On the 21st of January, the Turkish prime minister declared that Turkish troops, together with Turkish-allied Syrian rebels, had crossed the border, entering the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin in Northwestern Syria. This followed a day of intense aerial bombardment. The Turkish prime minister Binali Yıldırım motivated the invasion by declaring the intention to establish a 30 km “safe zone” inside Syria alongside the Turkish border. Why does Turkey want a safe zone? The safe zone is motivated by the Turkish view of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Syrian branch of the Turkish terror organization Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has been conducting terror attacks and waging a guerilla war in Turkey for decades.
The topic becomes more confusing when you factor in that the American-led coalition is allied with the Syrian Democratic Forces and has even been supplying them with weapons and training, citing the group’s fight against ISIS in other parts of Syria. It can therefore seem strange for the casual reader that a NATO member-state is conducting a ground invasion against allies of another NATO member inside a neighbouring country. In order to give a better understanding of current events, this article seeks to highlight the background and reactions to this operation, while also speculating about its future.
The area of Afrin, like the whole Levant, has historically been a part of both Roman and various Islamic empires. During more recent history the area was a part of the Ottoman empire, until the empire’s collapse and partition after the First World War. The French assumed control of this part of the Middle East in what became known as the French mandate. This area later formed the basis for the states of Syria and Lebanon. Interestingly enough, the French gave away a territory to the west of Afrin, known today as Hatay, to the Turks to keep them from joining the Second World War. This meant that Afrin was now surrounded by Turkey on three sides. Syrian maps of the region still dispute Turkish control of Hatay, even though the handover took place more than 80 years ago.
More recently, Syria protected the Kurdish armed group PKK and their leader Abdullah Öcalan, until they bowed to Turkish pressure and expelled them in 1998. In 2012, one year after the Syrian civil war broke out, Syrian troops left Afrin and other Kurdish areas in Northern Syria, enabling the Kurds of The Syrian democratic unionist party (PYD) to set up their own systems of governance and education. The Syrian state has not had control over the region since.
How are the major powers and the Syrian government reacting?
After a week of fighting between Turkish-allied forces and Kurdish-led forces, the Kurds made a move in order to stop the Turkish gains into Afrin. They called for Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad to send in the Syrian army to secure the country’s borders with Turkey. This was noteworthy because this region had not had any troops loyal to the controversial Syrian leader for more than 5 years. Furthermore, the Syrian Democratic Forces had publicly portrayed themselves as opponents of the Syrian government, citing widespread pre-war discrimination against the Kurds. The Assad-led government demanded full military control of the region as a condition for sending in its troops to secure the border, something that was rejected by Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Russians have tried to build good relations with the Kurds in Afrin, in order to provide a counterweight to the strong US influence on the Kurds in other parts of the country. This effort has led to Russian military police being present in Afrin. All that changed before the invasion was that the Russian observers withdrew and Syrian airspace (which is in effect controlled by Russian air defenses) was open for Turkish fighter jets. The Americans did not protect their allies either. The only public statement that the American government has made to Turkey because of its operation in Afrin is to ask the Turks to act with restraint. As it stands today, no power in the region seems to have enough leverage over the Turkish-led or Kurdish-led forces to make them stop fighting each other.
Four possible future developments of the conflict
Considering that the Turkish army and its Syrian allies are vastly outnumbering and outgunning the Kurdish-led forces in Afrin, it would seem likely that defenders of Afrin cannot hold their well-entrenched defensive positions forever. This leads to four likely scenarios for the future of this conflict.
It could mean that the region would be forced to give up control of its territory to the Russian-backed Syrian government, something that could increase tensions between other Kurdish-controlled regions of Syria and the Syrian government. In the second scenario the US would intervene and stop the Turkish assault, but considering the longstanding and bloody conflict that Turkey has with PKK and other Kurdish groups that are affiliated with it, this could risk breaking the relationship between these two NATO members permanently.
A third scenario is that the Kurds gain a defensive victory by inflicting heavy losses on the Turkish led forces, something that could result in domestic problems for the Turkish leadership, because of the promises of a decisive victory that it has made to the public. Lastly, Operation Olive branch could also result in a Turkish military victory, which would increase Turkey’s influence in Syria and the region, possibly paving the way for further military operations against the Kurds in other parts of Syria – something that the Turkish leadership has already been hinting at.
It could always be that instead, the conflict starts to develop in completely different and unforeseeable ways. Regardless, it is highly likely that we haven’t heard the last of Afrin and the conflict between the Turks and the Kurds in Syria.