Turkey has expanded its offensive in the mostly Kurdish region of Afrin in northern Syria. At the same time the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are partners of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition in eastern Syria, have sought to bolster their comrades in Afrin, complicating US policy in Syria and leading to a pause in major operations against the remnants of Islamic State.
Russia has quietly backed the Turkish offensive, hoping to undermine the US in Syria by forcing the Kurds to seek aid from the Russian-backed Syrian regime. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime, taking advantage of the distractions in the north and east, has upped its attacks on the rebels in eastern Ghouta.
Kurds in Afrin, under artillery and air attack, say the world has abandoned them. But the reality is that cynical policies and shared interests by all the major players have come together to turn a blind eye to the Afrin crisis.
Turkey made the first move in Afrin, expanding its role in Syria by attacking what it says are “terrorists” in the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
On Monday, Turkish air strikes killed a dozen civilians in Afrin, after a house in Jandaris collapsed on its occupants, according to a local journalist. Turkey said on March 7 it had "neutralized 3,055 terrorists” in Afrin since January, a rate of almost 65 killed a day. On March 7 Turkey destroyed the main mobile phone connection of Syria’s MTN telecom in Afrin, and locals say they have no service now. A CBS report from the city says that the hospitals are struggling to cope with the wounded, and BBC has also noted civilian casualties.
The battle has become desperate for the YPG, with Turkish forces less than a dozen kilometers from the major city of Afrin, for which the district is named. Last month the YPG approached the Syrian regime and welcomed pro-regime fighters to bolster its defenses. The YPG relationship with the Syrian regime is complex because the YPG is also part of the SDF in eastern Syria and therefore a partner of the US. But the YPG and the regime coexist on other issues, such as their joint opposition to jihadist groups and ISIS.
On Tuesday, the SDF announced that it had made the “painful decision” to begin sending volunteers from eastern Syria to fight in Afrin. The international community had failed to pressure Turkey to “stop its madness.”
The SDF’s decision comes after a month of waiting for the US to restrain Turkey, which Washington views as a NATO ally. US President Donald Trump has urged Turkey to limit its operations, and the US State Department has called for a cease-fire in all of Syria, including Afrin, and France called for a “humanitarian truce.” The UN and EU have expressed concern.
According to the YPG, it believed that the US would find a diplomatic solution.
“The US officials I talked to said that Turkey’s Afrin operation is a Russian-Turkish political game aimed at undermining the US presence in Syria,” a source connected to the YPG said.
Russia’s agenda is to weaken the US-Turkey alliance by claiming that Russia respects Ankara’s security wishes more than the US. Russia supports the Syrian regime as well and wants the US to wrap up its role in eastern Syria, rather than put down more roots.
When the US announced in January the training of tens of thousands of security officers in eastern Syria, alarm bells went off in Damascus, Moscow and Ankara. Suddenly, Ankara and Damascus, which oppose each other in Syria, had a common enemy: America. But Ankara can’t fight the US directly, so it wants to strike at the YPG, which is a client. Damascus plays a double game, letting fighters and aid through to Afrin.
Quietly, the US is concerned that “ethnic cleansing” could take place in Afrin, the source said. But Afrin is far away from the US area of operations, and the US has no direct connection to Afrin except through Syrian regime territory. Officially, the US opposes the Assad regime, even though the US has a “de-confliction” agreement with Russia and doesn’t fight the regime.
Russia, which controls the airspace in western Syria, has not sought to interdict Turkish air power.
Damascus makes a pragmatic choice.
It can’t stop Israeli air raids or Turkey, so it watches in frustration and concentrates on destroying the Syrian rebellion in Ghouta near Damascus. Damascus thinks eastern Ghouta is a good tradeoff, and uses the Afrin distraction to destroy a key rebel holdout.
The SDF has now played one of its last Afrin cards. It has said it will redeploy forces from eastern Syria and the fight against ISIS to defend Kurds in Afrin.
This is a major signal to Washington that the SDF is not just a client to be used to do America’s bidding, but that it, like Turkey, has its own agenda.
Saleh Muslim, the Kurdish leader who is closely allied to the YPG and once ran its political wing, gave a speech in Berlin in which he said the war in Afrin is against ISIS and Turkish-backed jihadists.
Meanwhile, Turkey sent its foreign minister to Berlin to request that the Germans extradite Muslim. They tried the same thing in the Czech Republic in late February, and Muslim was briefly detained. Turkey hopes that it can shift the battlefield from Afrin to the EU and keep the focus off long enough to get to the city and declare victory.
From the SDF’s standpoint, the decision to send fighters to Afrin, or to threaten to do so, is a message.
“Turkey’s attacks are benefiting ISIS to reemerge,” said the source close to the YPG. “Turkey’s Kurdophobia has no limits.”
From Ankara’s viewpoint, the operation in Afrin is an extension of the war against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. In 2015, a cease-fire broke down, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has encouraged populist rhetoric to justify the conflict. Turkey claims that the US support for the SDF actually results in support for the YPG and PKK along the Turkish border. Pro-government media refer to the YPG as “YPG/ PKK” in their coverage to indicate this.
Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has told the US to stop “shifting” fighters to Afrin.
The Kurds in Afrin find themselves continued victims of conflicting interests.
The Western powers have worked since 2011 to solve the Syrian civil war, but Assad continues his brutal war against the rebels. If the West can’t stop Assad, how can they stop Turkey, which is a NATO power and nominally receives backing for its “security needs” along the border, and which enjoys strong diplomatic connections in the West? Western powers have restrained Israel’s actions in Gaza under similar circumstances.
The Syrian regime could also slow the Afrin operation. Turkey has grabbed half the province already, but Damascus may draw a red line. To do that, it needs Moscow’s backing. According to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russia and Turkey are holding a bilateral meeting on March 14 to usher through joint energy projects. Afrin could be sacrificed for what Russia sees as a much bigger energy ally prize in Turkey.
The Americans have no real card to play in Afrin. They can’t intervene militarily.
They are already concerned about regime moves along the Euphrates and defeating ISIS.
The SDF decision to move forces to Afrin might backfire, making policy- makers in Washington see the SDF as unreliable, and give wind to those arguing to pull up stakes and head home from eastern Syria.
Kurds are trying one more push for support. On March 8, they held a rally in London on International Women’s Day.
“Defending Afrin means defending women’s revolution,” a Kurdish students group tweeted. “The Kurds are still hoping that the US will do something to prevent further attacks, at least close the airspace to Turkish jets and drones,” an activist said.
Years after a no-fly zone for Aleppo failed to gain Western sympathy, the Afrin pleas will likely fall on deaf ears.
The Kurds will lose confidence in their US partnership, and may reach out to Damascus and Russia in desperation.