The politics behind Turkey’s Afrin operation

On Saturday, Turkish jets bombed the Kurdish-majority province of Afrin in northwestern Syria. Alongside earlier artillery shelling of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions, the air bombing was only a prelude to the ground operation which began the following day. With this, Syria’s highly complex civil war faced another turning point.

To better understand the nature of this recent operation, it is essential to gain a thorough comprehension of Russian–Turkish and of US–Turkish relations within the context of Syria in recent years. This recent Afrin operation is qualitatively different to Turkey’s previous military incursion into Syria. 

Kurdish enclave fragmented

In recent years, parallel to Turkey effectively giving up on toppling the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the primary goal of Turkey’s foreign policy in Syria has been to keep the Syrian Kurdish enclave fragmented and landlocked.

This has underpinned Turkey’s previous two military operations within Syria: the Euphrates Shield Operation of August 2016 and Turkey’s military entry into Idlib as a result of it cutting a deal with Russia and Iran on de-escalation zones.

With the former operation, Turkey prevented the creation of territorial continuity between Syrian Kurdish cantons, while with the latter operation it effectively stopped the YPG’s expanding any further westward towards the sea.

But in these two operations, though Turkey indirectly and strategically targeted the Syrian Kurds’ growing territorial presence in northern Syria, it nevertheless did not target the PYD–YPG directly. 

With this recent operation, Turkey is directly targeting the PYD–YPG and is initiating a pushback strategy against the territorial gains of the Syrian Kurds. Plus, it also aims to send a message to the Syrian Kurds that the presence of superpowers US and Russia in Syria might not prove sufficient to shield them against Turkey. 

Unfounded prediction

It is now public knowledge that Turkey’s Afrin operation was facilitated by Russian consent, and it is equally well known that the reason why Turkey chose the path of engaging with Russia was a result of its disillusionment with US policy in Syria and its partnership with the Kurds. 

Syria has been a major point of friction between Washington and Ankara in recent years. During the initial phase of the Arab uprisings, Turkey’s major complaint vis-à-vis the US was related to the US’s indecisiveness and inaction on the question of the regime change in Syria.

Members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Kurds demonstrate in Amuda (AFP)

However, in recent years, it has been US policy towards the Syrian Kurdish PYD within the framework of the war on the Islamic State (IS) that has been the main stumbling block in bilateral relations.

In fact, the Syrian crisis and the fight against IS have shown that there is a growing gap between Turkish and American threat perceptions and their formula to deal with them.

With the breaking of the IS-imposed siege on the Syrian Kurdish town Kobane in early 2015, the PYD’s armed wing, the YPG, has increasingly become the US’s primary local partner on the ground in the fight against IS. This group is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been in conflict with Turkey for over 30 years.

The US gradually shifted its focus and resources from the Syrian opposition groups to the PYD–YPG.  From the start, Turkey regarded this as a cause of grave concern. 

Turkey’s concern was further aggravated and heightened after the collapse of the Kurdish peace process in Turkey in the second half of 2015 – which led to the almost complete securitisation of the Kurdish issue by Turkey both domestically and regionally. 

While Turkey was alarmed in this new period, it still anticipated or hoped that once IS was defeated, at least in its territorial form, in Syria and Iraq, the Kurds’ utility for the US would lessen, and with it the US commitment to the Kurds, both of which predictions have now proved to be unfounded. 

Russian consent

The fact that the US held onto and further deepened its alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the backbone of which is formed by the YPG, in the post-IS period has dispelled any expectation in Ankara for a US change of heart vis a vis the Syrian Kurds. 

Ankara has seen this US–Syrian Kurdish partnership evolving into a more strategic alliance rather than being just a marriage of convenience. 

Turkey sees the recent open-ended commitment of the US to maintain a military force in Syria and desire to create a 30,000-strong border force (a significant chunk of which is projected to come from the Kurdish YPG) in this light. 

Rather than trying to convince Americans to deal with the Syrian Kurds, this has led Turkey to explore other options, particularly with Russia, much more vigorously. Turkey’s ongoing Afrin operation is a case in point.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on 10 March 2017 (AFP)

This operation was, therefore, unlikely to be undertaken without a green light from Moscow. Russia effectively controls Afrin’s airspace. Therefore, without Russian permission, Turkish jet would not have been able to undertake the aerial bombardment of Afrin province.

The question then is what motivated Russian acquiescence to the operation? Multiple factors seem to have played a role in the Russian stance. First, Russia, Turkey and Iran started a parallel process to ongoing peace talks in Geneva with the aim of finding a settlement to the Syrian crisis through talks in Astana, which are soon expected to give way to the Sochi congress.

Syria’s political process

While the Astana talks were designed to deal primarily with the military aspects of the Syrian crisis, the Sochi congress is projected to deal with the political process in Syria. 

Turkey’s participation is crucial for this process to move forward. In fact, given that both Russia and Iran have been steadfast supporters of the Assad regime, it is the participation of Turkey as a main backer of the opposition that gave legitimacy and credibility to this Russian-led parallel processes.

Thus, it is crucial for Russia to keep Turkey in the game, particularly for the upcoming Sochi meeting. Second, by allowing Turkey to hit the US’s primary partner in Syria, Russia wants to embarrass the United States. The language of the Russian officials since the start of the operation clearly suggests that this is the goal.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov very much put the blame for this recent crisis on the shoulders of the US – and especially for their projection of staying in Syria for the long-term and of creating a border force in SDF-held areas, which Russia sees as a clear attempt by the US to create an alternative form of authority in Syria.

Third, through this operation, Russia seems to be extracting concessions both from the PYD and Turkey on behalf of the Syrian government. A weakened PYD in the northwestern part of Syria will be more amenable to the Russian preference for allowing the government to take control of Afrin and its surrounding areas.

In fact, many high-ranking PYD–YPG officials have already said publicly that Russia has asked them to hand over the control of these areas to the government – an offer which they refused. 

Political goals

On the other hand, the mechanism behind this recent operation is partially reminiscent of Turkey’s previous Euphrates Shield operation. Given that Turkey’s return to the Syrian scene was very much contingent upon its patching up relations with Moscow after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015, the nature and limits of Turkey’s Euphrates Shield Operation was very much shaped by Russian preferences.

The price that Turkey had to pay for this operation was its tacit consent to the fall of Aleppo to government forces. This dynamic seems to be repeating itself in this latest operation as well. The price of the Afrin operation appears to be acquiescing to the Russian and the Syrian government design for eastern Idlib.

In fact, while the news headlines were busy with Turkey’s Afrin Operation, the Syrian regime has captured several strategically important locations in eastern Idlib.

Furthermore, on more bilateral grounds, Russia is likely to have extracted some bilateral concessions from Turkey for its consent. Looking at commentaries by the Russian pundits – though they still need to be verified – one of the possible concessions that Turkey is likely to have offered Russia is related to gas deals (the Russian–Turkish TurkStream gas project). 

In going forward, the elites leading this operation have to ask themselves the question of what the political goal of this operation is likely to be. With each passing day, the operational and military aspects of Turkey’s Afrin operation become clearer, yet the political and strategic goals behind this operation are opaque. 

Those that have been announced by Erdogan, who has vowed to clear the whole of the Turkey–Syria border all the way to Iraq of the PYD–YPG presence, appear to be unrealistic. Therefore, for any military advances to be meaningful, Turkey urgently needs to reflect on feasible political and strategic goals for the operation.

As things stand, Turkey does not seem to have a strategy. Such a lack of a feasible political vision can jeopardise any military gains as well.

And despite Turkey’s heavy-handed military operation, if the PYD–YPG manages to hold onto the city (no matter the cost), this will significantly increase the prestige and popularity of the group among the Kurds regionally – particularly given the fact that Iraqi Kurdish groups have recently lost a lot of territory, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, without putting up a fight.

This article was first published by  Middle East Eye

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