This article provides an overview of the geopolitical situation in Northern Syria. We’ll look at the history that led to the Turkish Olive Branch operation in Afrin governorate and the changes that have emerged due to the aforementioned campaign.
The Historical Context
American foreign policy in Syria is marred by contradictions. The US is currently allied with both Turkey and the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) along with Kurdish YPG forces. This is becoming increasingly problematic as Turkey and the SDF clash over territorial claims. Turkey feels betrayed by Washington which, in Turkey’s view, is providing heavy arms to an extension of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a group viewed by Ankara as an enemy terrorist organization. In turn, the SDF are aware that the US might pull support, as Turkey is a very important NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) partner. This has forced the SDF to maintain somewhat-friendly relations with the Syrian government and Russia. Turkey’s objections towards the SDF and YPG aren’t entirely unjustified if the YPG’s membership in the Kurdish Council of Communities (KCK) is taken into consideration. Since NATO is far more important than the YPG, the US-YPG alliance remains problematic for Washington. But how has this situation even come to life?
Turkish and US policy was aligned until the Battle of Kobane in 2014, when the US started a military relationship with the YPG to battle the rapid expansion of the Islamic State (IS). Back then, Washington’s focus switched from replacing Assad to defeating the Islamic State, while Turkey’s focus remained on ousting Assad and continuing support to the various rebel factions within the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This behaviour is made clear in the treatment of the Russian military intervention. While the USA signed a deconfliction agreement with Russia, Turkey shot a Russian jet down after it crossed into Turkish airspace.1.“US Agrees With Russia on Rules in Syrian Sky” : The New York Times2.“Turkey shoots down Russian warplane on Syrian border” : BBC This move made Russia bar Syrian airspace for Turkey completely.3.“Turkish Air Force suspends flights over Syria” : The Aviationist This ban held until the normalisation of ties between Turkey and Russia in June 2016, after which Turkey’s Air Force struck targets during their Euphrates Shield operation.4.“Turkey ramps up Syria offensive with deadly bombings” : Yahoo News5.“Turkish military strikes YPG in Syria after soldier killed” : Hurriyet
This operation was spurred on by significant gains made by the SDF and YPG towards the city of Manbij, purportedly with further plans to connect towards Afrin governorate in the west. The Manbij operation was supported by the USA, despite the stated wishes of Turkey, who demanded a retreat of all YPG militants to the Eastern bank of the Euphrates.6.Department of Defense briefing on Coalition operations7.“Turkey fires on U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in Syria offensive” : Reuters As clashes between Turkish-backed FSA (TFSA) and SDF brigades erupted to the west of Manbij, Russia and the Syrian government deployed troops outside Manbij and in Afrin to stop any Turkish advances on SDF territory.8.“Kurdish-backed group to hand over areas in northern Syria to gov’t army” : Xinhua9.“Russia to ‘maintain security’ in Afrin in deal with Kurdish force” : Rudaw
For the USA, the Manbij offensive was simply a preparation for cutting off Islamic State core territory from the outside world, as IS received most of their foreign fighters and supplies through porous sections of the Turkish border. Manbij and al-Bab needed to be captured before any offensive on al-Tabqah and ar-Raqqa on either side of the Euphrates could be started. The US had tried to capture the area in collaboration with Turkey and FSA rebels between March and June 2016, but this ultimately failed. Despite Turkish and US support, the rebels were ineffective against IS and were easily distracted as they struck the YPG in Afrin several times. These rebels were also hostile towards the US and confronted US troops supporting them.10.“Conflict among U.S. allies in northern Syria clouds war on Islamic State” : Reuters11.“American commandos ‘forced to run away’ from US-backed Syrian rebels” : The Telegraph At the same time, as the rebels in Northern Aleppo were stuck against IS, the SDF made vast gains, capturing Manbij and its surrounding countryside. This in turn led to increased Turkish support for the rebels and the creation of the official TFSA, putting them in conflict with US plans.
The offensive for Raqqa formally started on 6 November 2016 and relied heavily upon the YPG and the SDF.12.“US ‘in close contact’ with Turkey over Raqqa assault” : al-Arabiya13.“Raqqa Fight Starting ‘Soon’, Isolation Operation to Include YPG” : VoA News Turkey proposed to the USA an alternative force, a Sunni Arab infantry force supported by Turkish Special Forces, artillery and tanks with heavy US-backing. It essentially proposed the same force that it used for its Euphrates Shield operation, but with US troops.
There were several problems with this plan. The proposed force was boxed in between SDF and Syrian government territory, and it needed the acceptance of the SDF to attack south of Tel Abyad through SDF territory. The US was wary of the ideological reliance of the militants backed by Turkey, fearing that they were largely hostile to the US and would cause issues in operations. Another sticking point was the fact that it took Turkey seven months to capture Al-Bab with this army, coupled with a rather poor performance overall.14.“Why the Pentagon doesn’t want Turkey’s help in Syria” : The Washington Examiner15.“When It Comes to Syria and the Kurds, Erdogan Will Leave Washington Empty-Handed” : War on the Rocks
Militarily, the Raqqa operation went smoothly for both the SDF, as well as the US, though at a high cost of civilian casualties and large destruction to the infrastructure of the city. After Raqqa, the SDF continued to conquer IS territory along the Euphrates Valley towards Deir ez-Zor, capturing several large oilfields along the way. The Islamic State was a shell of its former self, and defeated in all but name. This is the point where, for the US, a future opposition towards Iran and by extension all government troops, became an important goal. In turn, this led the SDF into conflict with Russia and the Syrian government. The previous friendly approach by Russia towards the SDF can’t be upheld if the SDF becomes a true US proxy. This probably changed the Russian approach towards them, as in the past Russia supported Afrin in various ways, stationing soldiers, training SDF troops, and conducting air-strikes to assist them.
The Afrin Operation
The start of the Turkish “Olive Branch” operation, the invasion of Afrin, laid bare the cracks within each respective political camp. The YPG is now in open warfare with Turkey, the NATO ally of their main supporter. Turkey’s rhetoric vis-a-vis the US is becoming increasingly belligerent while the US have remained rather silent on the whole ordeal other than a few vague news releases.16.“Turkish President Erdogan offers US ‘Ottoman slap’ ahead of Rex Tillerson’s visit” : The Independent17.https://twitter.com/abdbozkurt/status/96676744200453325718.“Mixed Messages From U.S. as Turkey Attacks Syrian Kurds” : The New York Times So far, Washington has yet to outright condemn Turkish actions, but they also have not stopped, or even attempted to stop YPG reinforcements heading to Afrin to fight Turkey. The US are keeping themselves rather secluded from this whole ordeal and are acting neutral in the interest of covertly maintaining their previous strategy.
The Afrin operation would have been much harsher on the Turkish forces without the Russian green-light for it.19.“De Mistura: Syria talks in Vienna at ‘critical moment’ : Al-Jazeera They opened the Syrian airspace for the Turkish Air-Force, pulled their own soldiers from Afrin, and have yet to publicly condemned the operation. They have blamed the US, accusing Washington of having “caused Turkey’s ire with their unilateral decisions”. Syria, on the other hand, threatened to shoot down Turkish planes and condemned the operation as an illegal invasion in spite of Russia’s green-light. For the government, the operation definitely poses a threat as it would link up the Idlib and Northern Aleppo rebel territories. After a series of defeats the rebels would not only gain a much needed moral boost, but they’d also control a formidable amount of territory again.
The offensive also shows divisions within the pro-government camp. For Russia there is more on the horizon than just restoring Syrian government control, as their relations with Turkey are necessary for maintaining power in the Mediterranean. Turkey politically moved much closer to Russia over the last year, while growing increasingly belligerent with the US and the rest of NATO. The alliance of the US coalition with the YPG, as well as Turkey’s military operation, exposed a serious crack in the unity of NATO. While so far there is no serious indication of Turkey leaving NATO, non-governmental institutions on both sides of the fence are increasingly calling for it.20.“Erdogan advisor: NATO is behind all coups, membership must be reviewed” : Turkish Minute21.“Syrian forces make gains as Turkey continues spat with Nato ally France” : The Independent22.“Turkey Is Out of Control. Time for the U.S. to Say So” : Politico Additionally, the US Congress is debating the feasibility of sanctions on Turkish businesses and individuals.23.“Congress, State Department divided on sanctions against Turkey” : al-Monitor
So far, Russia has achieved half of its goals in Syria . The Assad government is stable and isn’t going to be toppled by external or internal threats any time soon. A bigger rebel base in Syria under strong Turkish influence hostile towards the SDF is a small price to pay for increasingly close cooperation with a major regional power with a long-term possibility of pulling them out of NATO.
Assad on the other hand still has the stated goal of regaining all lost territory of Syria. Iran has remained silent in the matter, but about 300 Iranian supported National Defense Force (NDF) soldiers from the rural Aleppo towns of Nubl and al-Zahra have joined the Kurds in Afrin fighting against Turkey.24.“Pro-government fighters move into Syria’s Afrin” : Al-Jazeera25.https://twitter.com/ejmalrai/status/966572953377832961 Meanwhile, Turkey has roundly condemned the Eastern Ghouta offensive and said that Bashar al-Assad is committing a massacre.26.“Turkey calls on world to say ‘stop to massacre in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta” : Hurriyet So far, it has remained a war of words between Syria and Turkey, but Syria’s attempt to negotiate with Afrin to take over the territory and reach a deal with the YPG indicates a willingness to take action over the issue. This could easily drag Syria into conflict with Turkey in the future if de-confliction steps are not taken.27.“Turkey says Syria-Kurds deal will not halt its Afrin offensive” : The Financial Times
Having seized Afrin, Turkey will set its sights on Manbij soon, and Russia certainly won’t hinder them, as they can only win politically in such a conflict. If the non-Afrin YPG gets attacked, the US won’t be able to stay neutral and act as if it doesn’t concern them, as they have far more stock in Manbij than they did in Afrin.
For the Syrian Civil War, this scenario means that another chapter of the war is being written. By now it is clear that pro-government forces will attempt to take back all rebel pockets within the country without much outside interference. Idlib and the Turkish controlled rebel territory will remain for now, but for them, the YPG is the biggest concern and Afrin certainly won’t be the last line of Turkish actions. Rather than fizzle out, the Syrian Civil War has entered a new epoch as external actors make clear their changing agendas.