The convoluted geopolitics of the battle for Afrin

The convoluted geopolitics of the battle for Afrin
Analysis: The Kurdish-held enclave in northern Syria is coming under fire from all sides, writes Paul Iddon.
7 min read
20 February, 2018
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are making slow progress fighting the YPG in Afrin [AFP]

The Turkish operation in Afrin, a Kurdish-held canton of northwest Syria, has provoked a range of responses - ranging from tacit support to outright opposition - from the major powers involved in the Syria conflict. 

Ankara believes the Kurdish-led Syrian People's Protection Units - a militia known by its Kurdish acronym of the YPG -  is little more than the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting an insurgency in Turkey for more than 30 years.

Turkey is concerned about an armed Kurdish presence building up on its southern border, and wishes to make an example of the YPG in Afrin and to prevent any prospect of Kurdish militias linking territories they hold across northern Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Turkey's Euphrates Shield operation against IS [August 2016 - March 2017] "cut the terror corridor right in the middle". He was referring to Turkey's goal of stationing forces between Kobane and Afrin cantons to prevent any link-up, which would have put the YPG in control over Syria's entire border with Turkey.

Now Erdogan is attempting, with Operation Olive Branch, to conquer Afrin to completely destroy the much smaller and more vulnerable Syrian-Kurdish western front.

Kurds control the Afrin, Kobane and Jazira cantons of northern Syria

Syria (and Iran)

The Syrian regime opposes the Afrin operation and has threatened to shoot down Turkish jet fighters violating its airspace. Its deployment of anti-aircraft missiles to front-line positions in both Aleppo and Idlib provinces, along with its successful downing of an Israeli F-16 - a much more advanced and sophisticated variant than any of Turkey's vast fleet of those American fighter-bombers - adds significant credence to this threat.

Damascus has also allowed YPG units to move from the larger Kurdish-held northeastern cantons through its territory to reinforce their counterparts in Afrin.

"[Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad stands to gain while doing little," Reuters noted, an accurate observation given that the Kurds are doing all the fighting against the Turkish-led incursion. For the YPG, being able to reinforce Afrin is of critical importance - since its highly vulnerable land-locked location made their defeat hitherto seem inevitable.

It remains unclear if Damascus-allied forces will ultimately take over Afrin from the YPG or, as they claim, directly support Kurdish fighters against Turkish troops

While it's in Assad's immediate interests to aid the Kurds in Afrin, in December he condemned Syrian Kurdish fighters as "traitors" for working with United States forces - who made them their primary partner on the ground in the war against the Islamic State group.

In his view, the "good Kurds" are those who focus their efforts on fighting Turkey in Afrin, and the "bad Kurds" are those who work with the United States in the north-east. It is therefore understandable that he is keen to facilitate the movement of YPG fighters currently working with the Americans to Afrin to instead fight against Washington's NATO ally, Turkey.

On February 19, Syrian state media reported that pro-regime forces were being deployed to Afrin. It remains unclear if these forces will ultimately take over Afrin from the YPG or, as they claim, directly support Kurdish fighters against Turkish troops. 

Tehran also opposes Turkey's march on Afrin, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani calling on Turkey to end operations "at the earliest time".

Iranian-trained, pro-regime militia forces were bombed en masse by the US Air Force on February 7 after they attempted to attack Kurdish-controlled territory in the Syrian province of Deir az-Zour. Tehran is, like Damascus, wary of the Pentagon's presence in northern Syria - but also does not want to see Turkey conquer Afrin and establish a larger foothold of its own with the remnants of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). 

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters shell Kurdish positions for control of Afrin, though they remain not far from the Turkish border [AFP]

The United States

Washington never worked with the Afrin branch of the YPG against the IS group. On the eve of Turkey's latest operation, the US declared that it would not provide any support to the YPG there, essentially giving Ankara a de-facto green light to invade. This was a predictable stance given the ad-hoc nature of the US relationship with the Syrian Kurds, which was formed solely in order to defeat IS.

Nevertheless, the Afrin situation has already caused a headache for the Americans.

"The distraction of what's going on up in Afrin right now is drawing off some of the [Kurdish YPG] forces" from the fight against IS, US Secretary of State James Mattis recently pointed out. It has been self-evident for years now that Syrian Kurds could divert their efforts and resources from fighting IS to fighting any Turkish incursion into territory they hold.

Read more: The war in Syria is entering a new phase

Washington has often sought to convince the Kurds and Turks to focus on fighting IS when they previously clashed in northwest Syria during Turkey's Euphrates Shield operation into the then IS-occupied territory between Kobane and Afrin.

Washington also repeatedly told Turkey that they understood and respected its "red-line" against the YPG linking territory from Kobane to Afrin. Former US Vice-president Joseph Biden even once warned that Washington would withdraw support from the YPG if they kept fighters in the Arab city of Manbij on the west bank of the Euphrates. The YPG, fighting under the banner of the larger Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Arab-Kurdish coalition, had captured the city from IS in the summer of 2016 with US support and even initial Turkish acquiescence.

The US opposed several Turkish demands for it to withdraw its own troops from Manbij - deployed in March 2017 to prevent Turkey's Syrian militia proxies from clashing with the SDF there. Consequently, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned, on February 12, that US-Turkish relations were at risk of completely collapsing.

The Pentagon has no alliance or relations with the Afrin Kurds - and therefore has no self-interest in bringing an end to Ankara's operations there

The US invariably argued that its continued presence in Manbij is necessary for post-IS stabilisation efforts. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to de-escalate the situation by visiting Ankara on February 16 and promised that the YPG would leave Manbij, and Ankara and Washington would "act together from this point forward".

The administration of US President Donald Trump has made no efforts to end the war in Afrin, since the Pentagon has no alliance or relations with the Afrin Kurds - and therefore has no self-interest in bringing an end to Ankara's operations there.


Moscow essentially permitted Ankara to launch the Afrin operation on January 20 by removing their detachment of military police from the canton and keeping the airspace, which they control, open to the Turkish Air Force - the sole exception to date, reportedly, being its temporary closure of all northwest Syrian airspace from February 4, a day after one its planes was shot down in neighbouring Idlib province, until February 9.

Syrian Kurds swiftly accused Russia of betraying them. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which ostensibly governs the Kurdish-held areas, has claimed that Russia allowed Turkey to resume airstrikes against Afrin on February 9 as an indirect retaliation for the US airstrikes against pro-regime militias on February 7 (which killed a number of Russian "mercenaries") - in order to punish Kurds for working with Washington.

If true, that would, interestingly, indicate that Russia makes much less of a distinction between the Kurds of Afrin and those in the rest of northern Syria than the United States does.

Moscow wants Ankara at the negotiating table over Syria's future, given its influence over large parts of the Syrian opposition. In Afrin, Turkey is using approximately 25,000 Free Syrian Army proxy militiamen in order to subdue the YPG, rather than fight the Assad regime in Idlib.

It therefore makes some sense for Moscow to accommodate and tolerate the Turkish operation, so long as it is confined to Afrin against the YPG, rather than risk antagonising Ankara and further complicating the situation in northern Syria.

While Ankara spoke of a swift victory in Afrin, the first month of Operation Olive Branch has shown how difficult Afrin is to subdue. Turkey has already lost more than 30 soldiers and many more allied Syrian fighters, with little ground conquered to show for it - according to one statistic Turkey has only managed to seize seven percent of Afrin's villages, a mere 23 of 350.

At this rate, the operation appears set to last many more months before Turkey can realistically claim any kind of victory, especially if they end up simultaneously fighting pro-regime forces there.

In the meantime, Ankara is discernibly sinking deeper and deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon