This article was published in Arab News on March 4, 2018.
UN adds uncertainty to Turkey’s Afrin operation
Turkey’s military operation in the Syrian district of Afrin has now progressed unabated for more than 40 days. The military authorities have announced that the border is clear of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters, while the Turkish army has also captured several villages on the road to Afrin that will allow it to tighten its grip around the city.
According to figures disclosed by Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli, Turkey has so far lost 157 soldiers in the Afrin operation: 116 being members of the Turkey-trained Free Syrian Army, and the other 41 from the Turkish army.
The fight will, of course, become stiffer when it comes to downtown Afrin. In a foreign country, it will be more difficult for the Turkish soldiers to distinguish a fighter from a civilian. The Turkish army suffered many casualties fighting against the PKK in its own country, and here the fight will take place in a much more hostile environment. The PKK terrorists will come from Turkey to support their YPG kinsmen, and their support is all the more valuable because they are familiar with the Turkish army’s tactics and methods.
Apart from the YPG/PKK, there are Arabs, Circassians, Armenians and Chechens in the city and they will also defend it against a foreign army. In the negotiations that took place between the Syrian government and the YPG before the operation, an agreement could not be reached on collecting weapons from civilians, meaning many of Afrin’s residents will be armed. Furthermore, the YPG enjoys strong support in many European countries and young volunteers have already started to join it in Afrin. The result is that the Turkish army will be fighting a cosmopolitan adversary.
Last but not least, three convoys of pro-Syrian militias have reportedly already arrived in Afrin. The Washington Post claimed they were composed mainly of pro-Syrian government militias supported by Iran and were already cooperating with the US-supported YPG. Iran-supported, pro-Syrian government militias cooperating with the US-supported YPG is yet another peculiarity of the Syrian quagmire. It also means more casualties are likely as the Turkish army engages in urban fighting in downtown Afrin.
Irrespective of debate over whether action is covered by cease-fire, Ankara will most likely continue as long as international pressure remains at a manageable level.
While Turkey’s military operation in Afrin was facing these challenges, the United Nations Security Council last week adopted Resolution 2401 calling for a cease-fire in Syria, further complicating the operation’s chances of success. The resolution was originally designed to stop the bombing of Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian army, but the final text became a resolution that covers all military operations in the country. The resolution says it will be effective “throughout Syria.” This scope was confirmed in a statement by Olof Skoog, Sweden’s Permanent Representative to the UN and co-sponsor of the draft, saying a key component of the resolution is a “nationwide” cessation of hostilities.
The resolution provides, in another article, that the cessation of hostilities shall not apply to military operations against Daesh, Al-Qaeda or Al-Nusra Front, or groups associated with them.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said the resolution would not affect Turkey’s military operation in Afrin. Turkey justifies this approach based on the following three arguments: First, since military operations against a wide range of terrorist groups are excluded from the resolution, its fight against the YPG should also be excluded; second, Turkey is part of the US-led anti-Daesh coalition and this means the Afrin action has to be kept outside the scope of the resolution; and third, the operation is based on Turkey’s self-defense rights, which are enshrined in Article 51 of the UN Charter.
Turkey should concentrate its efforts on the third argument, rather than getting entangled in a semantic discussion, because it will not be easy to persuade opponents of the operation of the validity of the first and second points.
Irrespective of this debate, Turkey will most likely continue its military action in Afrin as long as the pressure from the international community remains at a manageable level. The signs of pressure first started to come from France, with President Emmanuel Macron calling his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to tell him that the resolution covers the Afrin operation. US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said she would “encourage Turkey to go back and read the resolution.” The US also claims that Turkey’s Afrin operation distracts from the fight against Daesh.
Domestic support in Turkey for the military action is at present divided, but still strong. However, there will be municipal, parliamentary and presidential elections next year and the ruling party of President Erdogan will have to make gigantic efforts to present the Afrin operation as a success to the Turkish electorate.