Alwaght– The Turkish army has announced that its units have completed their encirclement of Syria’s northern region of Afrin, where the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a military campaign, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, against the Kurdish militias on January 20. Reports made by the human rights activists suggest that some 300,000 civilians are caught in the blockade.
The Turkish president has recently claimed that capture of the Syrian enclave is a matter of time, but the units of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have rejected claims that the city will fall soon, asserting that they are still firmly resisting the Turkish forces’ push.
Claim of imposing a siege on the majorly Kurdish city is made over 50 days after the beginning of the ground and air campaign. Upon launching the offensive, Turkey pledged to seize control of the city from the Kurdish fighters within few days. Now and after nearly two months, the Turkish army has failed to capture Afrin.
Even if the Turkish claims are true, where can this situation go at the end of the road?
Certainly, Turkey’s officials and the military commanders know that a siege on Afrin cannot continue for a long time as the presence of the Turkish forces in the region could face a set of obstructions. Here are some of them:
Syrian government’s response
One of the toughest opponents of the Turkish intervention in the north of the country is Damascus. After an array of triumphs in the past few years including reclaiming control of large swathes of territory across the country and inflicting a painful defeat on ISIS and other terrorist groups, Syria’s central government should not be seen that of 2012 to 2014. Following the recapture of Aleppo in 2016, the Syrian government deployed forces to the newly-liberated regions and now can watch the north more easily. Some analysts suggest that Damascus government, backed by regional allies, will not sit on its hands in dealing with the Turkish military action. Since late February, Syrian troops and pro-government popular fighters have been dispatched to the contested enclave to support the Kurds. The YPG leaders have reportedly welcomed the move saying that the Syrian army could be a party in guarding against the Turkish attacks.
The Syrian government and the Kurds appear to have engaged in an unstated and unofficial military cooperation deal to respond to the Turkish invasion. The pro-Damascus popular forces, named National Defense Forces, were deployed to Afrin on February 19 to have the back of the Kurdish fighters defending the city. The Kurds, returning Damascus favor, have announced that they are not seeking secession from Syria.
Upon entry of the pro-government fighters to Afrin, Al-Mayadeen, a news channel based in Lebanon, aired live pictures from the city’s center displaying the residents welcoming the friendly forces and holding posters of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who has been in the Turkish jail since 1999. The PKK has been fighting the Turkish government at home for nearly four decades.
In the eyes of experts, the Syrian government and the Kurds’ agreement to work together in the face of the Turkish military action bears the hallmarks of a new chapter between the two sides as the home conflict unfolds. The alliance seems to be setting up the highest roadblocks ahead of the Turkish forces who are pushing to enter Afrin or at least maintain its encirclement.
United Kurdish front in Afrin
Beside the bloc made of the pro-government fighters and the YPG forces, Kurds from other regions of the country have announced readiness to help consolidate the defense circle in the targeted city. In early March, when the word spread that the Turkish forces were approaching Afrin, the Kurdish-language Rudaw news network, citing a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), reported that they began moving from Deir ez-Zor province in the east and other Syrian regions to Afrin.
Outside the Syrian borders, mainly in Iraq, some Kurdish groups also expressed readiness to move to Syria in solidarity with the Kurds there. Mala Bakhtiar, a senior politician from Iraq’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, declared that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who act akin to an official army for the Iraqi Kurdistan region, could be dispatched to the northern Syria. He added that Iraqi Kurds will help Afrin as soon as they can.
Fighters from other predominantly Kurdish cities such as Manbij, Kobani, Qamishli could also be sent to help face the Turkish invasion. This is very likely especially because Turkey has said that it will expand the operation to other Kurdish cities after Afrin, and so the city amounts to the preliminary front of the Kurdish resistance. Therefore, a cohesive Kurdish front involving fighters from Afrin and other Kurdish-inhabited cities and even Iraqi Kurdistan can strengthen their defenses in front of the Turkish aggression and so compound entry to Afrin for the Turks.
Political obstacles ahead
Before launching its military operation, Turkey engaged in a cooperation process with its partners, Iran and Russia, to reach a multilateral deal on Syria. Nearly five months ago and after the defeat of ISIS in Syria, presidents of Russia, Iran, and Turkey jointly announced launching Sochi peace dialogue between various Syrian parties. Moscow-Tehran-Ankara’s regional alliance was supposed to show commitment to Astana agreements and the “de-escalation zones” which were meant to curb violence in specific parts of the country and so build a ground for relative stability and consequently national reconciliation. But Turkey’s Afrin campaign has challenged the credibility of past measures that paved the ground for cooperation with Russia and Iran. Despite the fact that the three sides still peruse talks related to Astana process and de-escalation zones, it is highly apparent that Tehran and Moscow are unhappy with Ankara’s unilateral measures in northern Syria.
From the outset, Iran came clean on its opposition to the Turkish offensive and invited Ankara to exercise restraint. Russia, on the other side, chose not to speak much about the campaign. But the Turkish actions will be tolerable to the Russians to a limited extent, as they are not interested in seeing the Turks roaming free in northern Syria.
In addition to Iran and Russia, the US, an ally of Turkey and fellow member of NATO, is following Ankara’s measures in northern Syria with concern. A fear of losing its place to Ankara might spur Washington to block the Turkish army’s progress using various ways. The US options range from negotiations to stepping up tensions with Turkey, and even providing more effective military support to the Kurds.
In such conditions, naturally, the three camps opposing the Turkish presence in the north can largely set up obstacles ahead of Ankara’s plan to seize Afrin and continue presence there. Rising costs of the war and also increasing number of military and civilian casualties give the Turks another reason not to count on long-term Afrin siege. To date, at least 950 civilians have been killed by the Turkish attacks on Afrin, a number that will definitely build up the international pressures and criticism on Turkey. Such circumstances give a clear picture of how difficult it could be for the Turkish army to press forward for Afrin capture.