By Diliman Abdulkader
On January 19, the Russians proposed an ultimatum to the Kurds: Allow Assad to have full authority over Afrin, Syria, or face a Turkish invasion. The Kurds of Afrin naturally rejected the offer, prompting the Russians to withdraw their troops from the enclave. The Turks invaded the very next day.
The dilemma Kurds faced could not be swallowed by the people of Afrin. For Assad to regain additional territory over Syria was not an option, and certainly a foreign entity to rule over historical lands was an unquestionable threat. Kurds feel betrayed by Russia but expect the U.S. to take a more responsible position. Kurdish official Keno Gabriel stated, “Therefore, we hold Russia as responsible as Turkey and stress that Russia is the crime partner of Turkey in massacring the civilians in the region.”
Into the second month, the fighting has been unrelenting. The second largest NATO ally, Turkey, aligned with the so-called Free Syrian Army and Al Qaeda-affiliate groups with the permission of the Russians, are fighting the very same Kurds who battled the Islamic State.
Afrin is home to some 1.2 million people, nearly 500,000 of those are internally displaced peoples and refugees who fled from both the Assad regime and ISIS. The United Nations reported an additional 15,000 people have been displaced with over 180 civilians killed and 310 injured. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that “Operation Olive Branch,” the Turkish name of the invasion, will be “complete in a very short time.”
Due to the unexpected length of the operation, the strategy shifted from penetrating deep into Afrin canton within days to establishing a security belt surrounding Turkey’s border. Turkey is now expected to conduct urban warfare, moving towards the city of Afrin.
The role of the U.S.
The Trump administration finds itself in a very difficult position, especially when it comes to Afrin. Although the Kurds are US allies in Syria, organized under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), there is no U.S. stake in Afrin. Afrin is situated in northwest Syria, while the U.S. is positioned east of the Euphrates river.
Prior to the invasion, Afrin was controlled by the Kurds as it is today, but the airspace is controlled by the Russians and had Russian troops on the ground, which later withdrew. Perhaps the mistake of the Kurds was to not invite some sort of U.S. presence into Afrin earlier.
What sparked the invasion in Afrin was Washington’s call to set up a 30,000 border force with the YPG inside Syria. The Turks deliberately attacked Afrin due to the zero possibility of U.S. confrontation, Afrin was known as a weak territory of all the Kurdish regions in Syria.
The U.S. response has largely ignored Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric by continuing to back the Kurds east of the Euphrates under the SDF. However, Erdogan vows to “strangle” the Kurds regardless of U.S. support.
Erdogan has also threatened to continue his operation beyond Afrin and deep into Syrian territory, specifically Manbij. A region with heavy U.S. personnel and outposts, Manbij is strategic to United States’ long-term goal in Syria. General Joseph Votel, commander of the United States Central Command stated that “withdrawing U.S. forces from Manbij is not something we are looking into,” further angering Erdogan.
Russia has aimed to create a rift between NATO, Turkey and the US, a successful strategy so far. Russia only profited from the Afrin attacks by further strengthening its leverage over Erdogan.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s long-term goal is to manipulate Erdogan into shifting towards the East without fully taking responsibility for his actions, and Erdogan has taken the bate.
Russia, after allowing the Turks to invade Afrin, has now allowed Syria regime forces to support the Kurds. This strategy may be an attempt to force Erdogan and Assad to mend ties, further legitimizing the Syrian regime. The biggest losers of Russia’s scheme are the Kurds. Once again, the Kurds are bullied around by more powerful state actors.
Erdogan’s ultimate goal in Afrin is to push back any Kurdish presence, despite the enclave being predominately Kurdish. A Kurdish-led government near Turkey’s border is viewed as a threat according to Turkey.
Erdogan’s fundamental fear of a successful Kurdish government in Syria is a spill over demand for greater self-rule in southeast Turkey, home to over 15 million Kurds. But there are a number of troublesome outcomes to this Turkish provoked war, such as prolonging the Syrian civil war, derailing a peace solution, giving rise to new Islamic State like groups while creating an uncontrollable humanitarian crisis.
Additionally, Afrin may be a launching point for a Syrian-Turkish conflict backed by Iran.
The Kurds worry that the continued silence on the part of the United States will result in an ethnic cleansing of their lands. Erdogan has promised to replace Kurds with either Turkman’s or Arab Syrian refugees from inside Turkey similar to when he threatened to flood the gates of Europe with migrants.
If the U.S. continues to allow Russia to have its way in Syria, it will undermine its own policy and will force the Kurds to rely on the Assad regime. The U.S. cannot afford to betray their partners in Syria, a sentiment all too familiar with the Kurds.