What Turkey's intervention means for Syria, the Kurds, and Ankara.
What it means for the Syrian war
Turkey’s intervention into Afrin adds another messy dimension to the Syrian conflict, not least for the region’s long-suffering civilians. Yet while Turkey’s military push opens up another front - and further consolidates foreign occupation of the country - it will not fundamentally harm Assad’s broader position. Indeed, Turkey’s position enhances Russia’s ability to drive forward a regime-friendly political process.
Turkey’s intervention has provoked yet deeper fractures among Assad’s opponents, relieving wider pressure on him, including to stop the regime’s ongoing military campaign in Idlib. Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters are now fighting Syrian Kurds, even though the latter have increasingly positioned themselves in the anti-Assad camp after years of hedging.
This struggle reflects a deepening conflict between Turkey and the US, both NATO members and long-standing Assad opponents. Ankara is focused on preventing the consolidation of an autonomous Kurdish zone in Syria, whereas Washington recently announced a new Syrian strategy that positions (non-Afrin-based) Kurds as the spearhead of a combined anti-ISIS, anti-Assad and anti-Iran approach.
Any widening of this confrontation (unlikely but not inconceivable given Turkish ambitions to move eastwards on the Kurdish-held town of Manbij after Afrin) would mark a significant escalation. Not only is the US military directly deployed in Manbij, but, unlike the isolated pocket of Afrin, the town lies within core Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria. This guarantees a stronger Kurdish response, and one that could extend into Turkey itself. Even if Turkey tries to limit the fighting to Afrin, the PYD could spark a wider unravelling by sending more fighters to resist its incursion.
As for Assad, he may now try to exploit the Kurds’ vulnerability to try and strike a regime-favourable deal with them aimed at pushing back against Turkey’s presence and loosening US influence in the region. Alternatively, he may look to cut a deal with Turkey over the heads of the Kurds, leaving them wholly dependent on capricious US support for survival. More likely, knowing Assad’s track record, he will seek to provoke a wider escalation between all parties, expecting the deepening conflict between his opponents to strengthen his own position.
More broadly, Turkey’s advance likely ends any opposition hopes that recent tensions between Turkey and Russia could be leveraged to undermine the Astana grouping and pressure Russia to commit to the UN political track. The recent US decision to double down on support for Syrian Kurds has effectively has put paid to these hopes. Ankara now needs Russian support in Syria more than ever, both in terms of allowing it to use Russian-controlled air space over Afrin, and to ensure a political track that guarantees Kurdish containment. Russia will almost certainly try to use Turkish concerns to re-energise the Astana grouping and lock in Ankara’s support for its upcoming, Assad-friendly Sochi conference.
In the end the Afrin operation may not radically shift Syria’s broader conflict dynamics but it does reaffirm the Russian-dominated, Assad-favourable trajectory. Much now depends on whether or not the Afrin battle is the prelude to a deepening Kurdish-Turkish conflict. This could, like so many other twists and turns in the Syria conflict, still upend everyone’s plans.
What it means for Turkey
“We can suddenly arrive one night,” President Erdogan warned lately. For months, Turkish officials have been talking about confronting Kurdish fighters in the Syrian town of Afrin, so when Turkey finally embarked on an incursion across the border last Friday, there was nothing sudden about it.
This is Ankara’s second major incursion in Syria but the Turkish army’s first showdown with Syrian Kurds. The Kurds have been slowly gaining control of northern Syria since 2012 and have established self-governing “cantons” there.
The Turkish government says the target of its “Olive Branch” operation is the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which it regards as “terrorists” linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But the YPG is also a key US ally and the backbone of the US-backed anti-ISIS ground force.
Afrin is at the western tip of the Kurdish region in Syria, but is isolated from the rest of the Kurdish-controlled zone liberated from the Islamic State since 2014. Ankara intends to create a 30 km-deep safe zone there and eventually link that with the Jarablus-Azez pocket already controlled by the Turkish military since the end of 2016.
During peacetime, the tiny region may not hold much of a geopolitical significant for anyone. But now Afrin has already emerged as a political knot with tangled up Turkish, Russian, and American interests, all with competing designs for the future of Syria.
For starters, Afrin has been a Russian “protectorate” since the early days of the Syrian war, and Ankara had to seek Moscow’s blessing to start the incursion. Unlike the rest of the Kurdish zone, Afrin hosted no American troops but several hundred Russians– who at times angered Ankara by wearing YPG insignia. Last week President Erdogan dispatched his chief of staff, Hulusi Akar, and powerful intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, to convince Moscow to open Syrian air space for Turkish jets and withdraw its troops, after which the Turkish campaign began.
After nearly a century of enmity and a 2015 spat over Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet in Syria, Ankara and Moscow now handle their new friendship with utmost care. Turkey’s nationalist drumbeat is largely directed at Kurdish forces and the Americans for harboring them. Turks are careful not to offend their Russian friends.
Moscow plays its hand dexterously, too. Russia’s decision to give Erdogan a green light on Afrin probably has more to do with gaining concessions on the Astana process – such as Ankara’s acquiescence on the Syrian regime’s advances on Idlib – than any real sense of a Kurdish threat. Russians also know that a prolonged Turkish-Kurdish confrontation could make Ankara more beholden to Moscow and force the Syrian Kurds to accept a political settlement with the Assad regime.
On the Turkish-American front, things are more problematic. Turkey’s incursion comes at a low point in Ankara’s relations with Washington and risks exacerbating tensions between the two allies. Erdogan has long fumed at US military aid and training for Syrian Kurds, accusing Washington of siding with terrorists and threatening to “rip off the terror corridor” on Turkey’s borders.
With a full-fledged Turkish-Kurdish battle in Afrin, it will be difficult for the Trump administration to continue its balancing act between Syrian Kurds and Ankara. The Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) – Washington’s main partner on the ground in Syria with YPG as the dominant force – is already shifting its forces away from the frontlines with ISIS and towards Afrin. Kurds are also putting pressure on Americans to help curb Ankara’s intensions.
US officials have long told their Turkish counterparts that their relationship with Kurds is transactional and will ultimately end once northern Syria is stabilized. But that may not be so easy. With a renewed focus on reducing Iran’s influence in the region, the Trump administration is in no hurry to abandon northern Syria or the Kurds anytime soon.
The Afrin battle will thus be an opportunity for Russia and a tough balancing act for Washington.
Meanwhile the atmosphere of amplified nationalism is proving to be a major boost to Erdogan at home. It is helping the Turkish president solidify his alliance with far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and, in a sense, kick off his 2019 presidential campaign. Turkish mosques are instructed to read the Conquest verse from the Quran, and Erdogan is warning, “Whoever stands in our way in this national struggle, we will run them over.”
What it means for the Kurds
By Guney Yildiz
Turkish offensive into Afrin is no surprise for the Kurdish-led forces in Northern Syria. The People’s Protection Forces (YPG) has been preparing for a potential Turkish offensive for over a year. During my research visit to Syria in late-September, I was surprised to hear that the fighters and commanders were planning for the attack with some confidence.
The YPG commanders were deeply suspicious of Russia’s transactional dealings with Turkey and aware of a potential change of policy in Washington following the YPG-led operation against Daesh's de-facto capital Raqqa. They therefore were already assuming that they might need to bear the brunt of a potential Turkish offensive alone.
The fact that the Turkish military has so far been using fighter jets to bomb targets from high altitude leaves the YPG without much chance to retaliate. However, the YPG attaches huge importance to Afrin and believes that if the Turkish army manages to defeat them in Afrin, they will try to do the same in other regions across Northern Syria.
This is one reason why the YPG may go to extreme lengths to prevent the area from being captured by Turkey. The YPG’s military capacity will be clearer when and if a large-scale ground operation by Turkish troops begins. One crucial factor will be whether the YPG’s Arab allies will continue supporting in the face of the Turkish attack.
Attempts by Turkish and pro-Turkish groups to capture ground from the YPG has so far shown limited success. The YPG leadership believes that time is on their side and the longer the Turkish offensive lasts, the more chance they will have to challenge the Turkish soldiers on the ground and mobilise Kurdish masses in Syria and beyond.
What makes Afrin the choice of place for Turkey to attack is that it lies outside the area where the US coordinates with the YPG. Washington didn’t make any commitment to protect Afrin, although the US military protected the same armed groups in their campaign against ISIS.
The fighting in Afrin also demonstrates the differences between the YPG in Northern Syria, who show no sign of withdrawing in the face of an offensive by the Turkish military, and Iraqi Kurdish forces, who left Kirkuk to Iraqi forces without resistance after the independence referendum in September.
The YPG believes that Russian approval for the Turkish offensive stems from the fact that Moscow is trying to weaken the Kurds to strengthen the Syrian regime’s position in shaping the future of Syria. It thus reduces the possibility of participation of Kurdish-led administrations in any Russian-backed peace plan.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.