In January, Turkey launched an assault on the Syrian-Kurdish enclave of Afrin, which is controlled by People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that it considers to be a terrorist organization and an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). At the beginning, the YPG resisted. The YPG has battle-hardened fighters, but this is not the sole reason for Turkey’s failure in pushing the Kurds back to the center of Afrin in 47 days. The YPG has been well armed by the US in the fight against Islamic State (IS), and this has clearly played an important role in slowing down Turkey.
Along with this, since the failed coup attempt in 2016, thousands of Turkish soldiers have been arrested, most of whom were experienced and had fought the PKK for decades. As a result, the Turkish army has been weakened. Turkey has increased its military offensive and has taken significantly more territory. In addition, bringing in soldiers who had been stationed in the Kurdish areas of Turkey could also be interpreted as a sign of a more aggressive stance from Turkey.
Some rebel affiliates in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have also taken part in the offensive, claiming that they have nobody on their side except Turkey. A YPG commander, on the condition of anonymity, told this author that “prior to the Afrin offensive, FSA had asked Kurdish officials to allow them to send reinforcements and aid to Idlib through Afrin but the response was negative. Even the Americans asked us to help the FSA, but the decision makers refused the request.” He added, “A part of the FSA with Turkey have launched the offensive, hoping Turkey will help them so they can take and rule the enclave and link all the opposition territories. However, this operation is run directly by Iran and Russia and Turkey has become their proxy and maybe a partner in the longer run.”
Prior to the assault, Moscow had told the Kurds that the only way to prevent Turkey’s offensive was to hand over Afrin to Assad. In response, the Kurds refused and promised “to resist for Afrin with a sacrificial spirit.” In light of this, Aldar Khalil, co-chair of the executive body of the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) accused Russia of betraying the Kurds by giving a green light to Turkey. However, surprisingly, the Kurds asked Assad, who is in power only because of Russia and Iran’s support, to defend the country’s borders, but the response they received was negative.
On February 19, when pro-Syrian government forces were entering Afrin, Saleh Muslim (a member of diplomatic group of TEV-DEM and the ex-president of the Democratic Union Party-PYD) claimed, “The Kurds and Assad haven’t agreed on allowing Assad’s forces to enter Afrin.” However, the reality suggested otherwise as Assad’s forces were already on their way to Afrin, and Nuri Mahmoud, spokesman for the YPG, announced that “the YPG and Syrian government had reached an agreement and Assad’s forces were deployed on 19th of February.”
Furthermore, the PKK claimed that only Iran was involved in this agreement and that Russia was against it. However, the YPG commander added: “the agreement was reached with the presence of Iranians and Russians and it was them who pushed for this deal and the Kurdish leaders believed them as they saw no other options.”
“Forces sent by Assad are very similar to Sunni extremists. They are radical Shi’ite militia backed by Iran and it is not clear why they are in Afrin. The YPG had agreed to hand over some controlled regions to Assad and this angered some of YPG forces who didn’t want an agreement with Assad or Iran. In result, on 20th and 21st of February some of YPG forces left a few villages without fighting. They are against the idea of working with Assad as they believe Assad and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin are the main enemies of Kurds in Syria,” said the YPG commander.
Russia and Iran want to secure the future of Assad in Syria, which requires the control of the northern part of the country and pushing out US forces. Indeed, although Russia has signed a 50-year economic and commercial agreement with Assad, it will be difficult to implement this because the country’s richest resources are situated exactly in the northern areas, which happen to be controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), including the YPG.
This American presence is therefore seen as a significant threat by Iran and Russia as it impedes Assad’s future control of Syria, which is why America’s positioning there was a shrewd move. Therefore, putting pressure on the Kurds in Afrin may result in Kurdish decision makers accepting any proposals presented by Russia.
On the one hand, Russia pleased Turkey by allowing the invasion of Afrin. On the other hand, Russia then sent pro-Assad Iranian militias to Afrin, while simultaneously using the Kurds to announce claims that Russia is against the YPG-Assad agreement in order to keep Turkey on its side. The Assad-YPG agreement has not helped the Kurds resist. Furthermore, it has resulted in cracks domestically and could increase hatred amongst other Sunni Syrians toward the Kurds.
In addition, Iran’s involvement in the Assad-YPG agreement has caused the PKK to praise the Iranian regime for defending Afrin, even though this has not been the case.
“Russia and Assad are willing to help the Kurds in Afrin on certain conditions. They want us to ask the US to leave Syria, and hand over non-Kurdish territories held by the SDF in return for making Turkey leave Afrin. Russia has promised that if rebels refuse to leave Afrin, then they will bomb them like they have in the past,” said YPG commander.
It would appear that Western countries have not realized that the entire Kurdish foreign policy in Syria is based on Turkey because it is driven by the PKK. Therefore, the Kurds may accept the proposal as they are under heavy bombardment by Turkey. Furthermore, the Kurds have already paused their fight against Islamic State (ISIS) in some regions and the YPG handed over some territories in Aleppo to save Afrin, and the PKK is eager enough to defeat Turkey in the enclave without thinking about what comes next.
The PKK has been too short-sighted when it comes to political decisions, as its sole focus is Turkey.
Western countries and their allies in the region should reach out to some key figures within the Syrian opposition groups who have been criticizing Turkey for using the FSA for its interests. Furthermore, the US should make sure that the YPG and Syrian opposition groups start a dialogue to reach some shared ground.
Neither Russia nor Iran will allow the Syrian opposition to stay in Afrin. In essence, the real loss is for the Kurds and the Syrian opposition as Turkey’s sole focus is the Kurds and not Assad, and therefore after Afrin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may try to weaken Kurdish-American relations in the region and this move will be supported by Russia and Iran.
Finally, once again Russia and Iran are trying to weaken the US position in Syria, and the future of Afrin is based on how Western countries act, what the Kurds decide and how they fight. If the Kurds decide to confront Turkey with a full conventional war, then they may be able to save Afrin. However, this may require arming half a million of Kurds, because the current way of fighting, with small units trying to fight on every single corner, with guerrilla tactics, cannot prevent the fall of Afrin.
The author is a Middle East analyst. He has worked for various social and political organizations across the Middle East and Europe. He is currently working for a consultancy firm based in the United Kingdom. Ghavami holds an MA in International Relations.