The Afrin Offensive

Turkey may not win, but the US is sure to lose

By Abdel Bari Atwan

The Turkish army offensive which began last week in the Afrin district in north-western Syria is poised to move on to the neighbouring town of Manbaj – where US forces are based in support of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which control both areas and keep them outside the authority of the Syrian central government.

The fighting has been getting fiercer. Turkish forces backed by opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions have encountered ferocious resistance, especially when they have tried to advance into rugged mountainous terrain. The Turkish military command has had to call on its Special Forces, who have long experience of fighting in such areas, to take on the task of attacking Manbaj.

Syria’s official silence, and Russia’s withdrawal of its forces and advisors from Afrin a few days before the start of the Turkish offensive, both suggest that prior understandings were reached with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government to support his campaign to destroy the US-backed Kurdish militias.

On Wednesday, Erdogan vowed to press ahead with the assault on Manbaj even if that should lead to a direct clash with US forces, insisting that it is vital to protect Turkey and prevent the partition of Syria by thwarting the creation of an American-sponsored Kurdish entity.

The war for Afrin is not only set to change the map of alliances in Syria but also in the entire region. It bolsters the nascent the four-way alliance between Turkey, Iran, Russia and Syria, and strengthens the central government in Syria as it strives to restore stability to the country and embark on reconstruction.

Editorials in the pro-government Turkish press reinforce this impression and strongly suggest that Erdogan is prepared to make a U-turn in his Syria policy —  which was long fixated on overthrowing  President Bashar al-Asad – now that developments there pose a direct threat to Turkey’s security and territorial integrity.

For example, columnist Mehmet Tezkan wrote in the daily Milliyet urging the four powers that have forces on Syrian territory – Washington, Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran – to find a political solution based on the firm recognition that there is only one army than can safeguard Syria’s territorial integrity, namely the Syrian Arab Army. He added that “the eradication of terrorism can only be achieved by the Syrian army, which must take control of all Syrian territories… Unfortunately, the solution is now in the hands of Syrian dictator… Syrian opposition forces have failed to topple him…  this is the bitter truth that we must with all regret accept and acknowledge.”

Many other pro-Erdogan pundits in the Turkish press have similarly changed their tune in recent days. They now stress that it is in Turkey’s national interest for Asad to remain in power in light of the threat posed by the Kurdish YPG.

Taha Akyol concluded in the daily Hurriyet on Wednesday that “we must therefore immediately start re-establishing relations between Ankara and Damascus… this step is unavoidable if we wish to preserve Turkey’s security.”

It is most unlikely, based on our experience of the Turkish media, that exhortations of this nature would be published so prominently without official instigation, especially when the country is in the process of going to war  — a war which most commentators insist is not Erdogan’s, but Turkey’s.

Even some Turkish opposition media have begun adopting the same line. Opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) MP Baris Yarkadas, who presents a political show on  Kral TV, went so far as to demand that anyone who opposes or condemns the operation in Syria should be shot, as opposition on this issue amounts to treason.  

On the Syrian side too, some figures close to the government in Damascus have begun to change their tune, by adopting not only a more positive tone towards Turkey, but also a much more negative one towards the YPG — the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which the US seeks to turn into the backbone of the army of the Kurdish state it hopes to establish in northern Syria.

We do not know if the war that Erdogan has started in Afrin will prove to be a trap for and drain on Turkey, or for the US and its Kurdish allies. But whatever the outcome, it is likely to bring Ankara and Damascus closer together under the auspices of Russia and Iran, and this in turn could undo all the existing political and military equations in the region.

In other words, this is a war from which the US is almost certain to emerge as a loser, just as it has lost all its recent wars in the region.