If Turkey wants to succeed in Afrin it will need to achieve its objectives before Russia is encouraged to make a deal with the YPG that can undermine, or effectively end, the operation.
Turkey has been on a long overdue border mission against the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, the YPG, since early this year. Turkey aims to clear the city of Afrin and its surrounding climes of YPG and PKK members, which would undoubtedly prove to be a gamechanger in northern Syria, and may even assist in the stabilisation of the last major opposition-held enclave in Idlib.
Turkey’s advance has allowed it to secure its border from YPG presence all the way to Jarablus, which was snatched away from so-called Islamic State (Daesh) extremists during Operation Euphrates Shield back in 2016.
While Turkey has all but sealed off the Afrin pocket apart from Assad regime-held territory near Aleppo, there are signs that Operation Olive Branch – the codename for Turkey’s border mission – might be reaching a critical stage as the YPG attempts to cut deals with third parties to survive.
In its desperation to defend against the joint Turkish and Free Syrian Army (FSA) onslaught, and with its front lines methodically collapsing, the YPG agreed to allow Assad regime troops and allied pro-Iran Shia militias into nearby Tel Rifat. Syrian state media then showed footage of regime soldiers inside Tel Rifat.
The Russian factor
The YPG’s play here is to concede territory to the Assad regime that it knows stands a high chance of losing, if it attempts to hold it unilaterally against Turkey’s steady advance. In other words, the YPG – who claims to champion Kurdish independence in Syria and beyond – has issued a call to help to subordinate themselves to a regime they claim to oppose – and that savagely oppressed the Kurdish people for decades – just to keep it out of the Turkish-backed FSA’s hands.
This is not the first time that the YPG has callously prioritised their relationship with the Syrian regime over the Syrian people who have been struggling for their freedom since 2011.
From the very start of the Syrian revolution, the revolutionaries have been undermined by the YPG that has selfishly sold them out just to make greedy land grabs. In 2012, with the Assad regime on the ropes, the regime cut a deal with the YPG that saw it withdraw from many Kurdish-claimed territories. The Assad regime – which had spent decades persecuting the Kurds – suddenly decided to withdraw without firing a single shot, as it could count on the YPG to not side with the revolution and to instead fight the revolutionaries, thereby easing the burden on the Assad regime itself.
Fast forward to today, and the YPG is once again cutting deals with the regime to the detriment of what is left of the Syrian revolution. As Russia and Iran have decisively intervened on behalf of the regime, and with the revolution all but decimated as the people of eastern Ghouta get fed into Assad’s meat grinder, Moscow has sought to bring as much territory under at least nominal regime control as possible.
Prior to the launching of Operation Olive Branch, Russia made an offer to the YPG to transfer territory under its control back to the regime, perhaps with a future understanding about providing them with autonomy or some kind of federal system. The YPG spurned the Russians, which was perhaps a costly error, as it gave Moscow an incentive to accommodate Turkey’s plans.
Turkey must take Afrin quickly
Knowing that Turkey was eager to secure its border from any further YPG terror threat, and also sighting an opportunity to further undermine an already strained relationship between Ankara and Washington, Russia agreed to relocate its forces from Afrin and to allow Turkish airpower to operate over the enclave. With Turkey having been continually spurned by its so-called NATO ally, Russia saw an opportunity to escalate tensions between Ankara and Washington by extending assistance to the former and upstaging the latter as a partner.
It seems apparent that Moscow has decided to punish the YPG by allowing Turkey and its Syrian allies to pummel its positions, and threaten their very existence in north western Syria.
Following the YPG’s loss of territory, including Rajo which lies on a major road leading to Afrin itself, it seems obvious that they would seek to secure Tel Rifat to prevent the Afrin pocket from being sealed off on all sides. Also, by allowing the regime into these territories, the YPG aims to convince Russia that it now has to lean on Turkey to get it to accept regime control over Afrin, something Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has suggested would be acceptable to Ankara.
However, the force concentration of Assad regime troops and allied militias appears to be too small, and the YPG has indicated that it is not yet willing to cede control politically to the regime, which means Moscow is unlikely to intervene.
However, it is in Turkey’s interests to control Afrin and commit more military resources – including an increase in the number of Turkish troops and armour deployed – to speed up the process of taking Afrin.
Rather than the city being besieged within days, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, it has now been a month and a half since the start of operations. Turkey is rightly concerned about the domestic impact of losing too many soldiers, but without a rapid and decisive victory soon, the YPG may find a way to survive by conceding to Russian and Assad regime demands. However, this is looking less and less likely as Turkish-backed forces are now less than a kilometre away from Afrin, and have it pincered from two axes of advance.
If the YPG do manage to survive by ceding control of territory to the regime and therefore pleasing both Assad and Putin, Turkish citizens will not be safer, as the Syrian regime has a long history of aiding and abetting the PKK for decades, a group considered terrorists by the United States, European Union and Turkey.
Should the YPG become subsumed into the regime, Assad is unlikely to forget Turkey’s support for the opposition and will be seeking to exact revenge by destabilising Turkey domestically. This will mean an increased output in PKK attacks, and the YPG will be used as an auxiliary force alongside the plethora of pro-Iran militias to support the Syrian military in crushing the rebellion.
If Afrin is left in the hands of the regime, then Idlib too will be all but lost, and Turkey will have an extremely bitter regime looking to undermine and harm it right on its southern border, and in areas where there is already a high concentration of PKK/YPG activity.
Turkey is on the clock, and it must do everything it can to prevent the YPG coming to an accord with the regime which will encourage Russia to call time on Olive Branch. This would be almost as disastrous an outcome as losing the battle for Afrin altogether, and would have deadly consequences for Turkey for years to come.
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