Afrin under fire…

Originally published in the Greek weekly newspaper “Paraskinio”, issue 615, p. 39, on Jan. 27

“The operation in Afrin has begun and will continue in Manbij.” In these words, the President of Turkey announced the opening of the “Olive Branch” operation in a televised speech from Kütahya last Saturday. On the same day, 72 naval airplanes originating from Turkey bombed positions belonging to Kurdish militias in the Syrian region of Afrin, confirming the actual launch of the battle. It was clear from statements by Erdoğan and other Turkish officials, over the last four weeks, that Turkey was preparing an immediate military intervention in Afrin. However, the timing was unclear. There have been many international visits and contacts that have paved the way for this step. We will analyze the international attitude in this operation away from the statements in the media.

The American position

Since 2014, the US has been supporting with arms and logistics the Kurdish militias. When Obama declared his war against ISIS in 2014, these militias became Washington’s hand in its battle against it. Washington stepped up its military support and offered extensive air cover in Syria under the umbrella of the International Alliance Against Terror, being aware of the link between these militias and the PKK, which is considered internationally a terrorist organization. In fact, Washington through these militias succeeded in evicting ISIS from 90% of the areas east of the Euphrates river. However, escalating Turkish statements against these paramilitary groups did not force Washington to find a suitable solution that would satisfy all parties but did not fulfill its promises to them, which was also shown in the Tillerson and Pentagon statements before the start of the battle that Afrin is outside the influence of Washington and that the operation will not affect its diplomatic and economic relations with Ankara. It was clear green light. Many observers are wondering about the cause of this attitude. In my view, Washington currently does not want to escalate the tension in its relationship with Ankara. The new US strategy for the Syrian crisis is strictly linked to the weakening of Iranian influence on Syria, so the Kurdish militias are now but a tool for the US. Especially after the elimination of ISIS, and since Afrin is not linked to areas in the US sphere of influence in Syria, the impact of this operation is limited.

European position

Interestingly, there is complete silence from the European side about the operation in Afrin. There was no statement of a European official either supportive or condemning. Some Union countries support Kurdish militias with weapons and air coverage against ISIS. But it is clear that EU countries do not want their relations with Ankara be worsened again after a period of calm. The position of Germany, which hosts the largest number of Kurds, as well as political offices related to Kurdish militias, is unknown. Possibly, the reason is the inability to form a government and the political instability that prevails in the country. France waited a whole day from the start of the operation to seek an extraordinary meeting to discuss the overall situation in Syria, demonstrating that European governments do not consider the Turkish operation in Afrin as a cause for concern.

Russian position

Moscow is the only country in the world that rejects Afrin’s operation because it believes it could negatively affect the political process underway in Astana and Sochi if the Syrian opposition recovers with Afrin control after the loss of large regions of northern Syria. This position prompted Ankara to send the Chief of Staff and Head of the Intelligence Service to Moscow one day before the start of the operation. I think that Moscow did not give green light to Ankara and tried to delay it, but the Turkish military pressure forced Moscow to accept the reality.

It is important to note that politically Ankara  chose the best time for this operation. The situation in Europe is politically unstable. Trump’s Washington does not want to lose Ankara, and Moscow is obliged to maintain positive relations with it because of its active role and its great influence on the armed Syrian opposition of northern Syria. In the interior, Erdoğan’s success in achieving the operation goals may be enough to lead him to the next election battle. Thus, Ankara will have been able to derive political benefits from Afrin, always with the question if it is willing to pay a high military price in a difficult area where its militants are prepared to fight to the end.