Turkish Advance Stumbles in Syria’s Afrin

BEIRUT — The Turkish operation in Afrin is not going well — not at all. Militarily, it has been almost one month since operations started yet Kurdish troops are still deeply entrenched in Afrin. There are no signs that they are about to go anywhere anytime soon.

The Turkish-backed forces have been unable to penetrate or weaken — let alone take — the contested Kurdish city west of the Euphrates River. Kurdish warriors have put up a brave resistance, fighting from caves, tunnels and mountains.

To them, this is a matter of life or death but to Turkish forces it is an uphill battle in rugged and unfamiliar territory, one that is looking more difficult than they had expected or been told by the Turkish government.

In just one day — February 10 — 11 Turkish troops were killed, raising the death toll on the Turkish side to 28 combatants. Although far lower than the 1,369 killed on the Kurdish side, according to a Turkish military count, and the 30,000 displaced from Afrin and its countryside, Turkey is having a hard time digesting the death toll.

One factor that painfully contained Turkish forces’ progress was the Russian Army grounding its air force, preventing it from pounding Afrin from the sky. This restriction came shortly after a Russian warplane was downed by Turkey-backed Syrian rebels on February 3, after which Syrian airspace was sealed off for the Turkish forces. Then came bad weather conditions, which greatly slowed Turkish advances.

Erdogan had originally promised to eradicate the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Afrin, writing them both off as “terrorists.” Perched west of the Euphrates within Russia’s sphere of influence, Afrin is a strategic city that would have been one of the three cantons that the Kurds regarded as a cornerstone of their federal government in the Syrian north.

Erdogan was willing to go out of his way to prevent that project from bearing fruit on Turkey’s borders with Syria. In the summer of 2016, he carved out a safe zone in the towns of Jarabulus, Azaz and al-Bab, which he hoped would serve as a buffer between Turkish territory and both the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Syrian Kurdistan project.

In exchange for letting him do that, Erdogan looked the other way as Russian and Syrian government troops marched on the city of Aleppo in December 2016. Once done with ejecting the Kurds from Afrin, Erdogan had hoped to march on Kurdish-held Manbij, 30km west of the Euphrates, liberated from ISIS rule two years ago.

The White House is furious with Erdogan’s policies towards the Kurds, whom US President Donald Trump sees as strategic allies in his version of the war on terror. US military leaders have clearly stated that they would respond “aggressively” to any attack on Manbij.

Trump has embraced the Kurdish project, seeing something to be rewarded in the Kurds’ resilience against ISIS. Now, they are the only military group in the Syrian battlefield receiving US arms and money. On February 12, the Pentagon revealed that in its 2019 fiscal year budget, $550 million was to be set aside for the YPG, likely sending shivers down Erdogan’s spine.

The Afrin offensive is also giving Erdogan a bad name. The last thing he needed was further character assassination after being accused of becoming a dictator for arresting thousands of people after the failed summer coup of 2016. Now human rights groups are saying that he is using napalm, a flammable liquid that international law prohibits in combat, on Afrin.

At least two videos of the conflict have gone viral, adding to Erdogan’s worries. One is of Turkish troops beating a Kurdish prisoner and another is of Turkey-armed and -funded Syrian warriors stomping the corpse of a female Kurdish fighter, whose breasts were chopped off. On January 24, a 17th-century mosque in Turkey was hit by Kurdish fire. Its dome was destroyed, two people killed and 11 injured, bringing the conflict deep into the Turkish heartland.

Additionally, hundreds of Turkish citizens, journalists, bloggers and peace activists have been jailed for saying “no” to the Afrin battle. More than 600 of them are behind bars. Hours after the Afrin operations started, Erdogan said protesters would pay a “heavy price,” adding “our security forces are on your necks.”

When the Turkish Medical Association said the war could lead to a “human tragedy” Erdogan snapped back, calling its doctors “filth, agents of imperialism” and “terrorist lovers.” They were immediately taken to court and 11 doctors were detained. They were prevented from using the word “Turkey” in their title, with Erdogan claiming: “This institution has nothing to do with Turkishness and nothing about them is worthy of the notion of Turkishness.”

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said those who support the PKK do so because they share the organisation’s “Marxist, communist ideology.”

Erdogan has two options. One is to announce his defeat and call on his troops to withdraw, letting the Kurds have Afrin. Judging by his history, Erdogan would rather jump off a cliff than do that. Or he could be the stubborn-headed leader he always has been, pushing ahead with his operations as a horrific death toll on both sides of the conflict mounts.

It might take years — and a fractured Turkish society to achieve that, plagued by terror and unrest — but these are things Erdogan is willing to shoulder just to show the world: “I was right!”


Sami Moubayed
is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.

Copyright ©2018 The Arab Weekly