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Extending Turkey’s Afrin operation will pose major challenges

Turkey’s military on Saturday suffered the deadliest day of its campaign against Kurdish militias in the canton of Afrin in northern Syria, with seven soldiers killed. And, despite capturing a number of villages and the strategic Mount Barsaya, Operation Olive Branch has achieved somewhat modest progress since it began on Jan. 20.
But, given the intensity of the fighting, the number of fatalities among Turkish troops — 14 in just over a fortnight — is not high. And, whether or not the operation achieves its aims (which have not been clearly defined), there is no credible prospect of a defeat of Turkey’s military, which is far more powerful than the Kurdish forces, has air supremacy over Afrin, and is backed by some 25,000 fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). 
In fact, Turkey’s strategic calculations with regard to the other major players in Syria have meant that it has so far had free rein in Afrin. Ankara sought, and achieved, a green light for the operation from the most important of those players: Russia. Moscow moved its military observers in Afrin away from potential combat zones, allowed Turkish warplanes to use the canton’s airspace, and said America’s “unilateral actions” in Syria have “infuriated” Turkey.
This drew accusations of betrayal from the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which previously had enjoyed good ties with Moscow. “They (the Russians) have clearly sold us out,” said YPG commander Sipan Hemo. Ankara correctly calculated that, if Russia had to prioritize its relations with Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, it would choose the former.
Ankara’s robust stand vis-a-vis the Kurds’ other major ally — the US — has also paid off, with American forces in Syria not heeding their pleas for help in Afrin, and Washington stressing its understanding of Turkey’s security concerns. Despite strained ties with Ankara and calls for Turkish restraint, the US is not willing to risk a political or military standoff with its fellow NATO member for the sake of Afrin’s Kurds.
Iran, which along with Turkey and Russia co-sponsors the Astana diplomatic process on Syria, has called for the end of Operation Olive Branch. But there is no threat, indication or prospect of Iranian forces and proxies on the ground challenging the campaign.
Meanwhile, two days before it began, Damascus threatened to shoot down Turkish warplanes in Syrian airspace, and said it considered any incursion into Afrin “an aggression… against the sovereignty of Syria.” Days into the offensive, Damascus said it would “act accordingly.” But these warnings have come to nothing and Kurdish pleas for the Syrian regime to intervene have gone unheeded. There could be various reasons for this.

Ankara has not clarified its long-term strategy in northern Syria and the absence of a credible plan will significantly undermine its current military operation, making its potential success only temporary. 

Sharif Nashashibi 

The regime would not want direct conflict with a far more powerful army, particularly when its main patron — Russia — has acquiesced to Operation Olive Branch. Damascus may also be content to witness fighting between the Kurds, whose control of a quarter of Syria is a major obstacle to President Bashar Assad’s repeated vow to retake the whole country, and his enemies Turkey and the FSA. Indeed, in December, Assad described Kurdish forces allied with the US as “traitors.”
Speculation is also rife that, given the increased intensity of assaults by the regime and its allies in Idlib province — a major rebel stronghold that borders Turkey, and where Ankara is monitoring a “de-escalation zone” — a backdoor deal was made: Afrin for Idlib. If that is the case, the regime’s verbal opposition to Operation Olive Branch may be purely for public consumption. It might also explain the muting of Turkish condemnation of the Idlib assaults, and why Kurdish forces from the bulk of their territory in northeast Syria have not crossed into Afrin (the only way they could do so is through regime-held territory).
Given all of the above, Afrin’s Kurds are as isolated politically as they are geographically and militarily. They are cut off from the other Kurdish cantons, facing Turkish and Syrian rebel forces to the north, east and west, and a regime to the south that is unwilling or unable to get involved.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the operation will extend beyond Afrin to include the city of Manbij, and possibly go as far east as Iraq. That is where Operation Olive Branch is likely to run into significant problems. 
The extension would take it to the bulk of Kurdish forces, population centers and territory, which borders Kurdish-majority areas of Iraq and Turkey. This raises the possibility of Kurds from those countries coming to the aid of their ethnic kin in Syria. Indeed, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is waging an insurgency in Turkey, has called for “resistance” against Operation Olive Branch.
Arguably the bigger obstacle is the presence of American forces in the areas to which Erdogan has vowed to extend the campaign, particularly Manbij. Some 2,000 US military personnel are supporting the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has vowed to resist Turkey’s operation. Washington has said it has no plans to withdraw its forces from Manbij, despite Turkey’s insistence that it do so, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month said the US intends to maintain an open-ended military presence in Syria. 
Ankara may have gotten its way in Afrin, but it can only successfully extend its operation if the US undertakes a significant climb-down, not just in terms of Turkey’s demands, but also of American strategy in Syria. That is a big “if” indeed.
There is also the issue of a Turkish exit strategy when Kurdish forces are pushed back. To ensure they do not return, particularly to border areas, will Turkey maintain a long-term presence in northern Syria, or will it rely on its Syrian proxies? Will the latter even be able to hold captured territory on their own against assaults by Kurdish or pro-regime forces? In any case, non-Kurdish control of Kurdish-majority areas will be no easy or sustainable feat. 
Ankara has not clarified its long-term strategy in northern Syria. The absence of a credible plan will significantly undermine its current military operation, making its potential success only temporary. 
Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs. Twitter: @sharifnash