Header image of Kurdish YPG overlooking a post in Afrin Canton.
Turkey launched a full-scale invasion into Afrin Canton - a Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria - a few days ago. This could play out in any number of ways, but it might not be nearly as smart a move as Turkey seems to believe.
There are few players in the Syrian Civil War who have suffered as comprehensive a strategic failure as Turkey. The Turkish government had two priorities when the war broke out - minimizing spillover onto Turkish soil and preventing the rise of a Kurdish autonomous movement next door. The second of these was arguably their biggest concern, and when the Kurds started facing off against ISIS in 2013, the Turkish ruling party (AKP) began providing covert support to the jihadis. Given a choice between a successful Kurdish autonomous movement or ISIS overrunning all of Syrian Kurdistan, the Turkish state saw the second option as far less harmful to their interests - especially since it would have prevented the former. To the obvious disbelief and rage of Turkish president Recep Erdogan, the Kurds fought back with remarkable determination while garnering U.S. air cover in the process. As a result, ISIS has effectively collapsed. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) now oversees almost the entirety of Syria east of the Euphrates.
So here we are in early 2018, with the Kurds far more powerful and secure than anyone would have ever predicted, armed with the most effective native force in the region and the military backing of the U.S. Erdogan, whose political image is built upon a sort of Ottoman-nostalgic chauvinism, looked pathetic in light of his inability to push back against both the U.S. and Syrian Kurdish authorities. Anti-Kurdish posturing also plays far too well with his base, oftentimes gussied up as a fight against “terrorism”. Erdogan’s ongoing crackdown against the Kurdish HDP in Turkey has been rationalized via claims that the party is a puppet of the PKK, allegations that are both red meat for AKP loyalists and utter, disingenuous nonsense.
Turkey's government has attempted to claim that the assault on Afrin is motivated by desire to defeat both the Kurds and ISIS, the latter of which is almost impressive as a boldface lie. ISIS has absolutely no presence in Afrin whatsoever, and the region has remained securely under Kurdish control for the entire civil war. The attempted invasion of Afrin has been widely condemned, though none of this has stopped Turkey in light of the country's recent shift towards stubborn unilateralism. Recep Erdogan has also tried asserting that the Turkish push into Afrin is merely "surgical", though none of the operational realities suggest the outcome has been anything other than widespread cruelty towards the Kurds as whole. The names given to military offensives have always been a source of curdled irony, and dubbing the attack on Afrin "Operation Olive Branch" is a particularly rich entry.
Erdogan’s AKP has been itching to exercise some level of open aggression against the Syrian Kurds for years, and Afrin was the closest thing to a “safe” target they could strike. Located in Syria’s northwestern corner, Afrin is cut off from the main Kurdish holdings in the eastern half of the country. Afrin is also surrounded by Turkey on two sides, and by either Syrian government forces or jihadi militias on the other. It's a highly vulnerable position, and there is no way the U.S. would even consider bombing Turkish forces the same way they did ISIS. Russia, who has also maintained a pragmatic alliance with the Syrian Kurds, pulled their forces out of Afrin preemptive to the Turkish advance. The Kurds are all alone here, and Turkey knows it.
The offensive into Afrin is being conducted simultaneously by the Turkish army and their jihadi proxies to the east/south. Al-Qaeda affiliates and local salafi groups lay claim to much of the northwestern portion of the country, and have been more cautious and subtle than the ravenous morons in ISIS - which has helped certain militias secure an the alliance with the Turkish state.
Which leaves questions as to the intended strategic outcome of Turkey’s Afrin operation, of which the possibilities seem twofold. The first option is that the Turkish army will try to bloody the Kurds as much as possible before retreating - claiming a victory against “terrorism” and shoring up Erdogan’s support among his base, which is no minor concern with the 2019 presidential elections on the horizon. If you have any questions as to how well this would play with AKP voters, just take a look at the sheer volume of gloating already coming from Turkish-language social media. Swiping at the isolated Kurdish enclave in Afrin will ultimately do little to empower Turkey as a geopolitical actor, but it may pay considerable political dividends for the right-wing nationalist loons desperate to christen Erdogan as some kind of latter-day sultan.
The second option is much darker, and would involve the attempted capture and wholesale ethnic cleansing of Afrin canton. Turkey is far from the only country with a legacy of genocide in the name of land grab - it’s practically the norm among empires - but there is a uniquely strong precedent for this in Anatolia. Eastern Turkey was historically claimed by either the Kurds in the southeast or the Armenians in the northeast. The Armenian genocide saw the wholesale expulsion or extermination of the region's Armenian population and the re-settling of Turks throughout their stolen land. Similarly, Hatay Province in the far southwest of Turkey was originally inhabited by Arabs as part of extant Syria - until the Ottoman Empire drove them out and moved ethnic Turks into that area as well. In both cases, the captured towns were rebranded with Turkish names and all memory of their former occupants aggressively disavowed.
(As a sidetone, the Kurds have openly recognized and apologized for their role as enforcers during the Armenian genocide. This has infuriated the Turkish government in light of its longstanding policy of genocide denial, adding yet another layer in a complex and often antagonistic relationship.)
In an odd twist on an old pattern, it’s possible Turkey may attempt to push the Kurds from Afrin and encourage Sunni Arabs to re-settle the area under their oversight. It goes without saying that this would be a horrifically bloody and cruel process, with Sunni Arab jihadis acting as its probable sword arm. That’s the morbidly fitting part - Afrin is either heavily or exclusively Kurdish because the canton is a classic example of a hilly enclave that a minority tribe fled to as shelter from their oftentimes hostile neighbors. Anyone who wanted to occupy Afrin would have to suppress or exterminate its uniformly Kurdish population in some grotesque realization of primeval fears.
The Kurds are effectively boxed in at this point, with nowhere to go and enemies who want them dead on all sides. This isn’t hyperbole - Turkish-backed jihadi groups have been captured on video openly gloating that "Allahu Akbar! We are going to kill infidel Kurds!”
"Allah o Akbar we are gonna kill infidel Kurds" These fanatics are now attacking Afrin. Same slogans and chants used by #ISIS are now being used by these extremists in #Afrin via @shervanderwish pic.twitter.com/rsDj9MdvDo— Mutlu Civiroglu (@mutludc) January 28, 2018
The Kurds are well aware of what awaits if they’re ever overrun by the salivating fanatics currently howling at their doorstep. In classic genocide fashion, their men and boys will be slaughtered wholesale and their women raped en masse. It’s worth pointing out that the various salafi militias in the western half of the country share a nearly uniform ideology with ISIS. The only difference is that these Al-Qaeda affiliates are smarter and quieter, keeping a low profile in order to protect their longevity.
So the Kurds have one option at this point - make the fight as harrowing as possible for their aggressors. The YPG/J are a famously tough, skilled force, and all signs indicate this is exactly their intent. The Kurds are already fighting back with considerable efficacy, rendering the Afrin operation slow and grueling for the Turkish armed forces. This runs starkly contrary to Erdogan's claims that the assault would conclude in both a quick and decisive timeframe. It's entirely possible that the YPG/J and their allies will fight back with such hardened determination that Turkey withdraws altogether.
If Turkey and their jihadi partners do subjugate Afrin, this will likely become a classic example of winning the battle while losing the war. The Syrian Kurds have one of the highest birth rates in the region, and for every member of the YPG/J that Turkey fells, there will be a whole roster of sisters, brothers, and cousins ready to enlist in their memory. A prolonged fight against a skilled and determined guerrilla force defending its native soil could also be debilitating to the Turkish military. The Kurds are intimately familiar with the layout of Afrin canton, and its rugged terrain is favorable to a mobile and light infantry force like the YPG/J. It’s also unfavorable to the method of heavy artillery and aerial bombardment that the Turkish armed forces are currently deploying, a tactic that appears motivated by Turkey’s hesitation to engage the Kurds directly. And while Turkey may be able to defeat the Kurds of Afrin in a conventional engagement, this does not preclude the likely contingency that the Kurds disperse into the hills and adopt insurgent tactics designed to wear down their opponent. This could make long-term occupation of Afrin a miserable, costly process that only becomes more arduous with time.
The loss of Afrin, should it fall, would not be as strategically impactful as a Turkish push into the main body of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan). The Syrian Kurds would have gained deeper understanding of how the Turkish military operates against their forces in the interim while giving them time to prepare for possible incursion into other portions of their territory. The resultant brutality against Afrin’s Kurds would further steel the determination of their siblings in the east while accelerating YPG/J recruitment. It might also unify the often fractious Kurds in ways beneficial to the Syrian Kurdish authorities. The Turkish invasion of Afrin cannot be honestly described as anything other than homicidal aggression, which has caused both the PUK and KNC to condemn the attack as "near genocide" despite their longstanding tensions with the PYD.
A wholesale Turkish invasion of Rojava could accelerate a sort of Pan-Kurdish nationalism, risking a future cross-regional war against an alliance of Kurdish forces from Syria, Turkey, and even Iraq. A war between Turkey and a unified Kurdish front is not beyond the realm of possibility assuming Turkey attempts to overtake the entirety of Rojava, and I don't think it's a fight Turkey can win in the long haul. The classic refrain among Kurds is that they ultimately have "no friend but the mountains". But, in the end, they oftentimes find renewed camaraderie with fellow Kurds the moment they’re backed up against a wall.
A perennial rule of guerrilla warfare is that victory is often determined by sheer human resilience rather than technological or firepower superiority. The question in Afrin remains whether the Turkish military has the fortitude to engage a hardened force hellbent on fighting to the last. Even if they do, it could be an ugly, harrowing victory that inflicts immense degradation on the perpetrator in the pursuit of very little.
Adam Patterson can be reached by email at "napalmintheAM@gmail.com" or on Twitter @AdamPattersonDC.