Being the defeated party in Syria, Turkey is now in a tight corner because of the risk of losing Idlib. Ankara tries to overcome this situation by calling for a military operation on Afrin. In the mood of "in the interest of the US despite the US", the Erdoğan administration aims to be a big actor that Washington cannot ignore on the ground and, therefore, to switch to the winning side. The operation, which is legitimized on the terms of "sabotaging the terror corridor of the US", may actually disrupt Russia's plans rather than the US'.
Within the week, Turkey has increased and sharpened its statements on a possible military operation on the regions controlled by the PKK-related YPG in Syria. To be able to understand Turkey’s aims on the Afrin operation, it is important to look at the interests of the US and Russia competing over Syria and the reflections of this competition on the ground.
CLOSING STRATEGY OF THE US
For the US, the address for the solution is the Geneva discussions. The US still announces its ultimate aim in the Geneva process as "Assad's resignation". However, the answer to the question "why" is a total mystery. In fact, Assad's resignation is not a realistic option even for the US think-tanks, which were once the biggest proponents of "regime change" since the Syrian Army took control of Aleppo.
The US turned its wheels towards "blocking Iran’s way to the Mediterranean", after its defeat in Aleppo. This plan’s aim was to build an army consisting of the YPG, the US’s proxy on the ground, and to start a proxy war against the Iran-backed powers on the ground. YPG and PYD, by stating that "the real threat is Iran", showed that YPG is also interested in this plan.
Trump, in July, empowered the US army with shooting down the Iran-backed militias in Syria. But this plan had serious handicaps. First, YPG is not powerful enough to cope up with the Iran-backed militia on the ground and this meant the US had to send over more land forces at some point. The US, on the other hand, has remained distant to a full-scale intervention in Syria. Second, Iran was powerful enough to disrupt the interest of the US in Iraq. And third, Trump’s European allies did not seem to be interested in this dangerous game that may trigger a regional war when they were increasing their investments in Iran. The Syrian army, eventually, arrived in the town of Al-Bukamal on the Iraqi border in November and completed the "Iranian corridor to the Mediterranean", forcing the US to move into a "defensive" line.
A MORE 'DEFENSIVE' OFFENSE
The manifestation of the third plan was the statement of Jim Mattis, the US Secretary of Defense, in November, on the future of the US’s military existence in Syria. He implicitly stated that they would divide Syria if the regime did not change by saying that "there is no place for Assad in a united Syria". Thus, "an army consisting of YPG", which was in the previous plan, was replaced by "border guarding forces consisting of YPG".
The US informed Turkey while preparing to set the borders of the regions controlled by YPG. According to Ankara, the US President Donald Trump promised to stop providing arms for YPG in his meeting with the Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan in November. Although the statements made by the US on this meeting also confirmed the promise of "not providing YPG with arms", the statements of the Pentagon representative interviewed by Wall Street Journal were remarkable: "Trump informed Erdoğan of pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners in Syria". In fact, the US was once again putting the play of "soothing Turkey by changing the name" on the stage like it did after the Membij operation in 2015. Thus, as the commander of United States Special Operations Command, General Raymond Thomas, admitted in July 2017, they advised YPG to change their name. Following the advice, YPG formed the Syrian Democratic Forces in October 2015. And "border guards" refers arming YPG without saying “we provide arms for YPG".
NO PLACE FOR TURKEY IN THE PLANS OF THE US
The US turned the wheels towards forcing Iran out of Syria by using "diplomatic means", in Mattis’ words, from "blocking Iran’s ways to the Mediterranean". What this actually means is using the YPG region as a bargaining item against Syria to make it abandon its anti-Israel line in which is allied with Iran. As a matter of fact, it is calculated that 250 billion dollars are needed to reconstruct the country after the war. And the YPG region has 90 percent of the Syrian petroleum and natural gas reserves to be used while financing the reconstruction as well as two-thirds of the wheat production, which is aimed to be increased, and three big hydroelectric plants.
This US strategy does not stand on isolating Russia. On the contrary, it relies on making Russia neutral by certain compromises. Because of this, the US set the Euphrates River valley as the border line. Afrin is west of this border line, meaning it is on the region that has been left to Russia.
Trump’s government stated in July that it cut off the CIA aid provided for the "rebels" through Turkey and Jordan as a "goodwill gesture". Thus, Russia was given a message saying that "if you do not intervene in the east of Euphrates, I will not intervene in the west". This meant that Turkey’s proxies on the ground left all alone against Russian and Syrian armies.
Washington that did not need the proxies of Turkey on the ground did not also need Turkey on the table. Because, Turkey, besides being non-functional for the US, has been harming the strategy based on YPG. For this reason, while the US secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is preparing for the Geneva discussions, Turkey is isolated from the process entirely although England, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are there.
THE PLAN OF THE US IS HANDICAPPED
To the extent that it is reflected in the US press, there has been a mind exercising in the discussions about dividing Syria. However, there is no consensus among the countries that the US tries to win. That England, one of the core countries, revealed that YPG and Islamic State (IS, ISIS) had a secret agreement in Raqqa, and then that the US published a documentary showing the Saudis, on whom the regional politics have been rested, as the "basis of radicalism in the region" are important indicators.
England also showed its disagreement regarding the plans of the US on the region by voting "yes", in the United Nations General Assembly, to condemn Trump’s Jerusalem decision of declaring it as the capital of Israel. In this voting, France also followed England.
Another country challenging the US politics regarding the Syrian question is Germany. Germany also voted "yes" in the Jerusalem voting. The German government remains silent about the plan of the US, while at the same time it is taking harsh resolutions like arresting YPG-PKK supporters within its own borders. However, it is important to note that the vice-president of Marshall Fund, a prominent think-tank of Germany, stated through DW that "the US is ignoring the link between PYD and PKK". While Germany, England and France are on the same page about overcoming the regional problems by integrating Iran into the global capitalist system, they all protected the nuclear agreement with Iran that Trump wanted to cancel.
Furthermore, it should not be ignored that Russia has the chance of contacting directly with both Jordan and Egypt. This chance brought a ceasefire enabling Syria to move first to Deir ez-Zor and then to Idlib on the Dera front controlled through Jordan. Egypt also needs more military aid from Russia to fight against jihadist attacks centred in Sinai recently and the only reason why it is on the table of Washington is the concern of the US about Cairo’s increasing closeness to Russia.
The biggest handicap of the dividing plan is that all parts, despite being controlled by different armed groups, are still subjected to Damascus. Although YPG region is rich in economic terms, it is really difficult for YPG to survive without Aleppo’s industry and Homs’ oil refineries. It is also questionable how long it can survive with the US’ financial aid. Although the US tries to find a quick solution by playing the "dividing" card, these economic facts turn the scene in favour of Syria. It is also worth mentioning that Syria and its allies have always used war of attrition by extending it over a period of time against the "blitzkrieg" of the US since 2011. China, Russia and Iran have the economic capacity to relieve Syria’s resource crisis for reconstruction. Yet, it should be remembered that the US was able to create a state from Kosovo Albanians.
IDLIB IS NOT THE DEATH BUT PREPARATION OF SOCHI
Russia actually tries to bypass Geneva by starting Sochi discussions in the name of "supporting" the Geneva discussions. Following the resolution of 2254 of the UN Security Council that Geneva relies on, Russia tries to bring the Damascus government and the opposition together in a frame drawn by itself entirely. One of the parts of this discussion in which Russia frames the "constitution writing", "election call" and "transition process" included in the resolution no.2254 is Turkey. And Turkey leans towards a tactical agreement with the Russian leader Vladimir Putin because it realized that it is isolated from Geneva and that if it does not intervene in Sochi, PYD will have a free hand there.
Russia has used this tactical agreement in order to sabotage what is going on in the US part, rather than to paralyze the Turkey-backed groups on the ground. As it can be remembered, the Russia-Turkey crisis starting with Turkey’s downing of Russian warplane in November 2015 ended up with Russia’s defeat of Turkey-backed groups and its victory over Turkey in that sense, even when the CIA’s arming program was still at work. So although it is declared that "Turkey wants Afrin in return for Idlib", Russian and Syrian armies can defeat the jihadists groups in Idlib in spite of Turkey. Because of that, Idlib is not a game changer although it is a card to play in the Afrin bargaining of Turkey.
However, Turkey is also the biggest handicap in Sochi. In fact, the "People’s Congress" that was planned to happen on November 18 was delayed to the end of this month after Turkey’s objections. Turkey’s reason was, of course, related with that PYD would send a representative to the discussion. Although Russia tried to overcome this objection by hosting PYD representatives without declaring them as PYD representatives and renaming the congress as "Syrian Congress", it also thinks that a more open discussion should be done with YPG and PYD in order to find a realistic solution to eliminate Geneva.
From this point, it may be seen as a "wrong move" if Russia starts implementing an Idlib operation and draw the reaction of Turkey while seeing Sochi that important. However, Putin, who is sure about that Turkey cannot find any place in Geneva, is planning to take away the cards of Erdoğan with which he can sabotage Sochi and, so to speak, make him useless by helping Idlib get under the control of Syrian army. In this way, Russia is planning to have a chance to contact with PYD-YPG more openly and directly.
However, this is not the only objective in the operation on Idlib. It is clear that the Russia, Syria and Iran alliance at the end will have to settle accounts with the US existence in Syria. It is the exact reason why Russia regularly reminds that the military existence of the US in Syria is illegal. As it can be remembered, while calls of "now it is time for Raqqa" was heard from Iran and Syria after the Deir Ez-Zor operations, Russia’s alliance was interpreted as an ultimate step back directed to Idlib. However, Idlib operation actually cuts down the attempts of the US to move to the west of Euphrates and harm Syria’s allies.
WHAT IS THE AIM OF AFRIN OPERATION?
When it gets clearer that what is going to happen in Syria in 2018, Turkey’s aims with Afrin operation becomes transparent.
Although the operation was presented as a reaction against the US’ plan of "building a 30 thousand-strong border guard force", it is actually an attempt of Turkey to overcome the bottle-neck that was tightened by Idlib plans and being eliminated from Sochi after Geneva.
Then, how will Turkey overcome this situation by taking Afrin and then Membij? The answer to this question depends on the strategic importance of Afrin and Membij. If Turkey succeeds in fulfilling its own aims, Syria’s commercial centre Aleppo will be extruded starting from the rural parts of the west through the east. As a matter of fact, between Afrin and Membij on the north side of Idlib is there the Azaz-Mare line that Turkey took control of after the Euphrates operation. And this means Turkey can take a very important corridor even if it loses Idlib. Furthermore, Turkey will also get the north end of the Euphrates River valley that turned into a de facto border line between the US and Russia. By stating that YPG may someday turn its back on the US, Erdoğan actually proposes Washington to "increase the alternatives", rather than "being the only alternative".
If Turkey takes such a position, it calculates that the US will no longer ignore the country. Even in Erdoğan’s statements saying that the US "tries to build a terror corridor targeting Turkey", it is important that he also put emphasis on "planning the regional politics together with Washington" and "Washington needs to do this together if we are strategic partners".
Therefore, Afrin operation is not despite the US or "to sabotage the US' terror corridor", but it is the result of planning to be an essential ally for the US again. That is why the first step of the plan is Afrin which will make the smallest harm to the plans of the US. While Washington remains silent to Turkey’s Afrin messages, the anti-Islamic State coalition led by the US glosses over the question about Turkey’s operation by stating that the region is not theirs.
When it is considered that Russia is the de facto international guarantor of Afrin, Turkey also aims to sabotage Russia’s possible relationship with PYD-YPG. Russia has been the only actor who called for a ceasefire in return of Turkey’s statements on Afrin until now. But it is important to remind that both the US government and Russia used Turkey’s discourse on military intervention targeting YPG as a card in negotiations before. For instance, while the Euphrates Shield Operation enabled YPG to participate in the operation without any question, Russia forced YPG to raise the Syrian flag in Afrin.
At this point, the emphasis made by Turkey on Syria’s territorial integrity also conflicts with Turkey's attempts on the ground. Turkey has tried to establish a separate governmental structure, security force and even an army in where it got the control of during the Euphrates Shield. In a similar way, following that a regime change in Syria is now difficult, the first maps published by the US think-tanks included a "Kurdish region", "Sunni region" and "Alevi region", which is controlled by Damascus, that excluded Afrin. The then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, stated that "Assad aims to establish an Alevi state on the coast". Turkey, in this period, was trying to move the war to the region called "the coast" where Alevis were the majority and to keep the Syrian army away from the "Sunni region".
WHAT WILL DAMASCUS SAY?
The role of Damascus is significant in Afrin operation. First of all, the only supply line linking Afrin with the other regions under the control of YPG is going through Aleppo that is under the control of Damascus.
Pro-government press in Turkey and those trying to present the AKP government as standing in the camp of Russia argue that the Damascus government will remain silent about Afrin by making a simple reasoning that says "Turkey is against PKK and so Assad". However, this argument totally ignores the complex relationship between Syria and YPG. First and foremost, it is important to note that although the Syrian President Assad targeted YPG by stating that "those who work with the US are betrayers", he considers the FSA groups that will be deployed there if Turkey gets the control of Afrin as terrorists besides betrayers.
The Damascus government allows for Russia’s diplomatic attempts instead of facing YPG in middle-term. It would not be true to infer from this picture that Turkey will get support at least by staying silent.
As a matter of fact, before Turkey started to talk about Afrin, the Damascus government reminded that Turkey’s existence on the land of Syria is internationally illegitimate since it provided aid for the jihadist groups in Idlib. A reaction against Turkey’s talks on Afrin came from Syria’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faisal Mekdad. Mekdad described Turkey’s existence in Syria as "occupation" and said, "we invite Turkey to draw their forces from our country and not to intervene in our internal affairs".
The argument that Turkey and Syria can come in good terms because they are both against YPG is contradictory with past experiences as well. Turkey was targeted by a Syrian aircraft when it attempted to enter into Membij, which was controlled by YPG, after the operation on Al-Bab and the Euphrates Shield was prevented from going further by the coalition between Syria and YPG.
At the same time, Syria’s Foreign Affairs described the US attempt to build a 30 thousand-strong border guard force clearly as "an offensive move targeting Syria’s territorial integrity". While the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, stated that the US aims to divide Syria, Iran stated that "the US attempt to build a border force is exacerbating the situation". Therefore, for Damascus and its allies, going against both the Afrin operation and the US plans of division does not contradict with each other. On the contrary, it constitutes the necessary parts of a complete strategy at the end of the war.
THE MOST SYRIAN KURDISH REGION
It is important to remind the social realities in the city when talking about Afrin. The city, whose population is estimated to be over 300 thousand with the internal migration after the war, adopted the "Syrian" identity more than the other Kurdish cities in Syria. PKK, within a 20-year period from the 1980s to 2000s, had underlined "resolutions within Syria" rather than "autonomy" for the Kurdish problem in Syria. Therefore, the organization left other "autonomist" pro-Barzani Kurdish parties behind in Afrin.
The ruling party Baas’ decision to hold its annual conference in YPG-controlled Afrin intended to send a message, but it also showed the city’s political orientation.
YPG has a strong social support in Afrin. The region that was under siege since 2012 until 2016 when the Syrian army took the control of Aleppo was attacked several time in the meantime. But jihadists groups had not succeeded at all in these attacks. It is known that YPG formed a strong line of defence with tunnels and caves on the mountains surrounding Afrin. It took nearly 4 months for Turkey to take Al-Bab, whose size was one-tenth of the Afrin region, from Islamic State. Therefore, even if Turkey does not face with a strong opposition in the international arena, Erdoğan may not get what he wants. When the weakness of the Turkey-backed Euphrates Shield groups on the ground is considered, Turkey may have to mobilize a much bigger force than planned in order not to make the conflicts spread to the Azaz corridor, the region of Euphrates Shield.