It has happened. After almost a year of threatening to invade the Kurdish-held Afrin pocket in north-western Syria Erdogan has invaded for real. Attacking forces have already taken a number of villages on the Turkish-Syrian border. In one place they have advanced 5 kilometers into Syria.
Turkish military already poured over the Syrian border in mid-2016 and has been occupying a part of northern Syria ever since, but that chunk was wrestled from ISIS. Strategically the invasion was an anti-Kurdish move, designed to prevent Syrian Kurds in the west and the east from being able to link up their territories, but on the ground it was fought against ISIS. For that reason neither US nor Russia could really object to it, and actually both provided air cover for the Turkish military and its proxies, sometimes at the same time.
Invading Kurdish-held Syria, on the other hand, is something else entirely. It is a whole new ballgame, and the start of yet another war, the Turkish-Kurdish War in Syria.
So far the invasion is conducted by Syrian Islamist fighters, supposed “rebels” in Turkish employ, backed by Turkish bombers, artillery and armor. I say so far because albeit initially successful I doubt the ex-rebels can overrun Afrin. It is easily within Turkey’s power to take the small ethnic enclave on its border, but only if its military again leads the way.
This was exactly the case in 2016. On their own the “rebels” salaried by Turks were being constantly rebuffed by ISIS as any gains were quickly negated in counter-attacks. It wasn’t until the Turkish military took a leading role that Erdogan’s forces started to make real gains.
That said even the Turkish army did not give a stellar account of itself in the offensive. ISIS managed to put ten of its powerful German-built Leopard 2 tanks out of action, two of those were even abandoned on the battlefield for ISIS. Moreover the entire operation took seven months. That is 7 months to advance just 30 kilometers deep – albeit admittedly the last 3 months of that were spent storming the town of al-Bab which was the ultimate goal of the offensive.
Turkish military has clashed with Syrian Kurdish militias before, as have Turkey-backed Syrian fighters. In fact, at one point Syrian Islamist fighters in Turkish employ exchanged gunfire with US troops backing the Kurdish YPG militia. But those exchanges were not real battles, but skirmishes and probing attacks at most. The Turkish offensive on Afrin is the start of a whole new war, one which Turkey launches against objections of Russia and the US both.
Americans have no presence in Afrin. Elsewhere the US gradually came to ignore Turkish objections over US-Kurdish ties so that its military has become heavily intertwined with the Kurdish YPG militia. The one concession to the Turks the US has made is that it has ignored the Afrin YPG completely, as the enclave never bordered ISIS-held territory and was of no value in that fight.
Thus Americans have always given the impression that they’re willing to offer Afrin as a sacrificial lamb for Erdogan but that is no longer possible. If the Americans are fine with handing over the Kurdish enclave to the Turks, the Kurdish militias are not. Once again the US most chose between its Syrian proxies or its fellow NATO member Turkey. If the US stands by its relationship with the YPG suffers, if it intervenes decisively behind the scenes to stop the offensive its relationship with Turkey will be ruined further.
It’s a headache also for the Russians and the Syrians, doubtlessly they don’t want the Turks to enlarge their occupation zone in northern Syria, especially as the Turks aren’t showing sign of thinking of handing back those territories to Damascus any time soon. In fact since last year Russians have had 180 of their military police in Afrin to try to dissuade Erdogan from invading, but we can now say that gambit has failed.
Afrin might become the biggest headache for the Turks themselves though. Sure the Turks can take the enclave, but then what? Of the three Kurdish-majority “cantons” in Syria Afrin is the most homogeneous. Turkish military policing a solidly Kurdish population in Syria – that is a perfect recipe for trouble, frustration and pain. (And not necessarily in Afrin itself but in the PR sphere, or the Kurdish parts of Turkey.)