In Afrin, Turkey has the YPG out-gunned and under-resourced

In Afrin, Turkey has the YPG out-gunned and under-resourced
Comment: Turkey and its allies now stand on the brink of a limited military victory in Afrin, but the cost to civilians has been high, writes James Snell.
6 min read
14 Mar, 2018
Turkish commando units are dispatched to border units as reinforcement for 'Operation Olive Branch' [Anadolu]
When Turkey began its campaign against the Kurdish canton of Afrin in northern Syria, undertaken in tandem with selected Syrian rebel groups, global condemnation followed. 

Operation Olive Branch, as it is ironically called, met with fierce criticism from the beginning.

Turkey was accused of beginning a morally suspect campaign against a persecuted minority in an already battered country. Those Syrian rebels who took part in the offensive, members of Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions that accepted Turkish support, were accused of being mere hirelings of a foreign power.

There is more than a little justice to much of the above.

It is also true that the campaign itself was justified with deliberate, calculated falsehoods. Turkish intentions were to combat the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers part of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an internationally-proscribed terror group.

But Turkey muddied the waters, for example suggesting that the Islamic State group (IS) was present in Afrin. That is, and always has been, a lie.

It is also true that the Turkish campaign has killed civilians, and in unconscionable numbers. Over 200 have likely met with violent ends.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that the Turkish offensive and, for example, the massacres currently in progress in Ghouta are comparable in scale, or in intention, as some have attempted to argue.

But all civilian deaths are unacceptable, and it is true that Turkey and its FSA allies could act with more restraint and greater care.

This no longer looks like a losing campaign

These criticisms are not insubstantial, and they must not be overlooked.

Another critique of the offensive argued that it was being prosecuted with incompetence and was meeting with failure. Though this perception certainly travelled, especially as the offensive began, Operation Olive Branch now looks likely to be a 'success', at least in the limited terms Turkey seems to have set itself.

Over the weekend the offensive ground on towards Afrin city. It seems likely that, soon enough, the city itself will be placed under a siege it cannot resist. Soon Afrin will be captured. This will effectively bisect the district, rendering the battle increasingly moot.

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As if to acknowledge this threat, the YPG has been withdrawing from rural areas in order to defend Afrin city, it has been reported. Even these tactical retreats are unlikely to do more than defer the inevitable.

Despite its leaders' attempts to attract global attention, sympathy and support, the YPG is out-gunned and under-resourced. In the final calculation, these facts matter.

Turkey and its allies stand, therefore, on the brink of a limited military victory in Afrin, one which has been purchased at some cost to the civilian population and to Turkey's international PR. The expected victory may, in these circumstances, seem, if not wholly Pyrrhic, then at least won at a high cost.

Read more: Turkey needs to win Afrin quickly, or risk its border security

This is not how Turkey's leaders appear to see things. The real success of Turkey's policy can be found elsewhere.

The analyst Hassan Hassan has suggested for a while that Turkey's objectives in Afrin are not immediately obvious.

Instead of aiming to capture the territory outright, or deal a devastating blow to the YPG - both unreal expectations - Turkey has smaller targets in mind.

Many of these are related to the Turkish sense that it has been abandoned, by its NATO allies and the world, as it seeks to maintain the integrity of its border and stabilise much of northern Syria. This is a job, Turkish leaders believe, which they undertake not only in their own interest. They think the rest of the world owes them.

International outcry did not translate into practical support for the YPG

Turkish leaders were worried when it became clear that the United States so transparently preferred the YPG's umbrella group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to Turkey's proxies and allies in Syria. When the United States started arming not only the SDF, but also the YPG directly, Turkey's worries grew.

Now, however, the United States has begun to see things Turkey's way. The Afrin offensive has alerted the Americans to Turkish grievances; and now the United States appears to have stopped arming the YPG.

As well as raising the profile of Turkish grievances and impelling the United States to accede to Turkish demands, the Afrin offensive has had other benefits for Turkey.

Operation Olive Branch has secured the border between Afrin and Turkey, and it has seemingly denied the YPG, which the Turkish state sees as a serious threat, a significant base.

Not too long ago, things looked different.

For a time, it seemed like Turkey may fail to achieve its over-ambitious stated objectives. In the opening stages of Operation Olive Branch, Turkish and rebel forces appeared to be moving at a glacial pace. They looked bogged down in the border areas surrounding Afrin.

Soon afterwards, forces professing allegiance to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, nominally a foe of the Turkish state, announced their intention to enter Afrin. This was not expected to worry Turkey unnecessarily, but it was still considered to represent a bad outcome.

For a time, it seemed like Turkey may fail to achieve its over-ambitious stated objectives

Turkey has also precipitated a minor PR crisis; when it attempted to have the Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim imprisoned and extradited, there was international outcry.

And criticism of the offensive itself, though initially muted, grew in intensity. Turkey, it appeared, was beginning to lose a war of public relations.

To top the above off, Kurdish forces, under the SDF banner, claimed in a since-deleted statement that they had carried out a terror attack in Turkey proper on 2 February. The statement accused Turkey's government of putting Turkish civilians at risk in consequence of an offensive justified in defensive terms.

But things are now going Turkey's way. The Turkey-Afrin border is presently in Turkish hands. International outcry did not translate into practical support for the YPG, which retreats.

The Syrian regime might even withdraw whatever paltry support it offered in Afrin's defence, according to pro-Assad media. Turkey's grievances have a new urgency in Washington, as the country once again has the attention of the United States.

This no longer looks like a losing campaign. Instead, it is beginning to resemble a minor Turkish victory in the making, which, for Turkish leaders, is evidently worth all the criticism in the world.

James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The TelegraphProspectNational ReviewNOW NewsMiddle East Eye and History Today.

Follow him on Twitter: @James_P_Snell

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.