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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Miscalculations in Afrin have dramatically changed the facts on the ground

Turkey has achieved a significant breakthrough that could reverse Kurdish dominance in northern Syria, writes Hassan Hassan

Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army soldiers shoot with heavy machine gun during an offensive, at Der Mismis Village, southeast of Afrin earlier this week. EPA
Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army soldiers shoot with heavy machine gun during an offensive, at Der Mismis Village, southeast of Afrin earlier this week. EPA

The Turkish military operation in the Syrian Kurdish region of Afrin has reached its second milestone. Rebel forces backed by the Turkish army reached the edges of the city and have effectively divided the enclave into two isolated halves.

The gains come a week after the Turkish assault cleared all the border lines near Afrin of any Kurdish militia presence, concurrently linking two Turkey-aligned rebel pockets. The latest milestone happened against the backdrop of a string of abrupt retreats by the Kurdish YPG, or the People's Protection Units, from villages and urban centres north and south of Afrin.

The rapid gains could be due to a calculated withdrawal by the YPG from rural areas to focus on defending the city. Reports from Turkey indicate the militia has suffered losses outside the city, as they became exposed to Turkish air strikes. Another factor could be related to the reported withdrawal of the regime forces that had entered the city last month, as part of a deal between Damascus and the YPG.

So, the situation has now changed dramatically in favour of a Turkish assault. Whether the YPG chooses to stand and fight in the city or decides to spare it further fighting, Turkey has achieved a significant breakthrough that could reverse Kurdish dominance in northern Syria.

The real question for the YPG now is how Turkey could be stopped from advancing further. None of the YPG’s various friends are willing to stand up against Turkey. If anything, Russia and the United States are seeking to accommodate Ankara’s concerns. Iran and the regime, the two sides that have recently shown signs of restlessness towards the growing Turkish presence, have limited choices in this regard.

More importantly, unconfirmed reports indicated that Ankara and Washington have reached a formula to address their mutual differences about Manbij, an Arab-majority city liberated by the YPG in 2016. Turkey wants the YPG to evacuate the city, which, if it happens, would substantially disrupt the Kurdish autonomous project.

If the YPG loses control over the areas west of the Euphrates River, that would diminish the vast territorial network the militia had in northern and eastern Syria, which in turn would undermine its influence and leverage. Consequently, with increased Turkish pressure and due to the dominance of the Arab demographics east of the river, it would become conceivable that the Kurdish ability to dominate will be steadily reduced.

The latter possibility relates to one of the myths common in western policy and media circles over the past three years. The myth involves comparisons between the Kurdish presence in Syria to that in Iraq. While Kurds in Iraq are a majority in a continuous and viable region in the north, Kurdish communities in Syria tend to be more scattered. Part of that is a product of deliberate Baath Party’s policies to relocate Kurds and settle Arab families near or in dense Kurdish communities.

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The impact of the Turkish gains, then, will be far reaching for both the YPG and the US strategy in eastern Syria. The protection provided by the US to the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces could be undermined by the growing Turkish assertiveness. An alternative would be for the US and Turkey to address their differences without the latter undermining a project that is widely welcomed by people in eastern Syria, including Arab communities. Instead, a Turkish-US rapprochement on this front could strengthen the project at the expense of the regime and its allies, which have so far worked closely with Ankara since 2016.

In this context, other implications for the Turkish gains should be pointed out, specifically those related to the question of why the YPG did not make concessions to the regime that would have prevented Turkey from attacking Afrin.

A looming Turkish battle in Afrin first became a possibility last August, when talks began between Turkey and Russia about it. After Ankara failed to convince the US of cooperating to expel ISIL from Raqqa a month earlier, it shifted its attention to the north west. A plan to expel the YPG from Afrin in exchange for fighting Jabhat Al Nusra in Idlib was agreed between the two. But discussions continued, with a blessing from Turkey, between Russia and the YPG to hand over the city to the regime, to avoid a Turkish attack.

The YPG refused the offer to hand over the city. Instead, it sought a compromise that would involve some regime presence without allowing it to take over. With Turkey closing in on Afrin, the rejection of the Russian plan now seems a miscalculation by the YPG. The regime would allow at least some presence of the YPG in the Kurdish city, even if the latter loses control, while Turkey would seek to ensure the YPG is fully replaced by other forces. The only conceivable advantage for the latter scenario is the YPG has the ability to conduct an insurgency against Turkey in Afrin.

The choice made by the YPG offers a lesson for the group’s possible choices in eastern Syria. For a long time, many have argued that the YPG will eventually make a deal with the regime to hand over areas seized from ISIL in exchange for autonomy. This has been a key reason for those opposed to the Syrian regime to suspect the YPG and its future intentions.

The developments in Afrin point to gaps in this thinking. The regime is unlikely to accept autonomy for the Kurds. And the YPG also recognises that the resurgence of the regime would be a threat to its project, since Damascus tolerates the YPG’s dominance only because of its military limitations.

The YPG recently bet on Iran and the regime to bypass Russia in Afrin. The entry of regime forces to Afrin, without having any meaningful presence, has not stopped Turkey. Combined with the idea that the YPG still refused to allow the regime’s takeover of Afrin, so far, Iran’s inability to stop Turkey could further drive the YPG away from any alliance with Damascus and its allies.

These dynamics create a new opening. If the US and Turkey reach common ground, benefiting from the reality check produced by Ankara’s newfound assertiveness, the outcome could be one of the most game-changing alliances, as it builds on the two Nato allies’ spheres of influence and brings an end to Russia’s opportunistic alliance with Turkey to patiently rearrange the jigsaw pieces of the Syrian conflict.

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