As the Syrian people stare grimly down the barrel of the gun, which has been pointed towards them for seven years to this day, the conflict is unrecognisable from the civilian uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical leadership where it began. The key difference now is that foreign powers directly dominate the violence. When conflict initially broke out, the likes of the U.S. and Turkey believed that their targets could be met through the mobilisation of allied militia groups on the ground. Fast-forward to 2018, and foreign powers dominate in Syria like never before, even engaging in direct conflict with one another.
The defeat of Syrian opposition and jihadist groups on the ground has become a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if,’ while the future of the Kurds is an open question. Fifty-five days since the launch of Operation Olive Branch, and the Turkish-led military assault has made significant gains against Kurdish positions in Afrin, north eastern Syria.
“Over 70 percent of Syria’s Afrin region has been secured during Operation Olive Branch,” said Turkish Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has indicated that the encirclement of Afrin city is imminent. Reports point towards a Turkish advance into the city as its allied forces capture neighbouring towns and villages.
Over a week since the Turkish armed forces and its allied militia groups cleared the north-western border region of Kurdish militia presence, and the city of Afrin is largely closed off by Turkish-backed forces. Turkey’s most recent military excursion into Syria, the ironically named “Operation Olive Branch,” has focused on dividing Kurdish-dominated territory in an attempt to isolate certain elements from one another.
When the Turkish campaign was initiated, the border areas were the first to come under siege. Taking control of the border zone allowed Turkey to introduce a physical barrier between Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) units stationed in Turkey, and its allied People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia operating in northern Syria. Not only was this necessary to prevent the flow of fighters and seal supply lines, but it also served to isolate Kurds in Afrin in what is a major knock to their autonomy and independence aspirations.
Erdoğan has reiterated that the Turkish-led operation is founded upon counter-terrorist motivations, however reports of civilian casualties have challenged this assertion and unconfirmed reports have pointed towards Turkish-backed shelling of residential areas in the city of Afrin as the conflict has intensified. The European Parliament has highlighted its concern about civilian casualties, and has has drafted a joint motion for resolution that calls for Ankara to “withdraw its troops and play a constructive role in the Syrian conflict.”
The draft highlights that “the opening of new fronts in Syria is not in the interest of Turkey’s security,” and that it fears the Turkish-led operation will damage the “delicate internal balances in Syria.”
Unless the strategic alliances, or underlying motivations to act in north-western Syria change drastically, what was once a possibility that the Turkish armed forces would capture the city of Afrin is now a certainty. But where does this leave Turkey, the Kurds and the Syrian government as the land-grab throughout Syria intensifies?
If Afrin and its eastern neighbour – Manbij – are won by Turkey and Kurdish forces are pushed east of the Euphrates, Turkey would gain a victory over the Kurds, the Syrian government and its allies, as well as over Washington; however, this would alienate Turkey further from the “West” and other regional actors.
The fear in Damascus that Turkey is using national security concerns as a cover to consolidate territory in northern Syria, as well as improving supply lines to rebel groups which the (Syrian Arab Army) SAA and its allies are engaged in fighting, has been proven. For this reason, both the Syrian government and Iran aimed to bog Turkey down in Afrin, and a deal was struck between Kurdish fighters in north-western Syria and Damascus on February 18. However, while the YPG counted on the SAA and Iranian-backed forces to provide a meaningful and supportive presence against Turkey and its allies, this has not transpired. If Turkey’s operation is successful in establishing a foothold in Syria and reducing the Kurdish threat, where will it stand globally? Likely, alone.
Turkey’s military interference has left Ankara with few allies. The mismatched “alliance” between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran is the perfect example of the old adage: two’s company, three’s a crowd. The alliance was formed on limiting the West’s aspiration to hold leverage over a political resolution to the conflict; however it has brought together three states with competing ambitions into a tenuous alliance. Ankara’s inability to effectively coordinate with competing faction, as well as its support for disputed “moderate” groups in Syria, leaves Qatar as its only remaining regional ally.
Erdoğan’s desire to re-establish Turkey’s might of the Ottoman Empire era comes at the cost of its neighbour’s national sovereignty; national security is the justification, and Syria the starting point. Erdoğan has led the country to believe it has a duty to expand, however expansion requires a strong military force, and will pit Turkey against powerful competitors with actionable alliances.
Turkey’s campaign in Afrin, proving successful, is straining the relationship between Damascus and the Kurds. Although this will be welcomed in Ankara, it confirms the worry of the European Parliament that Turkey is severely testing the delicate forces at play.
The Syrian government has been preoccupied with fighting on multiple fronts, and has generally avoided engaging in direct conflict with the U.S.-backed YPG. Many believed that the YPG would eventually make a deal with the regime to relinquish areas seized from the Islamic State, in exchange for some form of autonomy. The Syrian government pointed towards this when it stated that it would resolve the Kurdish question in Syria after conflict in the country has subsided. This is looking less likely. The regime is making significant gains throughout the country, and with Turkey ousting the Kurds from captured territory, Kurdish leverage over Damascus is reduced. The YPG likely recognises that the resurgent military strength of the regime would test its ambitions, and that their relationship will be a fault line in the time to come.