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Bashdar Ismaeel

International powers scramble to manipulate Afrin for geopolitical gains

Turkey launched 'Operation Olive Branch' with its FSA allies in Afrin on 20 January [Getty]

Date of publication: 28 February, 2018

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Analysis: Afrin has become a theatre for regional and global powers to wield influence, extract concessions to boost their goals in Syria, and settle scores over rivals, writes Bashdar Ismaeel.
As Turkish troops and their allies advance in Afrin, the besieged canton has become a theatre for regional and global powers to wield influence, extract concessions to boost their goals in Syria, and settle scores against old rivals.

With the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) surrounded by Turkey, Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, regime forces and countless jihadist groups, all actors in the Syrian conflict are trying to manipulate the situation to their own advantage.

The United States, whose partnership with the YPG was pivotal in driving out the Islamic State group from large swathes of Syrian territory, decided that Afrin was a completely different case to Manbij and other territories where it remains active with Kurdish forces - as the Pentagon did not have forces stationed there.

In practice, this was a convenient excuse for US to give concessions to their irate NATO allies in Ankara, after seeing relations with Turkey deteriorate dramatically in recent years. This may sway some sentiment in Ankara but is not without its own ramifications.

As Washington has acknowledged, Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates have already diverted forces from the fight against IS to join the fight against Turkish-led forces. US calls have centred on restraint, labelling the operation a "distraction", but have stopped short of calling for a halt in attacks.

More ominously, US indifference over Afrin may not be sufficient to appease an increasingly ambitious Turkey.

Turkey already has its eye on Manbij as the next target where a sizable contingent of US forces are also present. On his recent visit to Turkey to defuse tensions mutually deemed at "crisis point", US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly promised a YPG withdrawal east of the Euphrates and joint Turkish-US patrols in Manbij.

While details remain unclear, the new US-Turkey commitment to "work together" in northern Syria could drive a deeper wedge between the US and the Kurds that has opened up over Afrin.

Turkey has grave concerns over Afrin, Kobane and Jazira cantons all being controlled by the Kurdish YPG, which it sees as an offshoot of the PKK Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has fought a bloody 34-year insurgency against Ankara

The undermining of US-Kurdish relations is music to ears of Moscow and Tehran. It firstly dilutes the US influence on the ground as well as dampening their long-term plans in Syria aimed at the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and hindering the Iranian land bridge from Tehran to Beirut.

Secondly, it forces the Kurds into a difficult corner where they have little choice but turn to Damascus and thus further the Assad and Russian goal of reclaiming sovereignty over all parts of Syria.

Strengthening its geopolitical goals, Moscow essentially gave Ankara the green light with access to Syrian airspace and removing its forces stationed in Afrin.

As much as the Afrin operation gave Washington a degree of Turkish appeasement, Russia also benefits from concessions to Turkey. Turkey, whose ties with Russia have warmed considerably from the lows of 2015, remains important in any lasting peace deal in Syria but Russia and the regime will have "red lines" on Turkish moves.

After all, the Turkish offensive is spearheaded by thousands of FSA fighters that Assad and Russian have been battling at great costs for several years. Facilitating a rebel foothold in Afrin is a prelude to trouble for the regime, as reinvigorated Syrian rebels are hardly likely to stop at Afrin.

Without a set of arrangements and Turkish assurances that aid FSA goals, Syrian rebels would become nothing more than a proxy force of Turkey.

Either way, the Turkish aim in Afrin is ultimately a long-term foothold in the country, in much the same way that Iran has guaranteed its own long-term role in Syria. Afrin allows Turkey to link Azaz and Idlib while putting further pressure on Assad - both militarily as well as at any peace table.

It's little surprise that, after waiting for the Kurds to have little choice but to turn to Assad, that pro-regime militias entered the canton to ally with the Kurds.

While these forces may not be Syrian Arab Army (SAA) components, it changes the calculus of the Turkish operation. It undermines Ankara rhetoric of fighting terrorists if they are in direct conflict with the regime-allied forces of a neighbouring country.

Damascus support for the Kurds will naturally come at a price and the regime's presence in Afrin and other Kurdish-controlled areas is a starting point. It remains to be seen if the SAA or a larger continent of fighters will enter Afrin, or what Russia's next move will be as Turkey closes in on the canton.

With the US seemingly unwillingly to intervene and Kurds against the odds, Russia can woo Syrian Kurds using Ankara.

As for Turkey, with border areas secure and contiguous access ensured between Azaz and Idlib, the presence of regime forces could also give Ankara a way out of a deep and bloody war with Kurds - while still declaring victory to pacify nationalist circles in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the prospect of Turkish-US joint patrols in Manbij is hardly a tonic for the Kurds. It places further clouds on future relations with the US east of the Euphrates where the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have captured large swathes of territory.

Unless Washington makes guarantees to Kurds east of the Euphrates, the growingly sceptical Kurds may question their partnership with the US and pre-empt any greater US shift to appease Turkey, especially with the bulk of the fight against IS over.

In this scenario, Kurds may view a broader alignment towards Damascus and Moscow as a safer route than facing isolation or dependency on US tactical shifts. The Kurds could agree to hand Assad territories such as Manbij rather than allow US to work with Ankara in controlling Manbij.

In return, Assad and his allies may enshrine some Kurdish autonomy demands as long as the regime retains some official presence in those autonomous areas. This leaves Washington in a weaker spot to orchestrate the long-term influence it desires on Syria, including on any final political settlement, removing Assad from power or thwarting growing Iranian authority in the region.

The latest manoeuvres in Afrin and Syria further complicate the possibility of stability or peace in Syria. With a war of attrition unlikely to see one side triumph, the latest moves hasten a soft division of Syria among the regime, Turkish-backed rebels and the Kurds.

Bashdar Ismaeel is a writer and geopolitical, energy and security analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @BashdarIsmaeel

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