After several days of postponement, the U.N. Security Council finally voted for a 30 days’ ceasefire in Syria. The vote comes after more than a week of horrific bombardments of east Ghouta. East Ghouta is one of the last remaining rebel strongholds controlled by Syrian rebels in a war the rebels de facto lost over a year ago when they gave up Aleppo, in a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey.
It is not clear if the U.N. security council ceasefire will be applied in Afrin, a northwestern Syrian enclave that came under attack by the Turkish forces and Ankara-allied rebels late last month.
Turkey launched the offensive to oust Peoples Protection Units (YPG), a militia outfit that has close ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), from Afrin. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and Kurdish officials, hundreds of civilians have died as a result of Turkish airstrikes and bombardments. The Turkish operation in Afrin has so far deepened the humanitarian crisis and further destabilized the war-torn country. Afrin region was one of the few areas in Syria that eschewed the destruction and violence wrought by the seven-year-old Syrian civil war.
So what is the Turkish aim in this operation and why is it happening now? Turkey has a couple of domestic and external goals with the offensive. Firstly, the operation is a response to regime offensive in the so-called de-escalation zones in the western Syrian province of Idlib. The government assault in this area ousted Turkish-backed rebels and considerably weakened Ankara’s position in Syria. According to Turkish Prime Minister Yildirim, Turkey wants to enter Afrin to create a safe zone and relocate around 350.000 Arab refugees currently in Turkey and thus expanding the current Turkish influence zone in north-western Syria.
Secondly, Turkey’s invasion of Afrin is an effort to confront Washington’s Syria policy. For years, YPG has been Washington’s primary ally in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Washington has supported the YPG and its political wing PYD militarily. The Turkish offensive against Afrin came right after the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS announced that they would create a 30.000-strong border defense force, mostly out of Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Thirdly, Turkish President Erdogan seeks re-election in 2019 and wants to fuel nationalist sentiments in the country to reassure that he will get over 50 percent in the first round of the presidential elections. Erdogan’s narrow win in the constitutional referendum last year has led him to understand that the presidential elections will not be an easy task without the nationalist votes. This has become evidently clear especially after ruling AKP lost its parliamentary majority to form a single-party government in June 2015 elections after an unexpected electoral success of pro-Kurdish People Democratic Party’s (HDP). HDP’s entry to Parliament blunted Mr. Erdogan’s presidential aspirations then.
As the Afrin operation is ongoing, Erdogan formed an alliance with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to guarantee nationalist votes in the next year’s election to offset the possible loss of votes among Turkey’s religious, pro-AKP Kurds who dropped their support for Mr. Erdogan after the Turkish military offensive.
Lastly, Turkey wants to weaken the PKK and keep a check on YPG’s expanding influence in Syria.
While Ankara’s operation could temporarily limit YPG’s influence and lower the prospects of Kurdish autonomy in Syria, it could backfire in the long term and give PKK more popular support in a wider Kurdish perspective.
Turkey and Ankara-backed Islamist rebels might eventually take control of Afrin and win Erdogan the support of nationalist Turks to guarantee re-election in 2019 but this won’t in the long term weaken the PKK/YPG.
On the contrary, it will probably help PKK come out stronger. In Kurdistan region of Iraq, both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Darty (KDP) on which Turkey primarily have relied on to contain PKK emerged as critics of Turkey. Relations between Ankara and Erbil were significantly weakened after Kurdistan region’s independence referendum and the Kirkuk debacle. Both parties and other Kurdish groups in Iraqi Kurdistan harbor deep public mistrust against the regional government due to corruption, mismanagement and the failure to keep Kirkuk, dubbed as the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan,” under Kurdish control.
At the same time, Turkey has efficiently weakened the pro-Kurdish HDP by arresting its members and leaders.
By crushing the HDP, and the dominant Kurdish groups in Kurdistan region being weakened, Turkey is effectively pushing Kurds into the arms of the PKK.
Crippling the Kurdish movement politically will strengthen the Kurdish movement militarily. A weakened Kurdish political party in Turkey will undercut the prospect of any lasting peace agreement between the Kurds and the Turkish state.
Externally, the Turkish incursion in Afrin is leading to closer ties between YPG and Iran and Damascus. Last week, the YPG and the Bashar al-Assad regime made a deal to let pro-regime forces enter Afrin to encounter the Turkish army and its Islamist allies. The move is seen as a failure by the YPG, but without American support in Afrin, this has always been on the table. Regime forces are controlling the YPG’s supply routes between Afrin and the Kobane canton; therefore after an imminent pressure on YPG in Afrin, they are forced to ally with regime loyalists.
The Damascus regime is gradually retaking the territory it has lost in the civil war with the support of Russia and Iran. It is now coming closer to oust rebels from most parts of western Syria. In the eastern parts of the country, the YPG controls most of the territory and 75 percent of the country’s oil reserves and production and almost 50 percent of the water supply. The regime wants to control those strategic and vital resources and could trade back with the YPG when the war comes to an end.
The Turkish operation in Afrin might secure another term for Turkish president Erdogan but won’t give him a lasting peace deal with the country’s Kurds. The operation could also limit YPG’s influence in Syria, but the YPG still have the backing of United States in the eastern parts of the country. It controls strategically important resources which the Assad regime wants to take and the YPG could trade them for military and political support.
Turkey is playing a high stakes game by invading Afrin but Ankara’s move is short-sighted both domestically and externally. Alienating the country’s Kurds is a risky game that will prolong Turkey’s problem with the Kurds and undermine already slim chances of a peace agreement between PKK and the Turkish state.
In Syria, the Assad regime and Iran are winning the war and Erdogan is effectively pushing the Kurds into the arms of the winning side. Turkey has previously made several strategic errors in the Syrian civil war, but its latest move in Afrin could have long-term effects that it never forecast and calculated.