Turkey After Afrin

6 MINS READMar 14, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
Turkey's Operation Olive Branch advances through northwestern Syria.

Turkish tanks and helicopters advance toward the village of Maabatli in the Afrin region of northwestern Syria as part of the ongoing offensive on March 2, 2018.

  • Turkey's military will ultimately prevail in Afrin due to its numerous advantages over the defending Kurdish militia there. 
  • Turkish success in Afrin will embolden Ankara to undertake further operations in pursuit of its regional strategy and in its efforts to weaken Kurdish separatism. 
  • As Turkey pursues its interests further in Syria and Iraq, regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia will increasingly push back against Turkish ambition.

More than 50 days on, NATO's second largest army is finally bringing its superior weight to bear in its attack on Afrin. Despite a slow start to Operation Olive Branch, Turkey has shown that its military remains an effective and powerful force, despite recent domestic turmoil, as it fights to remove the People's Protection Units (YPG) and its local allies from the mountainous area on Turkey's border. Any success in the operations against Afrin will likely embolden Ankara to undertake further military action to consolidate its position in the region and prevent the YPG from expanding its influence and territory — even if that puts Turkey on a collision course with other countries with interests in the region. 

Getting the Operation on Track

Operation Olive Branch encountered considerable difficulties in the initial phases of the incursion. Adverse weather conditions, especially the rain and mud, slowed down the infantry's advance and reduced the effectiveness of the air support. Furthermore, the Turks and their rebel allies faced difficult terrain such as mountains and forests during their opening push. The YPG also hindered the Turkish advance by initially adopting a forward defensive stance, sending large numbers of fighters to the border and conducting a number of spirited counterattacks, which drove back the Turks and their allies. Also, the YPG had made preparations. Long aware of Ankara's designs on the region, the group erected numerous defensive fortifications along the frontier with Turkey in expectation of an eventual assault.

The large difference in firepower, however, has tipped the balance in favor of the Turks and their allies. The YPG received large numbers of anti-tank guided missiles from the Syrian government, Iran and elsewhere in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria at the beginning of the conflict, but such arms were insufficient to match the weaponry wielded by the attackers. As a result, the YPG suffered unsustainable losses during the initial phases of the fighting. Aided by improving weather, the Turks and their rebel allies redoubled their efforts to wrest control over large swaths of the frontier, securing key border towns such as Bulbul, Rajo, Sheikh Hadid and, eventually, Sharran and Jinderes. After these major advances, Ankara has shifted its focus to pushing through the low-lying Afrin valley. Thanks to twin pincer movements from the northeast and the southwest, the attackers could surround the YPG in Afrin city center within a few days, depending on the course of the battle. 

As Turkey's Operation Olive Branch has proceeded, the country's military has demonstrated its considerable strengths. Ankara has exerted considerable effort since the end of Operation Euphrates Shield in early 2017 to improve the combat capabilities of its Syrian rebel allies. Those fighters still possess glaring flaws in terms of their combat capability and discipline, but they now appear better trained, equipped and led. And in an effort to win support from the predominantly Kurdish locals for its campaign, Turkey has integrated significant numbers of ethnic Kurdish fighters into the rebel units, including the relatively elite — by Syrian rebel standards — Kurdish Falcons Brigade of the Hamza Division. 

The Turkish Air Force has also played a critical role in the operation thus far. Although authorities purged a number of pilots after the failed 2016 coup d'etat, the country's air force retains enough jet operators to provide the air support required for the incursion into Afrin. Turkey's military planners have also augmented their airstrikes with heavy artillery and rocket fire from artillery units. The YPG, a predominantly light infantry force with little in the way of heavy weaponry, is at a serious disadvantage against this firepower and has suffered accordingly. 

Turkey has also deployed some of its most elite units for the operation, including large numbers of special operations forces, which have gained experience against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in battles in Southeast Anatolia since 2015. The special forces have joined the Syrian rebel units to enhance their effectiveness and call in airstrikes, while commanders have also deployed special commando and mountain warfare units to spearhead some of the most difficult attacks in the mountainous region of Afrin. 

Potential Pushback 

In spite of Turkey's advantage over its adversaries, it is too early for it to declare victory in Operation Olive Branch. There remains much difficult fighting ahead, particularly against YPG defenders in the mountains, as well as units that are preparing for urban warfare against the attackers. Nevertheless, Ankara is already looking forward to new battles against the YPG and its allies in the area. Despite rumblings from Ankara that it intends to dislodge the YPG from Manbij, it is highly unlikely that Turkey would launch a direct assault on the predominantly Arab town due to the presence of U.S. forces in the vicinity. Instead, Ankara and Washington could reach a compromise in which the YPG is obliged to vacate the area. In the wake of Operation Olive Branch, Turkey is likely to enhance its presence in Idlib province and bolster its Syrian rebel allies there against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — a successor to Jabhat al-Nusra — as well as move toward a potential operation targeting the PKK and the Yazidi fighters it supports (both groups have sent reinforcements to Afrin to resist the Turks) in the Sinjar area of Iraq.

Whether in Syria or Iraq, an emboldened Turkey is likely to incur a greater pushback from other regional powers worried about its ambitions.

But whether in Syria or Iraq, an emboldened Turkey is likely to incur a greater pushback from other regional powers worried about its ambitions. As the Turks and their allies attack Afrin, the proxy war between Ankara and Tehran has intensified, and the conflict is only likely to grow in ferocity the more Turkey pushes into Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia also harbors worries about Turkey's aims, leading it to explore the possibility of greater cooperation with the YPG's umbrella organization, the Syrian Democratic Forces, due to the loss in strength of its erstwhile rebel ally, Jaish al-Islam. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia could soon find itself at odds with Turkey's ambitions in Syria as well. 

The YPG has vowed to fight tooth and nail to defend Afrin, but the advantages of the Turks and their allies — whether in training, numbers, technology or experience — suggest that the incursion will eventually succeed in displacing the defenders from the northwestern Syrian city. Turkey is already planning its subsequent moves in Syria, but the prospective success of Operation Olive Branch might not clear the path as much as authorities in Ankara have hoped. Instead, it seems that the operation might only prompt regional rivals to erect further obstacles to hinder Ankara's regional strategy.

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