What does Afrin mean for international security?
2 Feb 2018|

On 20 January, the Turkish armed forces began Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, an area of Syria controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), one of the key opposition groups to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The operation has deep implications for regional and international security, as it affects Turkey, Syria, the Kurds and the international community in different ways.

In 2013, the Democratic Union Party, seeking to exploit the Assad regime’s weakness, announced the creation of three autonomous but non-contiguous regions in northern Syria—Afrin, Kobane and Jazira—which are collectively known as Rojava.

The Kurds don’t operate as a single entity, and some of them have competing interests. For example, some Syrian Kurds cooperate with the Assad regime because they’re hostile to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). Others, such as the YPG, work with the Americans.

The Turkish government has repeatedly claimed that the YPG is either allied to or part of the PKK, a group banned in Turkey and many other countries for engaging in terrorism.

The Turks claim that they’re fighting a terrorist group that seeks to establish a base in northern Syria, which would mean that Kurds would have two safe zones from which they could carry out operations against Turkey. This may also explain Ankara’s willingness to expand the operation as far as Manbij, 100 kilometres east of Afrin.

There’s evidence that Turkey is ‘sectarianising’ the operation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims that the Kurds of Afrin are interlopers in the region, which he claims was Arab. Thus, there’s been Turkish support for a variety of groups seeking to expel the Kurds. Turkey has also encouraged many of the Syrian Sunni refugees living in Turkey to go to Afrin.

The Afrin incursion raises four key issues.

First, it highlights the close links between Russia and Turkey. The Turks couldn’t mount such an extensive operation without the tacit support of the Russians, who control the air space over Syria. Russia moved its forces out of Afrin to give the Turks a free hand. It was well known that Ankara was unhappy with the prospect of Kurdish-led Syrian groups such as the Syrian Democratic Forces attending the Russian-led peace talks in Sochi. By allowing the Turks to launch the assault, Moscow indicates that it values Turkish cooperation more than Kurdish Syrian participation in the talks. Supporting Ankara pays dividends for Moscow by pitting two NATO members (Turkey, which opposes the YPG, and the US, which has supported it) against each other.

Second, the Turkish onslaught has highlighted growing divisions in the Arab world, which is increasingly failing to unite on any issue. For instance, Lolwa al-Khater, the Qatari foreign minister, has defended Turkey’s right to ensure its national security while also seeking to ensure that the Syrian Kurds don’t undermine Syria’s territorial integrity. On the other hand, Anwar Gargash, the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, warned that the Turkish operation is undermining ‘the concept of Arab national security’ and that ‘the Arabs will be marginalised’ unless there’s a change. Egypt, which is angry about Turkey’s lease of Suakin Island from Sudan, joined the melee by condemning the Turkish incursion as a ‘fresh violation of Syrian sovereignty’. The Turks responded by accusing the Egyptians and the Emiratis of supporting the PKK and its Syrian affiliates.

Third, the incursion into Syria bolsters Erdogan’s nationalist and religious credentials. He’s learned from past elections that playing the national security card boosts his popularity. By presenting the Afrin operation as a campaign to remove a potential national security threat, he accomplishes two things. First, he unites Turkey under a nationalist banner of fighting Kurds and terrorism; second, he diverts attention from the growing criticism levelled at his style of governance, which is proving dictatorial. The Turkish military is at its weakest after Erdogan dismissed many of its experienced officers, often on bogus grounds. Between July and October 2016, 149 senior commanders and more than 1,000 other officers were discharged, undermining the military’s effectiveness.

Finally, the Afrin operation has highlighted the diminishing influence of the US and its failure to appreciate what’s going on in the region. The Americans have been key supporters of the YPG, even though Turkey had expressed its clear opposition and Erdogan had directly appealed to President Donald Trump when they met in May 2017. When Turkey launched its military campaign against the YPG, Erdogan warned the US against supporting the group, leading Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to declare that the ‘entire situation has been mis-portrayed, mis-described, some people misspoke’ in a rebuke to his own staff, who had talked about creating a Kurdish and Arab border force. Tillerson’s apology included a claim that the US wouldn’t allow ‘international reconstruction aid to flow to any part of Syria under Assad’s control’, which belies reality because the US can’t stop Russia, Iran or China from doing reconstruction work in Syria.

The Kurds have proven to be one of the more effective anti-IS forces. They’ve inflicted enormous losses on the group and its allies, and they’ve done it with limited equipment and support. They’re now using those skills against Turkey’s allies, who are leading the assault on Afrin.

The Afrin campaign could drag Turkey into a long campaign against a disciplined force, which would have tremendous implications for regional and international security. A drawn-out campaign could undermine Erdogan, who has stressed his populist, nationalist, anti-Kurdish credentials over the past few years and who lashes out at anyone who challenges him.