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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Turkey's objectives are not quite what they seem in Afrin

Evident in the battle for the city are a series of Ankara's calculations, writes Hassan Hassan

A Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter checks his mobile phone in Eastern Afrin yesterday. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
A Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter checks his mobile phone in Eastern Afrin yesterday. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

More than two weeks ago, Turkey announced an operation to capture the Kurdish city of Afrin in northwestern Syria. Turkish authorities had hinted at such a move several times last year and many knew it was seriously considered, but few expected Ankara to muster the courage to actually launch it.

The assault is particularly perplexing because its stated goal of expelling the militants and controlling the city appears too far-fetched. Any observer familiar with the demographics of the city and the militants defending it will conclude that such a scenario is inconceivable. If Turkey intends to continue the operation until the end, the only conceivable scenario is complete destruction of the city, rather than a military victory that ends the People’s Protection Units (YPG) insurgency.

Turkey’s calculations should be viewed against this backdrop. Turkish authorities have limited and discernible objectives that do not include controlling the city, as many seem to suggest. The Turkish thinking can be summed up in a series of objectives.

The first is to create a security belt along the Syrian-Turkish border. According to the Turkish prime minister, Binali Yildirim, this will be in the form of a zone in northwestern Syria. The most likely line for the security belt will be one that encircles Afrin from the north and the west, linking Azaz with Idlib along the Turkish borders. This arrangement does not necessarily have to include approaching the city of Afrin, but it will carve out rural parts of the enclave. Currently, the YPG stands in the way.

The formation of the security belt means that Afrin will be completely surrounded by Turkish-aligned forces from all sides, except from the south, where Afrin has access to regime-held areas. The rest of the southern borders of Afrin include areas controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham.

For now, no battles have erupted between the YPG and Hayat Tahrir Al Sham south of Afrin, even though the former seems to fear an attack by the latter in that area, according to sources close to the Kurdish militants. Cooperation between the Syrian regime and the YPG in the southern edges, in terms of logistics, has also increased in recent days. So battles are primarily concentrated in the northern and western parts of the Kurdish enclave.

Also, the battle is moving too slowly for the Turkish-backed forces. The fighting has so far taken place in largely empty areas, defended by a small number of militants. Despite the hard-to-defend terrain, a large number of rebel forces backed by the Turkish army captured anywhere between three to five per cent of the territory. Even though the largely empty terrain constitutes most of the Afrin geography, the Turkish-backed forces have so far made meagre military progress.

Besides the security belt, modelled on similar arrangements in Iraq, a key Turkish objective involves the United States. Over the past three years, Turkish demands for a more prudent American policy than the over-reliance on the YPG were snubbed by Washington in the fight against ISIL. Ankara pursued various tactics for the US to take its demands seriously, but to no avail aside from procrastination. The battle in Afrin is Turkey’s way of forcing Washington to take the matter seriously.

In Washington, Turkey faces a range of views on its national security concerns. They range from policymakers who understand what is at stake but lack the clout to make a difference, others who downplay Turkish concerns, to Turkey-sceptics who see the YPG as the only force with which they could work.

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Turkey also views Washington as pursuing a different approach to it than it has done with Damascus and its allies. For example, it had promised Ankara that the YPG would not cross west of the Euphrates river, but the Kurdish militants took Manbij. It then pledged the militants would withdraw from Manbij, but they have not.

In contrast, a stated part of the US plan in Syria had been to expel ISIL from the border cities of Mayadeen and Albu Kamal, in Deir Ezzor. Relative to its approach in Manbij, at least from a Turkish perspective, Washington easily cowered to the regime’s move to take those cities instead. Ankara has a strong case versus Washington in Manbij, hence the frequent reference to the Arab-majority city by Turkish officials, especially in the context of the Afrin assault.

Realistically, once Turkey secures its border shield, an acceptable outcome would be to enable the Syrian regime to take control of the city. Ankara hopes this outcome would become possible as the campaign cripples the city and weakens the militants. As counter-intuitive as it may be, Turkish officials had previously made it clear, privately and publicly, they would welcome regime control of places like Manbij and Deir Ezzor if the alternative was the YPG. Afrin is no exception, especially once its border zone is formed.

Observers tend to think that Turkey seeks to capture Afrin, since the enclave is a vital stronghold of PKK veterans. In reality, though, such a calculation would ensure an indefinite battle that will achieve little for Turkey. Instead, Ankara could realistically achieve medium-term objectives that serve its interests without capturing the city.

In 2016, Turkey established the Euphrates Shield, a zone designed to cut off Afrin from the Kurdish enclaves in northeastern Syria. Today, the prime objective of the new operation is to extend the border “shield” to northwestern Syria, while reducing the size of the Afrin enclave. For Turkey, these are achievable goals that do not risk confrontation with the US. After the two zones are established and linked, Turkey’s eyes will turn to Manbij and the American-protected areas along northeastern Syrian borders next.

Turkey’s operation is not an impossible or a reckless attempt to control Afrin, as policymakers in Washington tend to see it. For the US, viewing the operation’s goals as limited and clear-headed on the part of Turkey could be the difference between overcoming existing differences or facing a showdown, if indirect, in the north east.

Hassan Hassan is co-author of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Washington DC