US and Iraqi Commanders Focus on Afrin Operation

By January 2018Turkey

Top Turkish, Iraqi and US generals met in Ankara on 14 December. Notably, details of the talks between Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, his Iraqi counterpart Othman al-Ghanimi, Commander of the US European Command (EUCOM) Curtis Scaparrotti and Commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM) Joseph Votel remain secret. Nevertheless, Horizon has pieced together a picture from fringe newspapers and TV stations sympathetic to various factions in the Turkish government. In our view, the Turkish military was upset by the outcome of Akar’s meetings with the US and Iraqi generals. Unsurprisingly, this was due to US support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Democratic Union Party (PYD), offshoots of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Turkey’s looming incursion into Afrin, northern Syria, was the main focus of the generals’ discussions; indeed, this was meant to be the final high-level meeting before the operation begins. Ankara believes that it was distracted from undertaking an Afrin operation by the US’ preference for a Turkish operation in Idlib this year.

Now, Turkey hopes that US commanders will not only arrange the YPG/PYD evacuation of Afrin, but also secure Kurdish acceptance of nine watch posts along the Afrin-Idlib border in order to prevent the YPG’s escape into the de-escalation zones administered by Turkey. Iraq’s role is less clear but may be related to future interdiction of PKK and affiliated movements between Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, a major cause of concern for Ankara.

Turkey’s broader military strategy is slowly coming into focus. It is an expansive – and possibly impractical – vision of rooting out all PKK affiliates west of the Euphrates River. The Turkish General Staff intends to drive all pro-PKK elements out of northern Iraq and northwestern Syria, clustering them into the plains of Kobani, Tel Abyad, Serekaniye, Tell Tamer and Darbasiyah – a tight corridor along the east bank of the Euphrates River near the Turkish-Syrian border.

Ankara insists that the PKK must not be allowed to use the rugged areas of northern Iraq (especially the Qandil area) as a bastion, while Turkey can tolerate a vulnerable PKK based in ethnically Turkish areas of eastern Syria. “It is better to allow them to rule the plains, where we can see them, rather than having to fight with them in the mountains,” one Horizon military contact explained. In our view, though, the PKK and its affiliates are well aware of this strategy, and Ankara lacks the military capability to remove them from areas such as Qandil.

Meanwhile, Russian Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov’s surprise visit to Ankara on the night of 15 December was announced only after his departure the next day. Our contacts at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs have indicated that Gerasimov’s visit was hastily arranged as a response to Akar’s meeting with the US and Iraqi generals. Details are scant, but in our view, Russia sent its military envoy to compensate for the strong US showing, and to de-conflict with Turkey in northern Syria.