US, Turkish, Russian, Kurdish Roles
Almost two months after the beginning of the operation “Olive Branch” – as President Recep Tayyeb Erdogan called it- to occupy the north-west Kurdish-Syrian Afrin enclave, the city has fallen without any visible resistance of the “People’s Protection Units” (YPG), who signally failed to protect the population. What happened? And why ?
When Turkish President Erdogan announced his intention to occupy the Afrin enclave, and over a week before the beginning of operation “Olive Branch”, Russia requested Turkey to halt any military act, to avoid clashing with the Syrian Army engaged with the Russian forces on Syrian territory.
For the last two years, in every single Syrian brigade or division, there have been Russian Special Forces, coordinating on the ground the military operation and all air strikes. Moreover, the main control and command base is also headed by Russian generals coordinated through a military operations room in Moscow. This is where planning, intelligence gathering, and orders for attack are given to the forces operating in Syria.
For this reason, Russia considers any attack against the Syrian army to be an attack on its own troops. These are operating on the ground, present on all operational fronts. Moreover, Russia informed the US and Israel that it won’t tolerate any attack on reservists or forces gathered for an attack against Jihadists and their allies throughout the entire Syrian territory, in accordance with the limits agreed between Moscow and Washington regarding the area east (the US controlled area) and west (Russia’s controlled areas) of the Euphrates river.
This is why Russian generals met with Kurdish leaders of the YPG on various occasions to transmit Damascus’s will to control the Afrin enclave on the condition that Kurds will deliver the enclave, its administration and all weapons into YPG control. If the Syrian Army is asked to control the city, there is no need for another Kurdish force unless organised and ordered by Damascus.
Damascus offered the Kurds of Afrin the possibility of creating a mini federation, where Kurds run the enclave under the supervision and control of the central government, and deliver all heavy, medium and light weapons, including laser guided missiles offered by the US, under one clear rule: no weapons outside those of the regular forces should be kept by the locals.
The YPG leaders asked for time to consider the offer and came out with a counter offer, where the Syrian Army was allowed to act as guardian of the borders with Turkey and nothing more, so the power of the Kurds in Afrin enclave would be preserved.
Damascus intercepted several contacts between Kurdish leaders in Afrin and al-Hasaka in north-east Syria under the US occupation. The Kurds thought the international community would intervene to stop Turkey from invading the enclave, through the United Nations and by putting pressure on President Erdogan through many world leaders. However, the US leadership eventually made it clear that its forces could not intervene in Afrin and were obliged to respect the demarcation line with Russia.
The Syrian Kurds wanted to believe – like the Iraqi Kurds – that the international community would play a positive role to protect Afrin, and therefore that they wouldn’t be let down.
When the negotiation between the YPG and the Russians failed, Russia pulled out its observation and military police static points in the enclave, and the few Syrian Army positions in the area were abandoned. This gave the green light to Erdogan to begin his military operations, on the 20th of January of this year, to occupy more Syrian territory.
When the first lines of defence were broken, some Kurdish leaders proposed to Damascus to send fresh troops to boost morale and give another opportunity to those within the Kurdish leadership who were still opposing the Syrian Army’s presence in Afrin to re-think their position. At that time, the Turkish forces and their jihadist allies reached the outskirt of Jenderes, the main defence line for Afrin city.
The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered several hundred popular force personnel to support the Kurds in Afrin and to spread around Jenderes, to halt the Turkish advance. These forces were pulled from Idlib outskirts andfaced al-Qaeda and its allies south of Afrin.
Again, Russia and Damascus understood from the contacts between Afrin and al-Hasaka that the YPG leaders preferred to abandon Afrin to Turkey rather than deliver it to Damascus. Those of the Afrin enclave will join the Kurds of al-Hasaka, Deir-ezzour and Raqqah to seek US protection.
The Kurds of Afrin were promised that Saudi Arabia would rebuild the province and invest in reconstructing better homes and contribute, under the US forces’ protection, to offering a mini-state to the Kurds in north-east Syria, a dream the Kurds always aspired to.
That is how the Kurdish YPG delivered the Syrian enclave to Turkey- whose forces won’t stop at the gates of Afrin but, as stipulated between Erdogan and Rex Tillerson (before he was dismissed from office as Secretary of State), will progress beyond Afrin to Manbij.
The Kurds managed to find themselves faced with only one option: migrate where the US forces are deployed and where they offer protection to the occupation forces in north-east Syria. This is how the US considers itself winning and the Kurds not entirely losing if they leave the Syrian government controlled area to construct a “state” in al-Hasaka. They will be blamed for disposing of Syrian territory for the benefit of Turkey and the US, in effect offering themselves as a human shield for the US occupation of Syria.
According to decision maker sources in Syria, Russia came out with a bag full of gains following the Afrin battle:
- Moscow can continue endlessly blaming the US for its occupation of Syrian territories and will pressure Washington at the UN to leave Syria even if the result is slim.
- Moscow satisfied Turkey by sharing a piece of the Syrian cake, particularly when Ankara abandoned Aleppo (a dream of President Erdogan to annex the first industrialised city of Syria) and closed an eye on the Syrian Army advance in rural Idlib without contesting it.
- Moscow stood by Ankara, creating an additional choice for Turkey among superpower allies, and managed to register a serious breakthrough with one of the biggest NATO members. Russia is aiming for a strategic and economic relationship with Turkey.
- Russia wanted to avoid distraction from its main battle in al-Ghouta, Damascus. Russian forces were engaged in one of the most important battles in Syria and were avoiding, at all costs, shifting Syrian troops to Afrin to open a new military front with Turkey (to stop Turkish advance towards Afrin). The US increased the level of pressure over Ghouta using every means to stop its fall, in order to keep the threat on the capital Damascus. However, the speed of the battle conducted by Syria and Russia offered the government of Damascus an obvious victory over jihadists in Ghouta, expected in the coming weeks.
- The Afrin Kurds were not convinced to stay under Syrian government administration and give up the territory they don’t own to Turkey and their people as a US shield. To Damascus, the Kurds revealed they don’t belong to Syria nor do they have a Syrian identity, and certainly nonation to protect. The Syrian government believes the Kurds are « guns for hire » and not even a very good ones, following the result of their battle against Turkey ! The “Islamic State” militants held the ground longer when attacked by Turkey and left the area only following a deal with Erdogan. Moscow would rather lose those (the Kurds) prepared to sell their country for the benefit of Turkey.
- President Erdogan showed his capability to move the battle in Syria in the direction he wants (regardless of the results). It was clear that, when al-Qaeda (aka al-Nusra, aka Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) disobeyed Turkish plans, the Syrian proxy groups would attack and engage in fierce fighting to submit al-Qaeda to the will of Turkey. President Erdogan has contributed to the fall of Aleppo to Damascus and the control of a large part of rural Idlib. He is an essential player Moscow is in need of to stop the war in Syria, a war that the US is trying to keep on fire for as long as possible. Therefore, if the price would be to lose part of the Syrian territory for the time being, Russia won’t stand in Erdogan’s way- since in any case most of the “useful Syria” is under President Assad’s control.
It is possible that the Kurds of Syria believe that losing an enclave is worth it if exchanged with a state and new land in north-east Syria. However, the Kurdish plans never seem to succeed : in this case they did not take into consideration two main elements. Firstly, all surrounding countries refused to accept a newborn Kurdish state on their borders. Secondly, the US occupation of Syrian territory will definitely provoke, and therefore be faced with, local resistance.
Washington will keep its forces in place until local communities in al-Hasaka, Deir-ezzour and Raqqah become hostile. This is what the Kurds didn’t take into consideration. Fighting occupiers has become part of the Syrian ideology and the Levant is no stranger to the rejection of occupation forces. Throughout history, those who own land which becomes occupied will always rise and claim it back however long it takes, and of however much sacrifice it will cost.