Operation Olive Branch, Growing Tensions Between Ankara and Washington
The rivalry between the external forces supporting President Bashar al-Assad and those that oppose him, for a long time was a struggle for control for the borders or key regions as well as oil fields, highways and waterways. Today the government troops’ control of the majority of the territory, supported by Iran and its allies as well as the Russian Space Forces is a fact, which all regional opponents of Assad (the KSA, Qatar and Turkey) and their supporters in Western countries and organisations (the USA, France, UK, NATO and the EU) must take into consideration.
The war in Syria with the defeat of the banned in Russia Islamic State is not complete. It only marked a new stage with the participation with pro-Saudi and pro-Turkish groups in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, and now in Afrin with the Turkish Armed Forces. The overthrow of Assad remains for Syrian Islamists and their sponsors the main goal in the diplomatic war, which they wage against Damascus in Geneva with the support of the Western block and directing against him officials of the UN.
Turkey is the most vulnerable of Assad’s regional opponents due to the long border between the two states, the majority of areas in Syria inhabited by Kurds (except the corridor from A’zaz to Jarabulus controlled by the Turkmen). The war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turkish Armed Forces for decades waged, until recently fought on the territory of Turkey and Iraq. At the same time, Ankara is not without reason considers the rear bases of the political and military structure of Syrian Kurds and the failure of the unification of the Kurdish enclaves in Northern Syria into a single quasi-state structure are as important as the torpedoing of the Erbil referendum on independence and the refusal of the Turkish Kurds to the autonomy.
The military operation in Afrin demonstrates to what extent Turkey is ready to confront the Kurdish or Kurdish-American initiatives. The reports about the beginning of arming the Syrian Kurds with MANPADS systems and the preparation of 30 thousand-strong frontier corps, half of which will be Kurds, have played the role of the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, or other accumulated confrontations between Ankara and Washington are not so important. In any case, the government, member state of NATO, carries out a military operation, contrary to the interests of the superpower, heading this block. That, however, is not the first time. Suffice it to recall the occupation of Northern Cyprus by Turkish troops and numerous conflicts with another NATO member, Greece.
The doubts of analysts, including domestic, about the determination of Erdogan to strike the Syrian territory disappeared when hostilities in Afrin began. As these words are written, hostilities continue, despite the fact that the Kurds are retreating, giving the possibility to Turkish troops to inflict losses on its territory without special damage to its own units. Russia withdrew its observers from Afrin, as the situation there is best to disrupt Washington’s plans in Syria. Fortunately, as soon as the Kurds rely on the Americans, the responsibility for the events lies on the White House… This article on the situation in Syrian Afrin with the analysis on the relations between the USA, the Kurds, Turkey and Russia in Syria (little depends on Damascus in the current situation) is based on materials prepared by the expert of the Middle East Institute Y. Schelgovin.
The NATO General Secretary J. Stoltenberg, in a telephone conversation prior to the start of operations in Afrin, with the President of Turkey R. Erdogan said that the alliance understands the concerns of Ankara over the US decision to train the Kurds in Syria to protect the borders. Erdogan pointed out that the US actions would affect the stability of the region as a whole. This means, among other things, that the EU has relieved themselves of the responsibility for US policies in Syria and took a neutral position, without hiding that the American do not conduct consultations with NATO on operations in Syria.
Turkish intelligence monitors Afrin and the areas under Kurdish control, since October 2017, using UAVs and loyal operational intelligence forces. Goals were set for the planned fist strike. As announced before the start of hostilities, the first phase of the operation should last up to six days. Artillery is placed on the border, along with the aviation. For the final clean up in Afrin they will send the Special Forces of the Army and tanks. The Kurds, in order to force the enemy into a trench war, built barricades and dug trenches in nine regions of Afrin. Turkey deployed on the borders of the SAR a large number of armoured vehicles and artillery.
Afrin is surrounded on the side of the Turkish border in the East, West and North. The Kurds can retreat to the South and South-East towards Damascus controlled territory. The General Staff of the Turkish Republic is ready to attack the Kurdish positions following the airstrike with armoured equipment. The equipment will be moving using “jammers” to protect from the remote-control bombs, devices, silencing the majority of radio signals. The majority of Afrin is mountainous, where the use of tanks is limited, and the Turkish Air Force does not have bombs to destroy the underground tunnels and bunkers. Before “jammers”, landmines prevailed, which are powered by wire. It is easy to use them in Afrin.
The overwhelming air advantage of the Turks requires the Kurds to disperse and actively use mine ambush activities, costly for the invaders. This means the participation of pro-Turkish opposition units in the operations, which will be supported by the aviation and artillery. The movement of pro-Turkish forces in the zones between Jarabulus and A’zaz under control of the Turks is one of the areas of attack. The troop movement from Turkey will not be so active. Thus Ankara is trying to win Moscow’s approval for the Afrin clean up, referring to the necessity of combating pro-Saudi Jabat al-Nusra.
We will note that the US is planning an offensive in Idlib with the use of units of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDS). Their instructors began their training in the military camps of the SDS fighters, who will serve on the Turkish and Iraqi border and on the frontlines with government troops in the Euphrates River basin. It is argued that $400 million were allocated for this. The main motive for the Americans is to get ahead of the offensive by the Syrian and Iranian troops with the support of the Russian Space Forces. However, the fighting potential of the SDS is low, as demonstrated in Raqqa.
Idlib is radical-Sunni Arab territory. The advance of the Kurds will be considered from this point of view of traditional ethnic hatred. All Arab groups regardless of ideology and submission to sponsors will be fighting them. If the US will take this option, it would slow the consolidation of the Sunni Arab tribes east of the Euphrates under its auspices. The Arabs suspect that the Americans want to create in Syria an analogue of the Iraqi Kurdish semi-state enclave, stirring thereby the mood of the Kurds in favour of “Great Kurdistan”.
To keep the Kurdish units East of the Euphrates, at the same time advance into Idlib with the threat of Turkish aggression in Afrin, is a losing scenario. Especially since the Americans are not in any hurry to neutralise Jabat al-Nusra, are not interested in leaving the scene of the armed part of the opposition, and want to influence the Islamists via the KSA. Thus the Turkish intervention in Afrin changes everything. Diversionary attacks in the direction of Manbij are not excluded to distract the Kurds away from Afrin. But Turkey has little forces to operate in both fronts, and the beginning of the operation means not only further divergence with the US but a long conflict with considerable losses.
In reality, the PKK and the party “Democratic Union” (DS) in Syria are branches of a single organisation. Units of DS entered Raqqa under portraits of the founder of the PKK A. Ocalan, and now they are hanging on the streets of this Sunni Arab city. Erdogan is offended by the fact that the US does not recognise the relationship between the PKK and DS, showing that the Turkish leader is a fool. But this does not negate the dependence Ankara on Washington. Despite the controversy, the US Air Forces continue to use the bases in Incirlik. Erdogan in Afrin is trying to blackmail the US, as he did with the EU, having received from the Europeans three billion euros as compensation for keeping the migrants from entering Europe. Moreover, domestic experts believe that in Afrin he probably wants to pretend to go to war rather than fight in reality, although the opposite may happen.
The Americans took preventive measures by providing batches of MANPADS to the Kurdish militia in Syria, particularly in Afrin. Fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) received the complexes from the military wing of the Democratic Forces of Syria. The transfer of MANPADS is useless in the fight against the remnants of IS, as the Islamists do not have an air force and drones are neutralised with large-calibre machineguns. The Americans did not provide them to the Iraqi army during their time in Iraq, citing the danger of their falling into the hands of Islamists, as the trade of weapons between the warring parties in Iraq and Syria is a standard situation.
In the last few months, the Syrian army with the support of Russia and Iran began to advance on rebel positions in the North-western provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Idlib. Those, including the pro-Turkish groups, had (including in the airfield Abu-ed-Duhur) fierce resistance. The Turks do not support directly pro-Saudi Jabat al-Nusra, but its defeat threatens the existence of pro-Turkish groups like Ahrar al-Sham, affiliated with it. A last-minute alliance between Turkey and Saudi Arabia in this regard exists. And the US military not in vain claims that mortar fire and attack drones of the Russian Khmeimim base was organised by the pro-Turkish groups and encouraged by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT). Normal tactic for Erdogan…
Washington clearly hoped that Moscow’s position on Afrin, where a Russian monitoring group was located, and Manbij, in the suburbs where Syrian government forces are located, would remain uncompromising and will turn into an obstacle for the Turks. But the local conflict in Afrin is convenient for Moscow. All due to the deterioration of relations between Washington and Ankara, and in connection with the breakdown of plans for the construction of the military base under the control of the Americans, and the autonomy of the Sunnis to the East of the Euphrates. Yet another shot of confidence for the US in their global domination will not hurt. Moreover, it seems that the impulsive Erdogan, fighting with the Kurds, greatly complicates his position.
Before the extensive diplomacy, what the United States want is for Russia’s pressure on the SAR government to reach a new level so that Damascus takes a more active role in the Geneva negotiations. The US Secretary of State R. Tillerson stated this at Stanford University. It is proposed that Moscow should convince Assad to negotiate with the opposition about the term of his surrender, and then forces will come to power in Syria that will nullify the Russian and Iranian presence. The head of the State Department did not advise Moscow. The current US administration believes in its exceptionalism and dominance in world affairs, which allows Russia with minor strains on economic and military resources to outplay the Americans. Washington has forgotten about the constructiveness in international politics that involves alliances and counter-alliances, willingness to compromise and adequately assess the balance of forces. That is to carry out laborious work, stemming from real possibilities.
The first year of President Trump was marked by the most devastating crisis of US foreign policy in recent history. The Americans managed to obstruct any political and diplomatic progress in the Far, Near and Middle East, complicating the relations with all global players, except with Israel. And all without any help from Moscow. Their importance for Russia, prior to the Geneva talks, was to ensure the presence of the UN in the Syrian settlement, eliminating the monopoly of the West on it, as well as to have a mechanism to influence “partners” in the information war.
In addition, the role of the Geneva format is that the surrender of the Syrian opposition must be settled, not Assad’s. For this, it is necessary to inflict maximum military damage to the irreconcilables (the pro-Saudi Jabat al-Nusra and related pro-Turkish groups) and bring to reason local truces. To talk about progress in Geneva is possible only after the “Riyadh group” is deprived of effective military support on the ground in Syria. Simultaneously, it is advisable to complicate US efforts to build East of the Euphrates an alternative to the regime in Damascus. The Kurdish role in the Syrian conflict is limited to ideally stay in areas where they are a “cordon sanitaire” and an irritant to Ankara. And since they are still trying to act as agents of US interests in Syria, to adjust the Turkish hands in Afrin is logical.
Even if they manage to occupy the main city in the Afrin canton, they are guaranteed to get a guerrilla war, where the main flow of material and technical resources will be redirected. So far they follow pro-Turkish groups in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, which allows Ankara to state their special position on the proposed Moscow initiatives, including the Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue. The threat that the Turks will clean up Afrin and create there a foothold of influence and rear base for the irreconcilable opposition is minimal. And that such an intervention will distract the forces of the DS in that direction is a fact. This source of conflict will absorb all the capabilities (or the majority of them) of Turks and Kurds, despite the fact that Ankara will not have any remaining resources for expansion into other Kurdish areas in Northern Syria.
Washington needs to clarify its position, which under any case answers to their interests, on the one hand it complicates relations with Ankara, on the other, it undermines the alliance with the Kurds, complicating the establishment in Northern Syria of an independent Sunni enclave as an alternative to Damascus. The Sunnis will wait. Their suspicions about the American sincerity and their ability to guarantee its allies security will increase. Moscow, among other things, is the arbitrator; all parties to the conflict will address it specifically.
Units of the Turkish Armed Forces and the forces of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) coordinated tactics to sweep Afrin from battle groups of Kurdish Forces of the Popular Defence Forces (SNA). The military had identified seven major corridors to enter the city from the East. Armoured units of the Turkish Army and fighters of the FSA will move through them. These forces are divided into four major militant groups, took positions near the Turkish border awaiting the order to advance towards Afrin.
Sections of the concrete wall were dismantled on the Turkish-Syrian border in 12 locations for the movement of the armoured vehicles towards Afrin. Along the boundary line in seven tactical important regions, the Turkish General Staff placed a garrison and a battery of Howitzers, self-propelled guns and rocket launchers to supress the firing points of the SNA in Afrin and to cover in later stages the advance of ground units to the city. In parallel with the preparation on the Afrin-A’zaz-Jarabulus line, the Turks are in talks with two opposition groups on the Afrin-Idlib line. The latter are wiling to contribute to the storming of Afrin, but insist on the coordination of efforts.
We will note that to bring the Sunnis to its side and at the same time support the Kurds is a next to impossible task. The first is not only difficult, but also requires financing to which, Washington is not ready, where the talk is about $75 million, which the American allocated for the restoration of Raqqa. As to the second, according to Erdogan, the United States sent to Syria to the Kurds 4,900 trucks and about 2,000 aircraft of weapons. The public statements by the Pentagon about the plans to form a new armed force based on Kurds from the supporters of the DS party made it impossible for a compromise between Washington and Ankara.
The Turks have a very limited field of manoeuvre. They have to either agree to the elimination of Jabat al-Nusra in Idlib, as insisted by Russia and Iran, and to participate in the process of peaceful settlement proposed by Moscow for negotiations in Astana and the Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi, or to be in opposition with Moscow and Washington at the same time, which is absolutely hopeless to preserve any influence in Syria and what Erdogan always tried to avoid, manoeuvring from one pole of force to another. The US has even less leverage over the situation. They will not risk fighting Russia, Iran or Turkey, a NATO country. In the end, the training of the new, armed Syrian opposition, announced by the Pentagon, was in jeopardy from the beginning.