The “Olive Branch” is Breaking: Afrin Pays the Price of the US-Russia Struggle and Turkey is Part of it

Damascus | Elijah J. Magnier | @ejmalrai

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Liwa’ Imam Mohamad Bin Ali Bin al-Husein al-Baker from Nub’ul and Zahra cities breaking into Afrin in support of the Kurds against Turkish forces and allies
The Syrian Army will take control of the Kurdish Syrian city of Afrin…. the Syrian Army won’t take control of Afrin?Finally, hundreds of Syrian popular forces (Liwa’ al Baqr – original name refers to Mohamad Bin Ali bin al-Husein al-Baker, the fifth of the twelve Shia Imams trained by Syrian allies), mainly from the nearby Shia cities of Nub’ul and Zahra have entered the enclave of Afrin to support the Kurds and stand against the Turkish forces and their allies. By accepting to send forces to support the Kurds, Damascus is breaking the “olive branch” (the code name of Turkey’s operation in Afrin) and deciding to confront Ankara’s forces and its proxies. In fact, the first clash was registered minutes after the arrival of the Syrian forces in Afrin but these, with clear orders to respond to fire, fired the first shells against the Turkish forces and their proxies to mark the first direct confrontation between Syria and Turkey this year.

Damascus refrained from sending the regular Army because such a move is still maturing and requires all levels of coordination with Russia and Turkey. However, the Syrian President Assad is clearly challenging his Turkish counterpart President Erdogan, testing the ground and sending a determined message to Turkey that Syria won’t give up its territory. It is a positive message to the Kurds to tell them that only the central government can protect them, supported by a superpower, Russia.

Contradictory news is being sporadically released regarding the development of the Afrin Canton deal at the same time that it is under continuous attack by the Turkish army and its Syrian proxies. This indicates the nature of the US-Russia struggle in Syria: the Kurds are the biggest losers, paying the price of their alliance with the US forces in al-Hasaka and Deir-ezzour provinces. The Kurds’ acceptance to become an American shield and detach themselves from the central government in Damascus weighs heavily against their future wellbeing in Syria.

The unstable outcome of the battle of Afrin is due to the Russian-American agreement, over a year ago, to divide areas of operation while both parties were fighting the “Islamic State” (ISIS) in Syria, in order to avoid collision in the skies of Syria. Moscow believed Washington would abide by the promises of its President Donald Trump who had harshly criticized Hillary Clinton saying her plan for Syria would lead to “World War III”. Trump, during his presidential campaign, said he would get “the hell out of Syria” and that he was not interested in rubbing up against Russia, only concerned to defeat ISIS. President Vladimir Putin didn’t expect Trump to exceed 1,628 lies since becoming President before ending his first year in the White House.

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But all that is too late: Russia agreed to deliver the territory east of the Euphrates to the Americans during the war against ISIS. But the biggest surprise is from the US, who says it is staying in Syria even if ISIS is defeated, and therefore won’t allow any force, Russian or Syrian, to cross its area of influence east of the river.

The US forces are in control of the rich Oil (including the richest, al-Omar) and Gas (Conoco) fields east of the Euphrates. The US also controls 24% of the Syrian territory that is occupied by 10% of the Syrian population (Kurds and Arab tribes). Moreover, the US forces have learned from their experience in Iraq by creating and financing the Sahawat tribes, and are establishing other close contacts with the local Arab tribes of the region.

And last, to defend its occupied territory, the US forces did not hesitate to engage in direct combat with the Syrian tribes and Russian contractors linked to the Wagner company commanded by the former Russian Special Forces Dimitry Utkin, killing over 61, with more than 85 wounded. The advance of this force was commanded by the joint operations room directed by Russia, Syria and Iran, with the aim of testing the US’s readiness of engagement and to try to impose a new state of affairs on the ground by establishing a non-US foothold east of the Euphrates.

Both the US and Russia covered the attack and avoided releasing details about it to avoid appearing to wage a larger war with unforeseen results. World War III – unwanted by both superpowers – was not very far away: Syria seems to be highly dangerous ground for any force involved in it.

However, Putin didn’t swallow the US strategic bluff to divide the area of influence in Syria for longer than expected, and it started its silent hit-back against the US. Russia allowed Turkey a free hand against the Kurds of Afrin, considered pro-US forces in Syria. The Turkish attack showed the double-edge of the areas east and west of the significant Euphrates area, which effectively prevented the US from rushing to help their Kurdish allies. The Russian move exposed the US plans to use the Kurds in al-Hasaka as a shield to protect the US forces instead of being considered allies of the US. Trump can’t now credibly present himself as the protector of the Kurdish minority in Syria, which has enjoyed broad support from the west for decades.

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The moment Liwa’ al-Baker forces crossed into Afrin

The Russian clear hit to the US was manifested by the withdrawal of Russian observers from Afrin, when the Kurds failed to see the bigger game between the two superpowers. The Afrin administration refused to deliver the Afrin enclave to Damascus central government’s control as had been the case prior to 2011 (the date of the beginning of the war in Syria). After that date, Afrin became financially rich and equipped with heavy weapons, in addition to the anti-tank guided missiles, plus the US TOWs, a very efficient and deadly weapon against the Turkish tanks.

The Afrin administration – to its ultimate disappointment –  believed the US would rush to support them and push away any menace against the enclave. But the Turkish President RecepTayyib Erdogan played his cards well and forced the US and Europe (lately France) to keep away from this “Olive Branch” operation against the Kurds in Afrin.

Only one month after the beginning of the “Olive Branch” operation, the Afrin administration began to understand the reality of the power struggle- but yet not completely. Russia is teaching the Kurds a lesson so that these understand the price of plying for favors from the US. The US feels impotent towards the Kurds and exposed, forced to reveal its plans for staying in Syria and for occupying a piece of its territory regardless of the defeat of ISIS. The Kurds can’t yet fully grasp the extent to which they are wood for the Syrian fire, caught between two superpowers.

In Syria, there are only two alternatives: either Moscow or Washington forces will remain in Syria (if the game remains rough), or they will cohabit as they did in Berlin after the Second World War.

The Afrin administration doesn’t understand that for every day that goes by there will be new Syrian demands. If the Kurds continue to resist these demands, Damascus will ask for further concessions and further withdrawal of the Kurds to the east of the Euphrates, to join the US forces (and remain as a burden on them). This is also allowing Turkey to be more determined in allowing the Syrian army to regain control of Afrin.

Although the central government in Damascus agreed to send several hundreds of local militants from Nubbl and Zahraa and other national forces as a preliminary support, it is likely that the negotiations over Afrin will continue until mid-March in Kazakhstan between Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syria (indirectly), discussing not only Afrin but also Idlib- unless the Kurds acknowledge without delay all of Damascus’s conditions. Otherwise, with every day that goes by Turkey increases its influence and occupies more territory in the enclave.

Russia is not expected to be satisfied with one hit against the US in Afrin but is accelerating the end of control by al-Qaeda and other militants (Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam) over al Ghouta, east of Damascus. The Russians would like to see the US alone (Russia considers Turkey is the lesser evil in Syria and can deal with it later) in Syria to point out its illegal presence and therefore illegal occupation of north east Syria, particularly when the remaining of ISIS concentration is situated within the area on the Syrian-Iraqi borders which is under the US control. The US forces are now looking like a force protecting the terrorist group and allowing it to continue its existence and operations in Syria and in Iraq.

However, the US has still more company in Syria: ISIS is also present in the Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus, expanding its control over the camp and defeating al-Qaeda. There are an estimated 1500 ISIS militants in the Palestinian camp, ready to attack the Syrian Army at the limits of the Yarmouk camp.

The Kurds, ISIS and al-Qaeda are part of the US/Russia/Turkey chess game, the only powerful countries moving these small players according to their policy and needs: all the other Arab and European states have had enough of playing on Syrian territory. President Erdogan is taking further distance from Washington (without necessarily abandoning the US) and is coming closer to Moscow. Putin is Erdogan’s economic and strategic ally, expected to stay much longer in Syria than the US forces. Furthermore, Trump, in Erdogan’s eyes, is arming and protecting Turkey’s enemies, reducing the level of trust between the two men. Therefore, Russia- not the US- can be expected to have in the end the upper hand in the Levant.