Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan likely thought that invading the Kurdish city of Afrin in northern Syria would be as easy as Iraq’s retaking of Kirkuk in October following the Kurdish referendum. The move would boost Erdogan’s popularity domestically ahead of next year’s presidential election while countering the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a mostly Kurdish force in Syria supported by the United States that Turkey considers a terrorist group, and securing the border. Yet while Turkey’s so-called Operation Olive Branch launched on January 20 may help Erdogan meet personal and national security objectives, the Afrin offensive will also bring serious consequences for Turkey and the region, as well as the potential of a humanitarian catastrophe. The dynamics and alignments of Kurdish armed and political groups bring these potential ramifications to light, closely linked to Washington’s next steps.
Underestimating the YPG
Although Erdogan had promised that the Turkish army would take over Afrin in hours, it has been more than four weeks and Turkish gains are far less than expected. Erdogan and Turkish military officials appear to have underestimated the power of the YPG in urban warfare, assuming that armed forces inspired by the partisan warfare of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) could not compete with a powerful army, let alone that of Turkey, a NATO member very familiar with the PKK’s tactics. Turkey seems to have been misled by the Peshmerga’s failure against the Iraqi army in Kirkuk on October 16 and the Turkish army’s defeat of the urban, pro-PKK Civil Protection Units in 2015.
In addition, Turkey believed that the YPG would not have succeeded against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria without support from the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIS. Yet the limited Turkish gains in the current offensive show the effects of the YPG’s efforts, which has been fighting throughout Syria, but has been preparing itself over the past five years, amassing enough arms to defend its territory in case of an attack by Turkey. After all, the YPG has also been gaining experience and skills from U.S. training during the last four years of partnership in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
The Rojava Third Line
The administration of Rojava—the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, an autonomous region of which Afrin is a part—or its Kurdish-dominated party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has been promoting its pragmatic “third-line policy,” backing neither Syrian opposition groups nor President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Rojava believed that doing this would allow Russia to deter Turkey, which opposed the Syrian regime, and took advantage of Russia’s support, thinking the U.S. would not protect it against Turkey, a NATO ally. Rojava has worked to some degree with the Russia-Iran-Syria alliance, and, to a greater extent, with the U.S.-led coalition during the Syrian war over the past six years. However, as the war on the Islamic State comes to an end and conflicting sides work on a long-term resolution for the future of Syria, it may no longer be possible for Rojava to continue its third-line policy, which had, in a way, irritated all sides.
Prior to the Turkish assault on Afrin, the third-line policy had a space in which to maneuver, but following the assault, this pragmatism may no longer serve Rojava well. The balancing act between the Russians and Americans may eventually leave Rojava—a small, nonstate actor whose future status is unclear—as a victim of its own policy. It will remain vulnerable to Russian demands, as its democratic autonomy has been rejected thus far by the Bashar al-Assad regime; yet Rojava lacks full Russia support because it is seen as a defender of U.S. interests, though the U.S. has also not yet fully recognized Rojava.
The Kurdish people in Syria have been oppressed for years and their rights have been ignored. Rojava has been fighting and working to establish an autonomous administration for Kurds and other minority and religious groups, though its record on political rights and democratic representation is spotty. It is an appropriate time for Rojava to end the balancing act and to further strengthen relations with the U.S. for the future of a united Syria and a democratic northern Syrian federal region.
Although the U.S. has a strategic alliance with Turkey and Turkey is a NATO ally, the U.S. statements regarding the Turkish offensive have been strongly worded. The Kurds have a good understanding of U.S.-Turkey relations; they do not expect the U.S. to choose Turkey over Rojava, but they expect the U.S. to stop further Turkish incursion. The Kurds realize that if Afrin falls, U.S. objectives in Syria will be under threat—endangering the fight against the Islamic State and increasing the likelihood of Rojava collaboration with Russia, Syria, and Iran against Turkish gains.
Many observers locally and internationally have wondered why the PKK has been silent on the Turkish offensive. While the group has issued a few strong statements and its leaders have spoken to pro-PKK media, the group has not attacked Turkish bases and clashes so far have been minor. There are several reasons for this. The PKK does not want to appear connected to the YPG—which the U.S. also prefers—and believes the assault can be countered by the YPG alone. Second, the PKK wants the international community, especially the U.S. and the European Union, to take responsible steps to stop the assault. Third, the PKK does not currently want conflict with Erdogan, as this would give him an opportunity to further consolidate power in the name of fighting “terrorism.” Finally, the PKK believes that the Kurdish question has reached a point at which it must be addressed by Turkey and the international community and resolved through peace talks.
However, if the Turkish assault leads to an invasion of Afrin, the PKK would do anything it can to counter it, including a possible resumption of its attacks in cities in Turkey. Following the failure of the Kurdish Civil Protection Units in Turkey’s southeastern Kurdish cities in 2015, the PKK has been reviewing its tactics and working on a grand strategy. After the coup attempt in Turkey in 2016 failed, the PKK expected the Turkish regime to become more authoritarian and Erdogan to turn the country into a conflict zone. Further, Turkish incursion into Kurdish-held areas in Syria is likely to lead to war between the PKK and the forces supporting it against Turkey—not only in Syria and Turkey, but in Iraq as well. The PKK will likely intensify its fighting against Turkey on the borders as well as within cities. In Iraq, through its sleeping cells as well as partisan forces, the PKK will target Turkish bases in areas controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which are close to PKK-controlled mountain terrain. In Syria, the YPG will do anything, including withdrawing parts of its forces from Raqqa and Deir Ezzour, to reinforce its Afrin front against Turkey and its extremist Syrian rebels. While some Kurds will not back the PKK fight against Turkey, these are very few—the group is even supported by the pro-Turkey and pro-KDP Kurdish National Congress, a rival to the YPG and PYD in Syria, in defending Afrin. The Kurdistan Freedom Hawks, a group of radical, extremist Kurdish youth who are not taking orders from the central PKK command, have targeted the Turkish police, army, and institutions within Turkish cities; the group will likely resume such attacks if Turkish forces invade Afrin.
The PKK has been trying to avoid Iranian influence, but its ability to do so will now depend on the next steps of the U.S. Since 2011, there has been an unofficial ceasefire between the Iranian government and the pro-PKK Kurdistan Free Life Party; meanwhile, there have been no real conflicts between the YPG and Iran in Syria, as both were focused on a common enemy—the Islamic State. However, Iran has been frustrated by the partnership between the YPG and U.S. The Syrian regime seems to be taking a position against the Turkish assault, as Iran and Syria have understood that Russia serves Turkish interests in Idlib, and both Iran and Syria know well that Turkish invasion of Afrin serves none but Turkey.
A Turkish invasion of Afrin would likely lead to a humanitarian catastrophe: residents would have no corridors to reach a safe haven, huge casualties would take place among Kurdish people and the fighters, and the region’s refugee crisis could worsen. It could also empower al-Qaeda, distracting from the fight against the Islamic State, and further delay a genuine resolution for the future of Syria. Factions cooperating to counter Assad could turn against one another, with Arab factions fighting the Kurds once the Turkish army leaves, risking the Kurdish-Arab alliance of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Without U.S. intervention to stop the Turkish offensive—such as pressuring Turkey to resume talks with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan—the YPG could resort to Iran and the Syrian regime for support, bolstering their regional influence. Dreams of a Kurdish democracy with U.S. support would be in tatters despite the Kurds in Syria having proved their commitment to protecting U.S. interests there by countering the Islamic State, al-Qaeda affiliates, and other extremists. The possibility of conflict between two U.S. allies in the region would endanger gains made in the past year through arming the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and as the Assad regime has been weakened in northern Syria, the fall of Afrin and a weakened YPG could leave the people of the region at the mercy of extremist Islamist groups.