Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast highlighted both the Turkish determination to prevent a Kurdish state from emerging along its southern border and Iran's backing for a slew of militias across the region. Those two elements are now coming into conflict on the Syrian battlefield, as Iranian-backed forces that are loyal to the Syrian government have begun pouring into Afrin, along Turkey's southern flank, to join Kurdish forces.
The Syrian civil war's proxy battles are intensifying. Over the past two days, large numbers of pro-government militia forces have joined fighters from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin, which is the subject of a Turkish offensive. As the Turkish military continues its attempts to remove the YPG's forces from the Afrin region under what it calls Operation Olive Branch, the Kurds are negotiating with the Syrian and Iranian governments, seeking an agreement to deploy Syrian loyalist forces to the region to counter the Turkish assault. Though forces loyal to the Syrian government have moved into Afrin, these are not regular Syrian military units. The Kurdish negotiations have far to go before they are resolved, and in the meantime, Turkey will remain determined to prevent Kurdish forces from remaining near its border.
The Syrian loyalist fighters that have joined the Kurds in Afrin are from militias backed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Syria's government, which has labeled those troops volunteers, reportedly is seeking deep concessions from the Kurds in exchange for sending its own units into the area. The presence of the Iranian-backed militia forces in Afrin indicates that although a deal with the Kurds has yet to be reached, negotiations are at least well enough on track that Damascus is willing to commit resources to stymie Turkish ambitions in the area.
But even if a wider deal can be struck and Syrian government forces do indeed move into Afrin, Turkey still would be unlikely to change its course. The Turkish government has made it clear that it views the YPG in the same light as the Kurdistan Workers' Party — which has waged an insurgency in Turkey for decades. Therefore, it will not tolerate a Kurdish YPG force on its flank. Moreover, Turkey has warned that forces loyal to Syria's government will be seen as legitimate targets if they enter Afrin to assist the YPG.
If Syria's government chooses to commit troops to Afrin officially, those forces could be forced to engage openly with Turkish soldiers. And, through the militias it backs, Iran is now functionally waging war with Turkey by proxy. With such a dizzying array of forces, backers and interests in Afrin, the potential for the proxy conflict to escalate into a more direct one is increased. But with its forces already stretched thin, Syria's government will need to maneuver carefully to avoid a full-scale conflict with Turkey.