Turkey’s Afrin victory comes amid risk and uncertainty
TUNIS - Turkish troops and their Syrian proxies swept into the disputed Kurdish town of Afrin on March 18, displacing the populace and marking a new chapter in Syria’s bloody war with another foreign power claiming rights over part of the country.
Turkish bulldozers cleared the main square in Afrin of any reminder of the town’s erstwhile inhabitants as fighters of the Free Syrian Army fired weapons into the air.
The Turkish march looks to continue from Afrin. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke of clearing the “terror corridor” along Syria’s border to the east of Afrin as his forces advanced to “Manbij, Ayn al-Arab (Kobane), Tel Abyad, Ras al-Ain and Qamishli until this corridor is fully removed.”
Little looks to be standing in their way.
Despite the nationalistic crescendo that accompanied Erdogan’s rhetoric, the battle was not as swift and was far from as clean as promised. Begun January 20, Turkey’s operation has cost Ankara dearly. An estimated 50-80 regular Turkish soldiers were killed and 195-447 of their allied militia members have died.
Allegations of war crimes have been widespread. In addition to shooting fleeing refugees and the mutilation of a Kurdish female fighter’s body, Turkey stands accused of recruiting Islamic State (ISIS) fighters to bolster its proxies’ numbers.
Many Turkey-aligned militiamen have been filmed proudly declaring allegiance to al-Qaeda and its affiliates while singing songs of jihad waged in Dagestan and Chechnya. Few are likely to be opposed to aiding the Turkish advance along the border.
Accusations and counter-accusations have long divided Syria’s rebels. However, in finding common cause within Turkish pockets, talk of unity is again being heard. In a March 22 report, a Turkey-aligned rebel told the Guardian: “I mean, even Bashar Assad didn’t succeed in uniting us.”
The unnamed official said the rebels’ new unity would draw the population in behind them. “The people now hate all the rebel factions and this will change when there is a unified army,” he told the Guardian.
However, Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at Atlantic Council, said, in e-mailed comments: “This is certainly the intention but I think it’s clear from the events following the fall of Afrin to Turkey that no force really speaks for or controls the fighters on the ground.”
Nevertheless, Ankara remains victorious; its victory pried from the cracks between Russia and the United States’ competing war aims.
As Turkish forces advanced into Afrin with Moscow’s apparent sanction, the United States, the Kurds’ principal ally in Syria, had little choice but to watch its partners leave their positions. Abu Omar al-Idlibi, a Syrian Democratic Forces commander, announced on March 7 the redeployment of 1,700 Kurds to Afrin. More are thought to have withdrawn unofficially to defend their homes against Turkish forces.
US positions within the oil-rich territory east of the Euphrates look to have been weakened by the shift, with untested Arab recruits filling gaps left by their experienced and battle-hardened compatriots.
Stein said what was “undeniable is that the Turkish war in Afrin has upended the American war in the lower-ERV (Euphrates River Valley).”
While the hands of the United States and its political adversaries in Damascus are weak, Ankara’s are far from free. Erdogan began his incursion into Syria with the apparent blessing of Moscow, which controls much of Syria’s airspace. Among the Kremlin’s likely reasons for acquiescing to Turkey’s demands was the opportunity to weaken the United States in Deir ez-Zor by undermining its alliance with the Kurds.
Now, as Erdogan eyes his future in Syria, detente between Russia and the Trump administration risks undermining his victory.
Erdogan has proceeded so far under Russian patronage. However, as a former Indian ambassador to the region, M.K. Bhadrakumar, wrote in the Asia Times, with US President Donald Trump talking of a summit in the “not too distant future” that Kremlin-sanctioned grace period may prove shorter than Erdogan would like.