What happens the day after Afrin falls?

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What happens the day after Afrin falls?

The Turkish armed forces and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups are about to close the pincer on Afrin. Initially, some observers expected Turkey to be mired in a long fight against the battle-hardened and ideologically-driven Kurdish fighters belonging to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which forms the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). But, after six weeks of fighting, Turkish forces were able to bypass the bulk of the Afrin region’s mountainous territory, going straight to the city itself. Despite initial resistance, and dozens of Turkish casualties, the Kurdish militia’s defenses in the area seem to be collapsing.

There are no tangible international pressures on Turkey to stop its operation, dubbed “Olive Branch,” despite civilian casualties and the fact Ankara has disregarded UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which called for a Syria-wide ceasefire. Russia has not opposed the operation, while American and European criticism of Turkey’s actions were — at best — soft. 

The fall of Afrin seems imminent. We do not know whether YPG forces will leave the area or stay and wage a war of attrition. Hundreds of thousands of civilians, already exposed to weeks of shelling, will be displaced from their homes. Nonetheless, Turkey has largely achieved its strategic objective of annexing what was once called the “Afrin canton” into its sphere of influence in Syria. Afrin now constitutes a land bridge between the north Aleppo pocket, controlled by the Turkish-backed “Euphrates Shield” forces, and Idlib, where Turkish-supported groups and Al-Nusra Front currently dominate. The Turkish takeover of Afrin will also have important strategic implications for Russia, the US and the Kurds.
 
In a speech last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, emboldened by his recent “achievement,” vowed not only to continue on to Manbij, but to clear the entire eastern bank of the Euphrates from “terrorists” (in reference to Kurdish fighters). Such objectives will put Turkey and the US on a collision course. Washington has built its strategy in Syria, during the fight against Daesh, on support first for the YPG and later the SDF. The area under SDF control in northeastern Syria is now home to several US bases and hundreds of American soldiers, and has become a linchpin for US strategic interests in Syria, Iraq and beyond. This policy, however, led to an unprecedented deterioration in American-Turkish relations because Turkey sees the YPG (and the SDF) as a mere facade for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been battling Ankara for more than three decades.
 
Hectic diplomatic efforts will ensue as Turkey attempts to keep Russia and the US onside, while the Kurds will have to reconsider their overall approach if they are to avoid falling victim to the interests of the great powers.
Fadi Esber
 

Recent weeks have seen renewed American attempts to bridge the gap with Turkey. Prior to his firing, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Ankara to discuss, among other things, the fate of Manbij. The Turkish deal on the table is for the SDF to withdraw from the city, which would then be policed by a joint Turkish-American force. The Trump administration is yet to respond.

After Afrin, Turkish pressures will only intensify, and so will Turkish-American negotiations. The US, however, would be reluctant to make a deal in Manbij because it might risk losing the trust of its Kurdish partners, already seriously damaged by events in Afrin. The SDF is a mix of Arab and Kurdish elements, and the territories under its control are also ethnically diverse, with many Arabs feeling uneasy about Kurdish dominance. Following what happened in Afrin, if Manbij is handed over to the Turks, a domino effect might ensue, which would seriously endanger the US-Kurdish alliance.

On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US will reduce its presence at the Incirlik air base in Turkey. With more than 5,000 US personnel posted there, Incirlik is one of the most important American military bases in the region, and in recent years has played a decisive role in its anti-Daesh campaign. Coming on the back of recent events in Afrin, this development is very telling of the current state of US-Turkish relations. 

But what if the US accepts a deal in Manbij? What price will the Turks be asked to pay? It is very likely that Washington will work on pulling Turkey and Russia apart as a condition for any US-Turkish deal. The Russian-Turkish rapprochement that began in the summer of 2016 has had deep strategic implications. Putin was able to pull Turkey, NATO’s second-largest armed force, away from the US line, albeit not completely. Russia and Turkey went from clashing over Syria to strengthening their political and economic cooperation: Turkey will serve as a hub for transferring Russian natural gas to Europe and it is looking to acquire Russian air defense systems — a move in defiance of its NATO partners. 

This emerging entente has forwarded the interests of both Russia and Turkey in Syria. Turkey joined the Astana process and agreed to the Russian-led effort toward a political solution to the conflict. Russia, on the other hand, did not object to the Turkish moves against the Kurds. With such deep involvement in Syria, Turkey cannot turn its back on its understandings with Russia without risking serious consequences that would go beyond Syria. Erdogan will therefore continue to seek rapprochement with Putin, albeit from a stronger bargaining position. It is very likely that Turkey will continue to commit to the Astana process in both its political and military aspects. How it will reconcile its dealings with Russia and the US remains an open question.

After Turkey captures Afrin (provided the current situation remains unchanged), Erdogan will seek to consolidate this “achievement” and capitalize on it. The coming weeks will therefore witness hectic diplomatic efforts. Turkey will continue dialogue with Russia over the political process, deconfliction around Afrin and de-escalation in Idlib. On the other hand, Turkish officials will continue to press for certain outcomes in Manbij in talks with their US counterparts. The Kurds, for their part, will have to reconsider their overall approach, as they stand today on the verge of falling victim — once more — to the interests of great powers.
 
  • Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, a private organization promoting research on themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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