Source: Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs)
By: Asaad Hanna
When a military operation supported by Turkey was launched against the city of Afrin, it hardly came as a surprise.
The city, whose inhabitants are mostly Kurdish, is also a major base of the People's Protection Units (YPG), a military organization which received considerable support from America, as well as from Russia, in the fight against IS. The YPG led the fight against IS in Raqqa and northern Syria, while at the same time attempting to mark out areas for self-rule, to be controlled and run by the organization.
Multiple Turkish statements to the press had alluded to such an operation, and in mid-January it began in earnest in cooperation with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which is based in the area around the Euphrates Shield under Turkish control.
America did not hesitate to deny its support for the Kurdish forces, as did the Russians. Russia had withdrawn its operatives from the Afrin area and also recalled workers from its “Reconciliation Centre” which had a branch in the city of Afrin. The city, now free from American and Russian operatives, has been left to these Kurdish armed groups as a battleground for their fight against the Turkish army and the Syrian opposition.
The Kurdish armed units have lost both their military and political international support, which had played a crucial role in its acquisition of greater power and control. America was protecting the units politically, while Russia covered their military needs. As such, the group began relying on the military equipment it was being provided with on the ground. They were, however, unable to contend with the Turkish army's aerial power and heavy weaponry.
There are only two choices open to the YPG: confrontation or retreat. As a map of the area surrounding Afrin shows, the only route out of the area open to the YPG leads to areas controlled by the regime. The rest of the areas surrounding Afrin are under the control of the FSA, which is fighting on the side of the Turkish army, and will therefore not allow the Kurdish forces to retreat from its territory, and will instead apply more pressure on the city itself.
But, with no movement from the YPG in either direction, evidently it is waiting to see if some sort of deal or international agreement can be struck, which will rescue its military presence in the Afrin region.
If the YPG retreats from this region, it effectively concedes its military presence in the al-Jazira area, including Hasaka and Raqqa. However, evidently this will not occur as it appears that the mutual understanding between Turkey, Russia, and the United States will prevent this.
Does such a deal exist?
The green light for a battle in Afrin did not come at a particularly calm period of the Syrian war. In fact, it came a time when the battles in the countryside around Hama and Idlib are growing fiercer as the regime and the Russians seek to make up ground in the direction of Idlib and reach Abu Duhur military airport.
This airport had been earmarked by the Turkish forces for use as a military base in the Idlib countryside to overlook the areas which fall under the 'de-escalation' agreement, at least according to previous Turkish statements on the matter. But suddenly Turkish concern for the airport ended, as some of the rebel units supported by Turkey withdrew from the area allowing the regime to take control of the airport in the second day of Operation Olive Branch. This points to an agreement between Turkey and Russia which links these two events.
Potential scenarios for Operation Olive Branch:
It is by now clear that the battle will not be a simple one, despite the vast gulf in military capacity between the two sides. We are, however, still in the early days of the fight, and Afrin's difficult mountainous landscape give the YPG units an advantage. By way of comparison with the battles fought by the Turkish army in al-Bab and Jarablus against IS - which lasted over six months due to the dense concentration of civilians in these cities - the Turkish army will likely face the same problem in Afrin.
This is due to the YPG's being embedded within the civilian population in Afrin, which is far larger than the population in al-Bab. Estimates suggest that the population there, including those who have fled other parts of Syria, is almost 600,000.
On inspection of the course the battles have taken to date, it is likely the Turkish army and the FSA will divide the city into two zones. One attack will launch from the corridor coming from the city Azaz to the the west of Afrin, thereby splitting the city into two northern and southern sections.
This ought to reduce the problem of confronting a densely populated civilian area, but a majority of the population will remain in the southern part of the city alongside the YPG units embedded in that area.
These units will not be able to continue fighting as they will be subjected to pressure from two sides - the FSA and Turkish army attacking from the north, while the areas west and south of Idlib will be used by the Turkish army to surround the YPG and finish off the battle.
Consequently, the YPG will need Russian permission to access the only remaining path out of the area, which is in the direction of the Syrian army around Aleppo. From there they could subsequently cross to the area around Raqqa which was under their control after they defeated IS.
Turkey will not accept defeat in this battle no matter what the cost of victory. This is because a defeat would reflect negatively on the ruling party's image and reputation domestically and internationally. The YPG is the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers' Party which Turkey has been at war with for decades.
The question raised by a Turkish defeat at the hands of the YPG would be: if the Turkish army is too weak to defeat the YPG, how can it possibly stand up to the other challenges and foreign dangers to Turkey's national security?
The YPG's relations with other actors
The YPG has provided assistance to the Syrian army in a number of areas, such as the help they provided in establishing a supply route serving the civilians and fighters of the pro-Assad militias in Kafriya and al-Faw'a, as well as the role they played in the campaign waged by Assad and the Russians in eastern Aleppo.
Despite all of this, the regime has not been able to support the YPG as doing so would involve placing itself in direct confrontation with the Turkish army, something Assad does not currently want. Another factor worth considering is that Russia will not allow Assad to renege on its international agreement with Turkey and America.
The YPG, for their part, released a statement calling for the Syrian army to go into Afrin and face the Turkish army. The regime did not release any statement or reaction to this appeal. As for the armed factions of the Syrian opposition, they are obliged to stand with the Turkish army on this matter due to the previous fighting and enmity between the YPG and the FSA, most notably in the town of Ayn Daqnah where the YPG entered the town, killed approximately fifty FSA fighters and posed with their corpses in Afrin.
What does the future hold for Afrin following the YPG's departure from the city?
Following the departure of these Kurdish units from the city of Afrin, it will come under the control of those local factions of the Syrian opposition supported by Turkey. Here it is worth noting that a number of Kurdish military organisations were chosen to fight alongside the Turkish army, such as the Kurdish arm of Ahrar al-Sham, and 300 Kurdish fighters from the Levant Front, as well as other groups.
Aleppo's northern countryside will become part of a direct route from the city of Jarablus to Idlib. Subsequently, this route will be used to transport thousands of civilians from Idlib to Afrin as they try to avoid the daily aerial bombing the city is currently being subjected to and escape a much larger battle which looms and may erupt at any moment now that the Syrian army has reached the outskirts of Idlib. This will increase the proportion of Arabs in the city at the expense of the local Kurdish population.
It is now clear that the Syrian opposition can no longer hold any of the territory it currently controls in the long-term as long as there is no international agreement or state acting to guarantee this. Turkish presence so deep in Syrian territory and its control over vast swathes of the north of Syria (which may extend to other areas) has become the only thing protecting these areas from being retaken by the forces of the Syrian regime.