Ali Hussein Bakeer
On Jan. 20, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launched a military offensive into Afrin, spearheaded by its Syrian opposition allies, the Free Syrian Army groups (FSA), in order to eliminate the YPG, a Syrian branch of the terrorist PKK, from Afrin, in the area bordering Turkey in Syria’s far northeast.
Taking into consideration the high complexity of the situation and the number of players involved in the area, no one claimed that Operation Olive Branch would be easy. However, Turkish officials are confident that the military operation will ultimately achieve the perceived goals regardless of the difficulties it encounters.
Turkey’s ultimate goal is to enable the people of Afrin to run their city themselves, instead of the terror group, in an attempt to reproduce a model already achieved in the areas liberated by the previous Operation Euphrates Shield. While a number of experts are busy wondering whether or not the Turkish army wants to enter/is capable of entering the heart of Afrin, the aim of the operation is to eliminate the YPG/PKK from the city and secure Turkey’s borders, whether this is achieved through entering the city, besieging it, or through other arrangements.
Ankara has already dispatched hundreds of its special forces highly trained for urban warfare, showing its readiness to enter the heart of the city, starting from Rajo, Sheykh Hadid, and Jinderes, west of Afrin. Aside from the military developments, the operation scored an early victory when it forced the YPG/PKK to uncover its true face as merely a proxy tool for foreign powers, used against Turkey. During the last few years, Ankara has struggled to explain the true nature of this terrorist group to its allies, but to no avail. However, the YPG/PKK’s recent actions and deals with Assad and Iran in Afrin spared Turkey a lot of effort.
During the first days of the operation, the YPG/PKK issued a statement asking the Assad regime for help. "We call on the Syrian state to carry out its sovereign obligations … and protect its borders with Turkey... and deploy its Syrian armed forces to secure the borders of the Afrin area," the statement read.
Suddenly, the separatist militia, aspiring to a Kurdish state in Syria, is talking about the sovereignty of the country. Obviously, this in itself is a major defeat for the YPG/PKK’s separatist project, that could have been successful had it not been for the Turkish military operation.
Operation Olive Branch highlighted the Iranian-Russian rivalry and the fierce competition between the two players to have the upper hand over the YPG/PKK and the Assad regime. Both Tehran and Moscow are working to empower Assad, help him consolidate power, and keep Turkey’s agenda in Syria in check.
Before the launch of the operation, several reports said Russia tried to convince the YPG/PKK to leave Afrin for Assad in order to avoid a Turkish military operation. Yet, the Kurdish militias refused. Although the exact reason is not known, the YPG/PKK probably thought that Turkey was bluffing, or that Moscow and Washington would prevent Ankara from launching such an operation.
The YPG/PKK openly accused Moscow of colluding with Ankara in Afrin and held it responsible. Russia responded by accusing the YPG-dominated SDF of giving the terrorist group ISIL amnesty. The situation, however, demonstrated the actual extent of Moscow’s influence on the ground.
Unlike Russia, Iran criticized the Turkish operation not only at the Foreign Ministry level, but also at the presidential level. Several Iranian media outlets dubbed Turkey’s operation “aggression and invasion.” Many experts downplayed the official Iranian statements and misinterpreted the Iranian position. Although Iran is worried about the growing role of the YPG/PKK and the U.S. presence in Syria, Tehran is even more worried about the presence of Turkish troops in the country. From Iran’s perspective, for many reasons, the U.S. troops will eventually have to leave sooner or later, but this might not be the case for Turkey. Furthermore, when it comes to Operation Olive Branch, Iran does not want to see its rival, Ankara, gain more influence in Syria in general and especially in areas where it is after a “Dahieh-style” Iranian canton in Aleppo with the towns of Nubbul and Zahra at its heart.
Pro-Iran Shiite militia reportedly clashed with Turkish troops a few days ago around Afrin. Moreover, Tehran launched secrets talks with the YPG/PKK and ultimately brokered a deal between the terror group and the Syrian regime, allowing pro-Assad militias to pour into the city. In return, the YPG/PKK transferred its control over the towns in the Aleppo province, which had originally been liberated by the Syrian opposition, to the Assad regime.
The arrival of these reinforcements is likely to empower the YPG/PKK, with some even going so far as to suggest that it would bog down the Turkish forces. Cognizant of the negative possibilities, Turkish officials warned of serious consequences for any group trying to reinforce the YPG/PKK, and even took one step further by stressing that any group aiding the terrorists would be treated by Ankara like them, and would thus constitute a legitimate target. In fact, Turkish forces fired on pro-Assad militia that had arrived to reinforce the YPG/PKK in one instance to show how serious it was. However, this did not prevent aid from Iran and Assad from reaching the YPG/PKK.
Some videos coming out of Afrin showed the YPG/PKK and Assad’s militias celebrating together, carrying photos of both the mass murderer Assad and Abdullah Ocalan, the founder and convicted leader of the terrorist PKK. For many, this is just a normal situation. The late Hafez al-Assad hosted Abdullah Ocalan and even opened a training camp for the PKK in the al-Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. His son Bashar Assad transferred control of many cities in northern Syria to the PYD/PKK at the beginning of the Syrian revolution to create a buffer zone with Turkey and to attack rebels from behind.
Washington, knowing the PYD/PKK’s strong motive to seize and control lands in its quest to establish a state, and thirsty for an autonomous region for tactical reasons, used the PYD/PKK against ISIL. However, this policy has proved to be strategically wrong, as we warned in a piece published long ago. The Afrin case, and Manbij before that, established that whenever the YPG/PKK fails to defend the territories it occupies, it will turn to Assad. This further proves that the new U.S. strategy in Syria is not sustainable.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Iraq’s donors conference in Kuwait on Feb. 13, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson rejected claims that the U.S. has little leverage or role to play in Syria, saying, “The United States and the coalition forces that are working with us … control 30 percent of the Syrian territory, a large amount of population, and a large amount of Syria’s oil fields.”
The “coalition forces” the U.S. top official was referring to in his statement are nothing but the same the YPG/PKK militiamen engaging right now in a war against Turkey, and working closely with Assad, Iran and Russia.
The so-called U.S. strategy in Syria suggests that Washington could leverage the SDF, largely made up of terrorist YPG/PKK members, to help counter Iranian ambitions in the area and to make it difficult for the Assad regime to further consolidate control across Syria. Instead, the Afrin case proved that Washington ended up supporting Assad and ultimately Iran. The U.S. is using taxpayer money to fund, train and equip a terror group which is working closely with Assad and Iran, to fight a NATO ally, Turkey.
This is a big mess which needs to be fixed starting yesterday. It will require Washington to take the right decision, followed by concrete actions to work with Turkey. Only then will the two sides be able to cooperate on their common goals and balance Iran and Russia in Syria.
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