Afrin expedition may not be as easy for the Turkish army as Operation Euphrates Shield, because there are more Kurds in Afrin than in Manbij. Therefore the resistance to the Turkish army will probably be tougher.
Furthermore, unlike the Manbij area — which is relatively flat, and suitable for the movement of armored vehicles — Afrin is a rugged terrain and is partly covered with forests or olive groves. A Turkish expert who knows the area claimed that Hafez Assad, father of the current Syrian regime head, planted millions of olive trees along the border area for the purpose of forestation and economic benefits, but also to make it more difficult for Turkey to invade Syria. Therefore, the advance of the Turkish army may not be as easy as it was in Manbij.
Indeed, the most difficult part of the Afrin operation will be the hostile environment. Turkish security services, including elements of the army, have been fighting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, terrorist organization within their own country for more than 30 years and have suffered heavy casualties. Now, in the much less friendly environment of Afrin, the death toll will probably be higher.
Another difficulty is that major actors operating in Syria oppose Turkey’s resumed incursion: Iran opposes because it considers Turkey’s military presence in Syria illegal.
The US opposes the Turkish military move because it has a strong cooperation with Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in the Raqqa operation. Turkey complained about the provision of US weapons to the YPG, because some ultimately end up in the hands of PKK terrorists fighting against Turkey. Washington responded saying it is cooperating with the YPG only for the purpose of clearing Daesh from Raqqa, and promised to provide Turkey with the serial numbers of the weapons so that they cannot be handed over to the PKK.
An army operation can only be a painkiller treatment for the threat that Ankara perceives in the area; the best course would be to negotiate a deal with the Syrian Kurds.
Russia’s attitude toward the Afrin operation is more complex.
First, when there were rumors in March 2017 that Operation Euphrates Shield may extend to Afrin, Russian troops immediately positioned themselves in the province, apparently to deter Turkey’s incursion. They are now doing almost the opposite of it: When the news of Turkey’s military operation started to spread, Russia reportedly moved its military personnel in Afrin to areas controlled by the Syrian government. It is not clear whether Russia did so as a tacit approval of a Turkish military operation, or because it did not want to get involved in a Turkish-Kurdish conflict.
Second is the fact that Idlib — one of four designated de-escalation zones where Turkey and Russia were going to cooperate — is adjacent to Afrin. Moscow may be trying to avoid any potential disagreement that may spoil this cooperation.
A third factor is that it is only natural for Russia to welcome any divergence between the US and its NATO ally Turkey.
Fourth, Russia may also be unhappy about any close cooperation between the YPG and US in its effort to retake Raqqa. Additionally, Russia needs Turkey’s cooperation to retake Idlib where almost all ranges of radical groups are amassed.
If the operation is carried out eventually, Turkey will probably do it in cooperation with Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, but the performance of the latter remained below expectations during Operation Euphrates Shield. Therefore, Turkish soldiers will now have to assume more responsibilities in Afrin.
A military operation in Afrin is not a remedy for the threat that Turkey perceives from there. It will be only a painkiller treatment. The best course would be to negotiate a deal with the Syrian Kurds, persuade them not to attempt to change the ethnic composition of the region, and establish — preferably in cooperation with the Syrian government — a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional democratic administration within Syria.
This would solve Turkey’s problem with the Syrian Kurds; it will facilitate a solution to Turkey’s problem with its own Kurds; and it may prove a breakthrough in the deadlock in relations between Turkey and Syria.