Over the weekend, the Turkish military, alongside forces from the Syrian Free Army, began a long-discussed assault against the Syrian territory of Afrin. Since the early stages of Syria’s civil war, Afrin has been under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish political entity linked with the better known Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. Though the political and military outcome of the attack remain up in the air, it is almost certain to usher in a new phase in the Syrian civil war, the U.S.-Turkish relationship and Turkey’s domestic Kurdish conflict as well.
Several recent developments appear to have prompted Turkey’s decision to launch the operation now. Russia has been pushing for the YPG to have a formal place in its diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war, and has even proposed giving some measure of autonomy to YPG-controlled regions in its draft constitution for Syria. At the same time, the United States has intensified its commitment to the YPG as well, highlighting the group’s central role in U.S. efforts to contain Iran and the Assad regime moving forward. Ankara presumably hoped that a show of resolve in Afrin could help change these adverse trends, possibly by undermining the YPG’s deepening relationship with Moscow and/or Washington.
Though the political and military outcome of the attack remain up in the air, it is almost certain to usher in a new phase in the Syrian civil war.
Immediately after the Turkish operation began, YPG officials claimed they had rejected a Russian proposal that would have averted a Turkish invasion by ceding Afrin to Syrian government forces. They also announced that, since Moscow had opened Afrin’s airspace to Turkish jets, they held Russia alongside Turkey responsible for the attack. YPG officials have also criticized the United States for not doing more to aid them, although as with the statements about Russia, the depth of their anger is difficult to gauge.
The United States, for its part, has expressed concern over the operation but largely tried to minimize any suggestion of a rift with Ankara. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis acknowledged Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns” and announced that the United States had been informed before the operation while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted Washington was in discussions with Turkey aimed at resolving the crisis.
Much now depends on the speed with which Turkish forces overcome YPG resistance and the extent of their territorial aims. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that Turkey will establish a 30-kilometer-deep buffer zone in Afrin, while Turkey’s chief of staff Hulusi Akar, in more dramatic fashion, has promised to fight until every last terrorist in the region is eliminated. Among other things, the intensity of the fighting, number of civilian casualties, and the extent of Turkey’s territorial goals (whether or not they attempt to enter the city of Afrin itself, for example) will determine the operation’s impact on Turkey’s domestic Kurdish situation. Already, Turkey’s main Kurdish party called for demonstrations in opposition to the Afrin operation, while the Turkish government has begun cracking down on those who voice critical sentiments publicly. The longer the fighting goes on in Syria, the more likely it will lead to violence on the streets of Southeastern Turkey.
Turkish officials have also repeatedly stated that after Afrin they will move on to the territory of Manbij. Turkish media has already been presenting the operation in Afrin, where no U.S. forces have been present, as a rebuke to the United States. A Turkish attack on Manbij, where U.S. forces are currently located, would be far more difficult for both Washington and Ankara to manage.