Afrin: Implications for Ankara’s Gambit in Northern Syria

Turkey has been increasing military pressure on Afrin during the past week in order to accomplish two main goals. First is threatening the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara directly associates with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ankara has been aiming to expel the SDF and YPG from the northern Syrian town of Manbij and force them to retreat east of the Euphrates River. During the last few weeks, clashes between the SDF/YPG and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) between nearby al Arimah and Qabasin have escalated, prompting Turkey to threaten the last remaining YPG pocket in Afrin.


Turkey’s second objective is to increase the YPG’s costs of holding onto Afrin and compel the Kurdish fighters to move further south – into a battle with ISIL – thus clearing the way for the FSA to move in. (Even if the YPG seizes territory from ISIL, it will need to consolidate its new positions, at the very least delaying a return to the Turkish front.) Likewise, during the last year, Turkey has bombarded SDF and YPG fixed positions along its border with Syria and Iraq while leaving their southbound supply routes alone.


Ankara expects that once the SDF and YPG liberate Raqqa, all of the Kurdish fighters and their US-supplied weapons will then turn on Turkey. Anticipating that US forces will leave the area after the defeat of ISIL, Ankara fears that it will be left to face a strengthened Kurdish threat from Syria, Iraq and within Turkey. Accordingly, Turkey’s long-term objectives are to establish refugee camps in northern Syria, along FSA-controlled territory, and deny the Kurds uninterrupted control of the entire Turkish-Syrian border.


The main obstacle to Ankara’s Afrin escalation is a Russian military base, which was built there in March 2017. Turkey objected to the base’s construction, claiming that it would reinforce the YPG’s presence in the area (Ankara continues to hold this view). Russia denied that claim, indicating that the base would be used to monitor cease-fires. However, by early April Turkish intelligence services discovered that Russian military advisors were already training YPG fighters in Afrin.


Turkey is considerably more worried about Russian, rather than American, support for the YPG. Ankara’s relationship with Moscow has been tumultuous, particularly after Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet in Syria in November 2015 and the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated in Ankara in December 2016. While the two countries have mended fences, Russia’s dominance in the Black Sea and Caucasus still poses a long-term threat to Turkey. By contrast, Ankara believes that Washington will inevitably side with Turkey – a NATO ally – over the Kurds in the long term. Thus, Ankara is willing to fire in the direction of US Army Rangers in Stryker vehicles conducting deterrence patrols along the Turkish-Syrian border in the Hasakah region, believing that it can diplomatically pressure the US to leave the area. However, Turkey cannot engage in similar activities against Russian forces in Syria, as they would be extremely difficult to diplomatically resolve.


A Turkish military plan for Afrin was leaked several days ago to a pro-government newspaper, detailing that the FSA will commence the assault on Azaz, Kaljibrin and Mare. After the area is cleared, Turkish troops will take control of Tell Rifaat and Menagh military airbase. Turkish and FSA forces then plan to move 7km east into areas occupied by the YPG, and they also intend to occupy Meryemeyn. It remains unclear whether they will enter Afrin. The available information suggests a pincer movement to isolate Afrin and open up two new overland supply routes for Turkey to support the FSA. However, this strategy should be viewed with a grain of salt, as the Turkish military habitually leaks elaborate war plans to show its commitment to an operation, only to abort once the enemy backs down.


If the Turkish military initiates an Afrin operation, it could hamper the liberation of Raqqa and also lead to renewed clashes between Turkish troops and armed Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq, with the potential to spill over into a wider conflict. In our opinion, the Turkish military is still committed to measured escalation, but they may overestimate their control of events on the ground.