Originally published in Huffington Post Greece on Jan. 14, 2018
With the completion of the Turkish business “Shield of the Euphrates,” a number of Turkish officials, mainly President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, confirmed that Turkey would not end its military operations, but that was rather a prelude to the start of a new operation. Several Turkish newspapers supporting the Turkish leadership, including Yeni Şafak, who is in line with the AKP ruling party, underline that the region of Afrin in the northwest of Syria, which is under the control of Kurdish militias and SDF, will be Turkey’s next target. However, the international complications of the Syrian crisis and the influence of the US, Russia and Iran on the Syrian territory, make the region particularly sensitive, which has delayed this endeavor now a matter of time. I will analyze below the signs that preceded this operation, why it is approaching and what its difficulties are.
The area of Afrin spreads over an embossed geographical area estimated at around 2,000 sq. Km. and consists of 340 villages other than the capital Afrin, whose inhabitants are mostly Kurds. The region was initially controlled by the Assad regime and at the end of 2012 by the armed Syrian opposition, and then occupied by Kurdish militias, the PYD and the YPG, who managed to reach a direct agreement with Assad regime for non-bombardment and keeping the area under the control of these militias. This Kurdish canton was an obsession for the Turkish administration, but American support for Kurdish militias was a shield protecting them from direct Turkish intervention. After the Russian intervention in the autumn of 2015 and the limitation of US influence, Moscow was a convenient route for Ankara to begin this operation.
In the last two months, Russian President Putin has visited the Turkish capital twice. The battle of Afrin was at the top of the talks between the two leaders. A Western source pointed out to me that Erdoğan asked Putin for his blessing on it, but he at the first visit requested time to complete the military operations in the eastern part of Syria against ISIS. On the second visit, Putin suggested that the Kurdish militias hand over the region to the Assad regime, so that Ankara does not need to deploy militarily. This request was completely rejected by Turkey. However, some local sources indicated that Moscow had already begun talks with Kurdish militia leaders at the base of Khmeimim. Moscow has asked them to lift the Assad flag without changing the region’s administration. In return, Moscow will prevent Turkey from intervening militarily. Indeed, at the end of last month, there was information that the Kurdish militias controlling some of Aleppo’s neighborhoods raised the flags of the Syrian regime. This move was blatantly tainted by the Turkish press, who saw this step as a clear deceit and that Moscow was trying to satisfy the Kurds in order to draw them from US influence without taking into account Turkey’s interests and national security.
As far as the Turkish-Syrian border is concerned, the atmosphere is purely martial. Turkish military units have already begun removing the dividing wall between the Turkish province of Hatay and the Afrin region. A local source assured me that the Turkish troops are still gathering in the area. Turkish newspapers reported that about 20.000 Turkish soldiers are ready to participate in this complex operation, which will include forces of the armed Syrian opposition, numbering about 15,000 fighters. The most important question remains: what will the American reaction be?
The US government recently published the New National Security Strategy for 2018. The most impressive fact is that Turkey does not refer to this strategy at all, unlike in previous years, despite the fact that Turkey’s relations with Washington are tense, due to the Turkish impact on US interests in the northern part of the Middle East. This means that Washington is currently confused about the future of its relations with Ankara. Turkey is an important member of NATO and plays an important role in Iraq, Syria and Palestine, as well as the Gulf crisis. But Ankara’s position is that Washington’s support for the Kurdish militias in Syria which views them as an extension of its influence, poses a threat to Turkey’s national security. Ankara was also the biggest foe of the recent Trump decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel. This US volatility in relations with Turkey increases the complexity of regional crises in general.
In other words, Ankara is an important factor in the Syrian crisis for both Moscow and Washington. Her influence on Syria’s armed opposition allows her to re-draw the cards. This could push Moscow to accept the operation in Afrin. Washington’s influence in the Middle East makes it unlikely that an indirect war will be held with Ankara to defend Afrin. Therefore, Ankara believes that the road to military intervention is open. But it will not be easy. The region is geographically difficult and the Kurdish fighters are preparing for years psychological and military to face Ankara. The battle is a matter of time, but no one knows exactly what its consequences will be. In my opinion, they will be devastating both for Ankara and the local civilian population.