The Conditions and Implications for the Afrin Attack

The first substantial evidence of a US plan for stabilization in post-ISIS Syria was revealed this week—and it didn’t go well. On Sunday, spokesmen from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the US-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) announced intentions to build a “border security” force of around 30,000 troops; made up primarily of veteran SDF fighters. The plan illuminates Turkey’s summoning of the US charge d’affaires last week: Turkey is enraged by the proposal, and Erdogan vowed on Monday to “drown this army of terror before it is born.” SDF fighters, who would make up about half of the border force, are dominated by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey views as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and therefore terrorists.

The entrenchment of the YPG at Syria’s northern border is anathema to Turkish security interests, and was a major determinant in Ankara’s decision to deploy troops into Syria in 2016—the other being to clear ISIS militants from their remaining border stronghold. This time around, Turkey called upon NATO to take a stance against the US plan and repeatedly threatened an imminent operation in Kurdish-controlled Afrin in northern Syria to “crush” the YPG if the US did not abandon the border force plan. Despite Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s assurances that “that entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed, some people misspoke,” Turkey was not convinced. On Friday, heavy cross-border shelling from Turkey marked the start of the campaign against Afrin, according to the Turkish defense minister.

Turkey is not alone in its condemnation of the proposed US-backed border security force that is the purported reason for its Afrin assault: Assad’s government called the creation of such a force a blatant encroachment on Syria’s sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity and announced the Syrian army’s commitment to ending any US presence in the country. Russia and Iran have expressed concern that the plan will fan the flames of the war and the main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, has condemned the plan for placing areas liberated from ISIS in Kurdish control. Reports indicate that rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) mobilized to support Turkey’s offensive, demonstrating their own objection to the plan. A Turkish official reported on Friday that Russia is moving its troops out of Afrin, seemingly to clear the path for Turkey’s offensive on the region. While the Syrian government objects to any Turkish incursion, vowing to shoot down any jets that carry out attacks within its borders, its main backers, Iran and Russia, are unlikely to support such a move that would undoubtedly jeopardize their tenuous tripartite relationship with Turkey.

Any hope that Turkey’s apprehension over Russia and Iran’s behavior in Idlib—where they are aiding and abetting Assad’s forces in bombarding rebel villages in violation of de-escalation agreements—that could be used to split up the three powers’ unlikely alliance, is fading fast. While it is possible that Turkey always wanted this Afrin campaign and simply needed an excuse to mobilize it, the United States has certainly expedited the process with this foreign relations fumble. The US support of Kurdish forces continues to alienate some Arab components of the opposition as well, who fear Kurdish militants will take the opportunity to claim areas cleared of ISIS for themselves, enacting demographic change in Arab communities and prolonging the widespread displacement of Syrians.

The proposed US plan does not set the United States up for success in advance of peace negotiations being set up by Russia in Sochi, either: by isolating itself with this controversial move, the US has decreased its leverage and ensured that the ball stays firmly in Russia, Turkey, and Iran’s court. The plan also guarantees a commitment of US troops to Syria for the foreseeable future, as they will be needed to train the force and act as guarantors of their safety. In the spring of 2017, the US deployed forces to Syria’s northern border region to stop clashes between Kurdish and Turkish forces, an occurrence that will undoubtedly be repeated in this situation. Such a commitment should be accompanied by a well-rounded Syria policy that takes into consideration the complexity of the conflict, rather than focusing solely on the counter-ISIS campaign. If such a policy will emerge, remains to be seen.

While navigating the Afrin debacle will be a grueling undertaking for the United States, there are opportunities to be exploited. The situation in Afrin is representative of the drastically divergent goals that Turkey, Russia, and Iran have in Syria, despite some similarities on the surface. Turkey and Iran both may have interests in weakening the PKK by attacking the YPG. Yet Iran is a staunch ally of the Assad regime; whereas Turkey does not instead backing FSA fighters against Syrian government forces. Russia still has economic and political ties to the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, making it undesirable to directly attack the YPG, though it may be pressured into standing by.

Russia desperately wants to delegitimize the United States any way it can by thwarting its efforts in Syria, but it has no interest in committing to a long-term presence and investment in Syria. Iran, meanwhile, is there to stay. These are a few of the hairline fractures between Russia, Turkey, and Iran that could be exacerbated in order to break their grip on the direction of the conflict in Syria. The United States could potentially take advantage of this using all its diplomatic power and reassert itself as a power player in Syria. It remains to be seen if Washington will be adept and adaptive enough to seize the opportunity.

Emily Burchfield is a program assistant at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: Photo: People hold flags and carry a banner reading "We condemn and denounce the attacks of the Turkish government against our people in Afrin" during a protest against Turkish attacks on Afrin, in Hasaka, Syria, January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said