Afrin and beyond
Operation Olive Branch shifts to a new and potentially perilious phase
In an unexpected twist in the saga of Operation Olive Branch, the eponymous capital of Syria’s Afrin region fell to Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army forces last week with barely a fight. After weeks of battles in the countryside, and a steady stream of reports that Kurdish YPG militants had prepared the city for a protracted battle, the news came as a welcome surprise to many. There would be none of the civilian catastrophes we are accustomed to seeing when heavily-populated areas become the epicenter of battles; Turkey’s proxies, largely untested in the kind of urban warfare that would be needed to conquer Afrin, were spared their potential moment of truth; and Turkey’s leaders were vindicated: the YPG was never the unified fighting force its supporters claimed it was. Indeed, it revealed itself to be the ragtag band of guerrilla fighters its critics have described it as. But the victory does not come without cost. Now, Turkey enters into a delicate phase of its Syrian incursion. Will the governing council it has set up to replace the PYD, the YPG’s political arm, be successful in sustaining the peace in Afrin? After such an easy victory, will Turkey be able to resist being sucked deeper into the conflict? Prof. Ilter Turan weighs in.
►What do you make of th s rap d v ctory?
What surprises me is the YPG left in such a hurry. They left ammunition and equipment behind. Usually, when you make a decision to withdraw, you don’t leave behind things that can be used by your enemy. It almost seems like they were going by the book – preparing Afrin for a siege, setting up fortifications, digging tunnels – but in the end failed to master the art of war. My guess is they engaged in too large and unsustainable effort.
Now, If I were YPG, I would present this as a highly deliberate plan to withdraw to not lose my forces, to be stronger somewhere else. But the evidence that’s left behind is that there was an urgent need to get out. So rather than deliberate, it may have been a last minute attempt to save their necks. The consequence may be that the relative ease with which Turkey has achieved its military goals may reinforce its plans to undertake other activities. The YPG did not turn out to be as formidable a force as it was made out to be by others – the U.S. and European press, for example. But one also has to remember the conditions under which this was possible. While the YPG seems not such a formidable force, Turkey had a number of advantages that may not necessarily be replicated in other environments. The Turkish air force, for instance, was able to operate without any significant constraints. That certainly facilitated their success. Also, with regards to Afrin, there was no significant resistance on the part of other major actors. The Russians facilitated it, the Americans said this is not in our area of operations, the European Union expressed deep concerns but left it at that, and Syrian regime forces were probably restrained by the Russians. To summarize, the international context within which this intervention took place was highly favorable.
When you move to other places, the conditions may not necessarily be the same. Number one, you may not be able to fly your planes as easily. Number two, the international community may not be as soft. For example, in some areas Iran might offer considerable resistance to what Turkey is trying to do. We don’t know how the Americans will react in other parts of the Middle East and we don’t know how the Russians are going to react. The potential for serious geopolitical problems arising is still very real. It seems likely that, if left to its own resources, the YPG would not be able to put up a very good fight. They may be better in guerrilla warfare, as opposed to being an army. The critical question, though, is not the YPG; it is other powers, particularly the U.S.
►And now we have a Secretary of State n the U.S., M ke Pompeo, who has used harsh words to descr be Turkey and s less d plomat than m l tary hawk. We have a new nat onal secur ty adv sor, John Bolton, who appears to th nk Amer ca should use more brawn than bra n n ts fore gn pol cy. Is the pol t cal s tuat on head ng toward more confl ct?
The fact that we don’t yet have significant contact with Mr. Pompeo introduces an element of unpredictability. It is said that he does not seem to favor ordinary diplomacy but has a proclivity for heavy-handed tactics is grounds for concern. Nevertheless, the implications of a conflict between the U.S. and Turkey would be so severe that if wisdom at all prevails, both sides would have a stake in reaching an accommodation. Obviously, neither side would get all it wants; there has to be some sort of middle ground. That middle ground would have to include sending the YPG units away from Manbij and allowing a Turkish military presence to monitor this. What is needed is to find a facesaving way for the U.S. to cooperate with the Turks.
Unfortunately, the rhetoric on both sides seems to be escalating. Too many people are speaking and not all of them have the skills to engage in diplomatic talk. Rash remarks made by one politician seem to invite more rash remarks by other politicians. This is not a good way to conduct external relations. It is incumbent on both presidents to impose discipline so that those speaking can exert control over the messaging. They will have to agree among themselves on some sort of messaging policy. There may be moments when you do escalate your rhetoric but that has to be a deliberate action rather than an uncontrolled process of spewing out harsh sentences.
In contrast to the U.S., though some of its dimensions are highly problematical, Turkey does appear to have a clear-cut policy whereas the U.S. does not. Its current domestic politics are so unstable, it wavers so unpredictably that, not Turkey but the U.S. poses the bigger danger in the region. The key here is messaging: It seems that the way the media is operating, they like to reduce developments into simple words. Words like “devastation” and “destruction” seem to be attractive catchphrases. But we must guard ourselves against this tendency to expect more and more violence. Ironically, that sort of expectation frees the hands of the actors involved in the conflict to commit more violence. One should be very careful in choosing words. There is a lot of fighting, there is a lot of destruction. But is it likely to intensify? Probably not.