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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 27 April 2018

What does Turkey's capture of Afrin mean for Syria's war?

Syrian refugees may be sent back across border after Turkish military operation

Turkish-backed Syrian Arab fighters stand on an armed vehicle after seizing control of the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) on March 18, 2018. Bulent Kilic / AFP Photo
Turkish-backed Syrian Arab fighters stand on an armed vehicle after seizing control of the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) on March 18, 2018. Bulent Kilic / AFP Photo

The capture of Afrin from the Kurds by Turkish-led fighters has major implications for Syria's protracted war, including the possible return of refugees after a military campaign that has undermined President Bashar Al Assad.

The operation launched by Ankara on January 20 encountered fierce resistance, but Afrin eventually fell quickly on Sunday.

Taking the city back from Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia, branded "terrorists" by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, consolidates Ankara's control along its border in northern Syria.

"They have lopped off another piece of Syrian territory and will have incorporated it into Turkey governing structures," said Aaron Stein, from the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center, of the Turkish military effort for Afrin.

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Turkey's Erdogan says Afrin city centre under 'total' control

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The territorial gains also pave the way toward a secondary goal – sending Syrian refugees back from Turkey. Ankara says it has spent $30 billion on services such as health and education for Syrians. "We are not in a position to continue hosting 3.5 million refugees forever," Mr Erdogan said earlier this month.

Since the launch of Operation Olive Branch against the Kurdish YPG, Turkish leaders have repeatedly said they wish to send up to 500,000 Syrian refugees to Afrin.

"Infrastructure and municipal services will be provided to allow Syrian citizens in our country to return to their own country," said Turkish Trade Minister Bulent Tufenkci on Monday.

Such steps are counter to the erstwhile suggestion of Syrian refugees being granted Turkish citizenship. In recent months, public opinion seems to have swung in favour of them going home amid sometimes violent tension between the communities.

Cengiz Aktar, a Turkish political commentator, suggested the idea of sending refugees to Afrin could be a political move as Mr Erdogan faces elections next year.

"It's clear this kind of talk is rhetoric, is intended for internal consumption for elections," he said.

A recent study by Istanbul’s Bilgi University found 71 percent of respondents thought Syrians were takings locals’ jobs while more than two-thirds blamed Syrians for increased crime.

A previous cross-border operation, dubbed Euphrates Shield, drove ISIL militants from much of the frontier region and saw tens of thousands of Syrians leave Turkey for their homeland.

But Hisyar Ozsoy, foreign affairs spokesman for the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, said Ankara’s plans for Afrin were self-serving.

"The government is planning to resettle people who are not from Afrin and that means ethnic engineering," he told The National. "It could sow the seeds of communal violence in the future.

"They have depopulated the area by removing the Kurdish population, which is ethnic cleansing. They are going to turn an historically Kurdish area into a Arab and Turkmen area."

Nicholas Heras, a security fellow at the Center for a New American Security said taking Afrin was a success for Mr Erdogan, who ignored international concern about the operation.

"Afrin is one of the most strategic areas of northwest Syria. It is a piece of real estate that anchors Turkey's presence for many years to come," Heras said.

This victory may not be the end.

Mr Erdogan has repeatedly said that after taking Afrin, Turkey's offensive would expand to key border towns controlled by the YPG right up to the Iraqi frontier.

The loss of Afrin is a major setback for Syria's Kurds who have largely stayed out of the country's seven-year conflict as they focused on building an autonomous region after years of marginalisation.

Before the Turkish assault, the Kurdish-controlled region - known as Rojava - ran across large swathes of Kurdish-majority parts of north and northeast Syria.

Now the community has lost control of one of the three "cantons" it ran and their dreams of self-determination look increasingly fragile.

It is "a big blow for the Kurdish self-rule project", Kurdish affairs expert Mutlu Civiroglu said.

"Now the other Kurdish regions are under risk."

The Turkish seizure of Afrin will also dent Mr Assad, just as his Russian-backed forces appear in the ascendancy elsewhere in the country, appearing to put a key strategic region out of his grasp.