The Turkish military and Syrian opposition groups have cleared the Afrin border areas of the YPG, and now they are changing their tactics for the second phase of the operation. New deployments are also on the way.
In the sixth week of Turkey’s military operation in Afrin, the mountainous areas along the border with Turkey in the north and west of Afrin have been cleared of the YPG, and the group’s connection with Turkey has been cut. The YPG has also been removed from the Barsaya Mountain in the northeast of Afrin, which neighbours the areas held by the Turkish-backed FSA.
First phase almost complete
The first challenge for the Turkish army and the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) was the mountains on the Turkish border and included the many straits and tunnels filled with explosives and ammunition by the YPG.
Forty-one Turkish soldiers and 116 FSA troops have been killed so far.
In the south, the Turkish army has set up three observation posts in Idlib, which prevents any YPG moves. There is no active fighting in this area. Turkish army have retaliated against the YPG’s shelling from time to time.
Second phase starts with the new deployments
The second phase of Operation Olive Branch consists of fighting in rural areas and on the outskirts of Afrin, which is part of the plan to surround Afrin from the southwest to the northwest and the northeast in a strategic crescent.
The first urban area was Rajo in the west, which has already been cleared of the YPG. The Turkish army and the FSA are now in the second phase: in Jandaris in the southwest.
Afrin’s population was estimated at 750,000 before the operation started. The city has many civilians on the outskirts. In order to battle against the YPG in the areas where many civilians live, special forces, which are more experienced in urban warfare, were deployed to Afrin.
These gendarmerie and police special forces that entered the Afrin region will take part not only in urban fighting, but also in retaining control of the villages taken by the Turkish army so far.
The Turkish gendarmerie is a part of the army, and is responsible for the security of the urban areas, which falls outside the responsibility of the police. They are also responsible for border control.
The second phase is not only about military operations. According to the Turkish military sources who spoke to TRT World on condition of anonymity, Turkish intelligence estimates around one third of the 6,000 YPG militants are mercenaries, and are forced to fight by the YPG. The Turkish officers’ duties, in addition to fighting against the YPG, include talking these youths into stepping out of the fight.
Third phase: Siege of Afrin city
The third and the last part of the operation is to take the city centre of Afrin. A couple of days before the second phase started, on February 20, Turkish President Erdogan said, "Afrin city centre will be besieged in the coming days.” These comments, according to military sources who spoke to TRT World, referred to the upcoming third phase of the operation.
After the second phase ends, Turkish and FSA forces will be at the border of the city from the northeast, north, west and south.
The southwest of Afrin, which connects the city to the regime-controlled areas, is an issue that should be worked out by the politicians, but the army is also preparing for any scenarios, according to the same source.
Why hasn't the operation included the southeast so far?
In the plains of southeast Afrin, around Tel Rifat and Minagh Airport, there is no fighting.
The strategic importance of the area comes from its location. If the FSA will take control of the area, that will prevent the YPG from getting reinforcements from regime-held territories.
On the first day of the operation, Russian troops in Afrin relocated to Tel Ajar, a town in northwestern Tel Rifat. The regime’s military training camp in Qafrjannah was also moved in Tel Ajar.
Not only the Russian troops in that YPG-held area, but also the presence of Iranian proxies in the neighbouring regime-held areas, Nubl and Zahraa, are the reasons for the Turkish army to not to conduct any large-scale operations to move forward towards Afrin.
Reinforcements coming from YPG-held Manbij and Kobani are being taken to Afrin via those two villages. The regime supports the reinforcements.
The deal between the regime and the YPG
The regime's support for the YPG is not limited to the reinforcements. Before the siege of Afrin, they started working on a deal to stop the Turkish army.
Losing territory to the Turkish-backed opposition forces, the YPG had reportedly reached a deal with the regime on February 19. According to Syrian State TV, the regime forces would enter the city in exchange for the YPG's withdrawal and the handing over of its arms to the regime.
On Tuesday, pro-regime and Iran-backed Shia militias consisting of a convoy of 20 vehicles departed from the Nubl and Zahraa region and tried to advance into the Afrin region. The convoy turned back after Turkish artillery fire.
Cavusoglu said on the same day that the reason behind such an entry, if it happened, was important:
"If the regime enters here [Afrin] to clear it of the YPG/PKK, then there is no problem.”
Ankara’s main concern on such a deal is for the YPG to give up all of its arms, and Moscow has a similar concern, a Turkish diplomatic official told TRT World.
While Iran pushed its proxies to enter Afrin, some YPG members said on Monday that "Russia is responsible for the failure to reach a deal with the government up until now. Russia wants us to lay down our weapons. The government wants to fight alongside us."
When the talks between the YPG and the regime reportedly failed, Iran's proxies were sent to Afrin.
After reports came regarding a deal between the regime and the YPG, Turkey intensified its operation in Afrin.
Leaders summit is expected to be held on 4th of April
As Turkey’s operation in Afrin continues, and confusing steps are taken by Russia and Iran, the three countries are committed to their co-operation in Syria.
The three leaders—Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Russia’s Vladimir Putin—first met on November 22 in Sochi to talk about the future of Syria.
The next meeting is planned to be held in Turkey on April 4.
Putin took a surprising step before the first trilateral meeting of the leaders, and met with Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad on November 21, a day before the summit, in Sochi.
This time, Putin is expected to come to Turkey a day before the summit to hold the Turkey-Russia High-Level Co-operation Council. Putin and Erdogan are also planning to attend the opening ceremony of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, which has been constructed by Russia in southern Turkey.
Operation started after US plans regarding the YPG were revealed
Turkey started Operation Olive Branch on January 20, in order to clear Syria’s Afrin of the YPG/PYD, PKK and Daesh, which it sees as threats to its national security.
The PYD and its armed wing, the YPG, is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, a designated terror group by Turkey, the US and the EU, which has been fighting the Turkish state for more than 30 years.
Afrin is in the northwest of Syria, which borders Turkey. It’s the only region that the YPG controls, but it hasn’t been supported by the US. There are also some Russian troops in the region.
The US supports the YPG in northeast Syria, where it created the YPG-led group, the SDF. In northeast Syria, there have been more than 10 American military posts and around 2,000 American soldiers to train and advise the SDF since 2015.
At the end of 2017, the US declared that it would create a new army out of the SDF and the YPG to enhance security in northeast Syria. That move angered Turkey, since the US has been claiming that its co-operation with the YPG is tactical and temporary, only until Daesh is defeated.
Turkey later started its first operation against the YPG on Syrian soil, after it agreed to use Syrian air space, which is controlled by Russia.