The complexities of the fighting in Afrin have – unsurprisingly – confounded most people, to the points where understanding of what is actually going on there is becoming very difficult and is causing much misunderstanding.
Deciphering Russian policy with respect to the Afrin conflict between Turkey and the Kurds is causing special problems.
The most common view I have seen is that Turkey attacked the Kurds in Afrin with Russia’s agreement, with some speculating that the Russians are using the Afrin conflict to drive a wedge between Turkey – a NATO member state – and the US, which is backing the Kurds.
This has supposedly pitted the Russians against the Syrian government and Iran.
The recent movement of Syrian troops into Afrin has even led to some talk of Syria and Iran being now pitted in a conflict in Afrin alongside the Kurds against a supposed “Russian-Turkish” alliance.
This is often accompanied with talk that President Assad has made a serious mistake by sending his troops to fight alongside the Kurds in Afrin. Supposedly the Syrian military without the support of Russia is incapable of defeating the Turkish military and is risking a serious defeat by fighting the Turks alongside the Kurds in Afrin.
In my opinion this analysis is wrong, and in this article I shall attempt to show why.
Before I do so however there are four key points I must make, without a proper knowledge and understanding of which any analysis of the recent moves in the Afrin conflict must fail.
4 key points about the Afrin crisis
(1) The ‘Russian-Turkish’ alliance in Syria does not exist.
Whilst the Russians and the Turks are in constant contact with each other, and whilst economic relations between Russia and Turkey are becoming ever closer, it is a fundamental mistake to think that Russia and Turkey are pursuing the same goals in Syria, as they would be doing if they were genuinely allies of each other.
On the contrary, the reason why contacts between the Russians and Turks over Syria are so intense is precisely because they have to negotiate constantly with each other because their aims in Syria are completely divergent.
(2) Whatever other criticisms may be made of him, President Assad has repeatedly shown over the course of the Syrian conflict that he is (i) in full control of the Syrian government and military; and (ii) an exceptionally skilful, realistic and well-informed politician and war leader. He is also by now highly experienced.
It could hardly be otherwise. After seven years of intense conflict President Assad would not still be leading Syria if he was not all those things.
(3) Having intervened in Syria in 2015 to save President Assad and his government, the Russians are not going to abandon him now when he is on the brink of victory and any thought that they might be thinking of doing so should be firmly put aside.
(4) In the de facto alliance which exists between Russia and Syria, Russia is immeasurably the stronger party. That means that whilst the Russians have to listen carefully to what President Assad and the Syrians tell them, and to take their concerns into account, in the end it is the Syrians who must accommodate themselves to whatever the Russians decide.
Russian objectives in Syria and the Russian alliance with the Syrian government
Points (3) and (4) inevitably lead to a discussion of Russian objectives in Syria.
Especially now that Russia has committed itself to establishing substantial military bases in Syria the Russians need a Syria which is (1) peaceful and stable, so that it is in a position to safeguard the bases; and (2) friendly to themselves.
Beyond that there is for the Russians the question of their overriding objective in intervening in Syria in the first place. That was done – as the Russians have said repeatedly – in order to achieve a Syria free of Jihadi terrorist influence, so that it cannot threaten Russia. Only a strong and stable Syrian government in full control of all of Syria’s territory which is friendly to Russia can achieve this.
If it was not obvious to the Russians before, it is certainly obvious now, that President Assad is the only Syrian political leader who has the skill, legitimacy, support and authority within Syria to deliver all these things. No substitute or replacement to him has emerged, because none exists. That guarantees that Russia will stick by him.
To the extent that Russia is allied to any party in the Syrian conflict it is therefore with President Assad and his government.
Evidence for the existence of that alliance is there for all to see in the joint military operations the Syrian military and the Russians conduct together – as for example currently in eastern Ghouta – and in the obvious coordination that goes on between them on political and diplomatic questions.
That does not of course mean that disagreements between the Russians and President Assad’s government do not from time to time arise. The Russians are known for example to believe that President Assad and the Syrian government should be more accommodating than they have been up to now towards the Kurds.
However the existence of these disagreements should not obscure the fact that on all major issues the Russians and the Syrians work together with each other, and that they are pursuing a common objective in Syria, which is the restoration of the Syrian government’s authority over the whole of Syria’s territory.
Given the presence of US and Turkish troops on Syrian territory, achieving that objective requires considerable diplomatic manoeuvring and finesse if an uncontrolled escalation of the conflict is to be avoided. However that flexibility in achieving that objective should not cause confusion about what that objective is. It is a major error to misconstrue tactical moves that the Russians and the Syrians must from time to time make as signs that they are giving up on their joint objective. On the contrary they are steps towards achieving it.
Once all these points are understood it becomes possible to decipher the recent moves in the Afrin conflict correctly.
Origins of the Afrin conflict in the US’s Plan C
The conflict has its origins in what I have called the US’s Plan C: the US plan to create a powerful quasi-independent and heavily armed Kurdish statelet in northern Syria so as to undermine the Syrian government and to prevent the Syrian government from regaining control of all of Syria’s territory.
As I have previously pointed out, Plan C was hatched by a small group of powerful insiders within the US bureaucracy – President Trump’s National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster seems to have played a key role – and has never been properly discussed or thought through.
The result is that the inevitable strong reaction of Turkey to Plan C – ie to the creation of a heavily armed YPG led Kurdish statelet on its southern border – was grossly underestimated, so that the Turkish military intervention in Afrin and the Turkish demands for a US and Kurdish withdrawal from the strategically important town of Manbij seems to have taken the US by surprise.
Characteristically, despite the increasingly dangerous Turkish moves, the powerful insiders within the US bureaucracy who hatched Plan C have far too much invested in it to draw back, so that despite President Trump’s publicly expressed doubts and Turkey’s growing anger the US continues to pursue Plan C by continuing (despite denials) to arm the Kurds.
That all but guarantees that the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds – and between Turkey and the US – in Syria will continue and will escalate.
The only way that can be prevented is if the Kurds can be persuaded to change their position by distancing themselves from the US and by withdrawing themselves from involvement in the US’s Plan C.
Turkey’s attack on the Afrin and objectives in Syria
Turkey and President Erdogan for their part are making use of the conflict in Afrin not only to prevent the US backed YPG led Kurdish statelet in northern Syria from emerging but in order to pursue their own wider objectives in Syria.
These are to create a zone of territory in northern Syria under effective Turkish control which will act as a safe area for Turkey’s anti-Assad Jihadi proxies.
The Turkish incursion into northern Syria in August 2016 (Operation Euphrates Shield) was in furtherance of this objective, and the latest Turkish advance into Afrin (Operation Olive Branch) is a continuation of it.
The ongoing deployment of convoys of Turkish troops to the Jihadi controlled Syrian province of Idlib – which is clearly intended to block the advance of the Syrian army – is also being undertaken to achieve this objective..
That the Turkish attack on Afrin ultimately targets the Syrian government as much as it does the Kurds was in fact made clear in interviews given to the Guardian by the anti-Assad Arab Jihadi fighters who are participating alongside the Turkish army in the Afrin operation.
See for example this highly revealing discussion of Jihadi objectives in fighting alongside Turkey in Afrin in this Guardian article dated 27th January 2018
The decision to cross over into Syria, and directly intervene in the seven-year-long civil war, has underlined the depth of Turkey’s concern about Kurdish fighters inside Syria. But it has also thrown Ankara’s ambitious training project into relief. According to rebel commanders, Turkey has for nearly two years been supporting the build-up and training of a unified army in Syria capable of resuming the battle against President Bashar al-Assad, now in the ascendant in the long civil war.
The genesis of the idea came in the opening months of Turkey’s first military campaign into Syria, when it launched Operation Euphrates Shield in the summer of 2016. Its troops had orders to both oust Isis from key border towns and limit the Kurdish militias’ westward expansion.
After taking the town of Jarablus near the border, Turkey sought to augment the Euphrates Shield forces – a disparate coalition of rebel militias – with a cadre of trained fighters to tackle Isis and guard the frontiers against Kurdish forces.
Rebel officials say the training programme has continued, building up Euphrates Shield into a force of 10,000 to 15,000 battle-ready soldiers, with an additional 10,000 recent recruits. After major military losses to Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies, the rebels see this force as a lifeline that could allow them to relaunch their waning insurgency. That rebel army, they say, could wage a campaign to eliminate al-Qaida-linked fighters who dominate the opposition-controlled province of Idlib, and go on to fight Assad again.
“We cannot accept military defeat, we have to reinforce and start over,” said one rebel official. “Euphrates Shield is against both terrorism and the regime, and it is the first step to build a state.” But their prime aim of unseating Assad seems increasingly divergent from their Turkish patrons’ focus on attacking Kurdish troops, meaning the force may ultimately amount to nothing but another proxy militia under a foreign power’s command – much like most other groups fighting in Syria…..
Turkey has quietly continued to support the project as it has grown into multiple divisions led by Syrian commanders who coordinate with Turkish officers, and who are spearheading the campaign in Afrin now. Therein lies the dilemma of the rebels leading the ground assault. Abandoned by all their international allies, they see no choice but to follow Turkey’s lead.
While they agree with the rationale of the Afrin campaign, they also hope that taking the Kurdish enclave will open up a ground corridor into Idlib that would allow the national rebel army its first test against their greatest enemies – Assad’s regime, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former wing of al-Qaida in Syria. Turkey has given them no promises of support for this. Its actions after the Afrin campaign will determine whether it has helped build up the rebel army to be its own proxy force, or to fight against the regime.
“We have to play on the differences between global powers negotiating in Syria,” said one rebel commander, whose group is not in Afrin but intends to join the national rebel army. “It is a strategic interest to open the ground corridor into Idlib, and it coincides with Turkish interests.”
(bold italics added)
These words not only give insight into the motives of the Turkish backed Jihadi forces fighting in Afrin. They also show the suspicions they have towards President Erdogan and the Turkish government.
However the overall objective is clear enough, and it is also clear that Turkey backs it. It is to take over Afrin and then use Afrin along with Jarablus (the latter captured by the Turkish army in August 2016 at the outset of Operation Euphrates Shield) as stepping stones towards establishing a Turkish backed Jihadi protectorate over Idlib province (currently a contested zone between ISIS and Al-Qaeda), which can then be used as launch pad for a renewed Jihadi offensive against the Syrian government.
Moreover it seems that a very large Jihadi force numbering up to 25,000 men is being built up with Turkish help to put this plan into effect.
This article in the Guardian vindicates the analysis of the motives behind Turkey’s 2016 Operation Euphrates Shield made at the time by the independent analyst Mark Sleboda (see my discussion made at the time here).
Just as Mark Sleboda said, far from Operation Euphrates Shield being aimed primarily at ISIS and the Kurds – as President Erdogan led everyone at the time to believe – its primary purpose was to rescue the Jihadi insurgency by bringing it under Turkish control, and rebuilding it in a Turkish controlled and Turkish protected safe area in northern Syria under the supervision of the Turkish army.
The current Turkish operation against the Kurds in Afrin is explicitly said by the Turkish backed Jihadi fighters to be in further pursuit of this plan.
The Syrian government and the Kurds: cutting deals with each other
This is what explains the recent deployment of Syrian forces to Afrin, and the Syrian government’s strong opposition to the Turkish operation in Afrin.
Though the Syrian government is obviously deeply concerned about the recent alignment of the Kurdish militia with the US and is determined to do all it can to end it, the Kurdish militia is not an existential threat to the Syrian government or to the Syrian state in the way that the Jihadi groups that Turkey backs are.
Whilst the establishment of a US backed Kurdish statelet in northern Syria would be a major blow to the Syrian government, there is no possibility of the Kurdish militia taking over the whole of Syria or marching on Damascus.
By contrast the Jihadi fighters currently fighting alongside the Turkish army in Afrin make no secret that that is precisely what their ultimate objective is.
For that reason it is overwhelmingly in the interests of the Syrian government to prevent the Turkish army from taking over Afrin, and that is why the Syrian government has facilitated the transfer of Kurdish fighters from other areas of Syria to Afrin, and why it has now deployed pro-government militia forces there.
This deployment of pro-government militia forces to Afrin in fact achieves for the Syrian government a multiplicity of purposes:
(1) It makes it more difficult for the Turkish army to conquer Afrin, something which it is in the Syrian government’s overwhelmingly strong interest to prevent;
(2) It re-establishes a Syrian government presence on the ground in Afrin, furthering the Syrian government’s ultimate objective of re-establishing itself across all of Syria’s territory; and
(3) Despite the YPG’s denials, it is overwhelmingly likely that some sort of deal has been done, enabling the Syrian government to take over territory from the YPG in return for its help in Afrin.
Already there are reports that the YPG has surrendered control of several districts in Aleppo province to the Syrian army.
Assuming that these reports are true – and video footage suggests that they are – then this is probably only the first of many concessions the Kurdish militia has been obliged to make to the Syrian government in order to secure its support in Afrin. There are now even reports – published by the normally reliable Al-Masdar news agency – that the Kurds are about to hand over to the Syrian military the key town of Manbij, which is a declared objective of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch.
What then of the fears which are widely expressed that the entry of Syrian militia forces into Afrin is a foolhardy step, setting the scene for an all-out clash between the Turkish military and the Syrian army, which the Syrian army cannot win?
An assessment of those risks requires a discussion of Russian policy in the Afrin crisis.
Russia and Afrin: brokering a compromise?
Any discussion of Russian policy in the Afrin crisis needs to begin with two of the points I made previously:
(1) that it is strongly in Russia’s interests that the Syrian government re-establish its authority across the whole of Syria, and that this is now Russia’s primary objective in the conflict; and
(2) that in the de facto alliance between the Syrian government and Russia it is Russia which is overwhelmingly the dominant partner to whose opinions the Syrian government must defer.
These facts taken together with the fact that President Assad has repeatedly shown a keen understanding of Syria’s need to work with the Russians makes it all but inconceivable that the deployment of pro-government militia forces to Afrin was undertaken by the Syrian government without Russia’s agreement.
That Russia has approved the Syrian government’s decision to send pro-government militia forces to Afrin has now been confirmed by the presence of Russian troops escorting the pro-government militia forces as they redeploy to Afrin in order to deter attacks on them by the Turkish military.
Here is how the reliable and well-informed Al-Masdar news agency has reported the Russian deployment
The 3rd batch of Syrian popular forces made it into the northwestern city of Afrin through al-Ziyara crossing to help defend the predominantly-Kurdish region from the Turkish aggression.
The first two batches have entered Afrin during the past few days as per an agreement concluded earlier between the Syrian government and Kurdish factions.Last month, Turkey and its proxy militants have launched a full-scale offensive on Afrin region with the aim to ‘liberate the area from the terrorist Kurdish militiamen”.
The arrival of the Syrian forces will definitely make things harder for the already troubled Turkish-backed militants who failed to make substantial gains on the ground.
Meanwhile, members of the Russian military police were seen escorting the convoys at the Ziyara crossing in order to prevent the Turkish military from targeting the crossing as it was the case a few days ago when the 1st batch arrived.
(bold italics added)
Obviously the Russians have no more wish to see Afrin become a Turkish controlled base area for a Jihadi army capable of threatening the Syrian government than the Syrians themselves do. That the Russians are therefore quietly assisting in the deployment of pro-government militia forces to Afrin in order to prevent that happening should not be a surprise.
What is true – and what is the source of much of the confusion – is that the Russians have to play their cards very carefully.
The fundamental weakness of the Russians’ Syrian strategy is that they need President Erdogan’s cooperation in order to stabilise Syria and to bring the conflict there to an end. At the same time the Russians have to work with the fact that President Erdogan’s objectives in Syria – of which the Russians are of course fully informed – are diametrically opposite to their own.
This is what creates the strange shadow-boxing between the Russians and Turkey in Syria, with the Russians and the Turks needing at all times to appear to be on the best of terms with each other even as they constantly manoeuvre against each other for advantage.
It is this tortuous approach which explains why the Russians initially approved the Turkish attack on the Kurds in Afrin but have now approved a Syrian government move intended to thwart that attack.
The Russians will however be anxious to prevent an open clash between the Turkish and Syrian militaries from taking place in Afrin.
The Russians and the Syrian government are of course fully aware that in any one to one clash between the Turkish and Syrian militaries the advantage lies with the Turkish army. The Russians would be loathe to see such a clash happen not just because it is likely that the Syrian military would be defeated, but because were it to happen they would come under immense pressure from Syria and Iran to come to the Syrian army’s aid.
Were they to do so their relationship with President Erdogan and Turkey would however be damaged probably beyond repair, thereby ending any prospect of their securing President Erdogan’s help to end the conflict in Syria.
This explains the understated nature of Russia’s moves.
It is known that the Russians tried to preempt Turkey’s Afrin operation by trying to persuade the Kurds to hand over Afrin to the Syrian government. The Kurds however refused, so when the Turks attacked the Russians gave them the green light.
Now that the Kurds in Afrin are coming under pressure they have been forced to turn to the Syrian government. The Russians have therefore given the Syrian government the green light to deploy its forces there. At the same time they have almost certainly brokered an agreement whereby the Kurds in return for Syrian help will surrender districts they control in Aleppo and the town of Manbij to the Syrian government.
At the same time the Russians – anxious to maintain a dialogue with President Erdogan and to help him save face – have ensured that the Syrian deployment to Afrin is of a limited nature, being made up exclusively of pro-government militia forces, with no involvement by the Syrian army
The Al-Masdar news agency has confirmed that no Syrian troops are actually present in Afrin, showing that the deployment of pro-government militia forces to Afrin is intended first and foremost as a piece of positioning in advance of negotiations
No Syrian Arab Army (SAA) troops have entered the Afrin region of Aleppo, a military source in Aleppo told Al-Masdar News on Saturday morning.
According to the military source, the Syrian Army has been ordered to remain in Aleppo city and absent from the Afrin front.
The source added that the Syrian Army agreed to stay out of the battle after the Russian military held a meeting with their Turkish counterparts.
While the Syrian Army is absent from Afrin, the pro-government National Defense Forces (NDF) have entered this region to aid the Kurdish-led YPG.
The NDF coordinates with the Syrian Army, but they are not an actual branch of the military, which means they can operate autonomously if need be.
(bold italics added)
It is not in fact difficult to see what the Russian plan is.
Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch has now brought the whole of the border area in northern Afrin under Turkish control.
The Russians are now doubtless telling the Turks that this has achieved for Turkey its primary objective, which is to prevent the movement of Kurdish YPG and PKK fighters and supplies from Afrin into Turkey.
However the Russians are doubtless also telling the Turks that further advances deeper into Afrin would be unwise since they will meet with increased resistance not just from the Kurds but from forces loyal to Damascus. They will point to the presence of pro-government militia forces in Afrin to reinforce their point.
Having secured the border, they will be saying to Erdogan and to the Turks that it is now in Turkey’s interests to declare victory and stop.
As for the Kurds, the Russians will be reminding them that when they came under attack from Turkey their US ‘allies’ were nowhere to be seen, so that they had to look for help to the Syrian government and to Russia.
It is not therefore in the Kurds’ interests to get enmeshed in the US’s Plan C. Better for them to come to terms with the Syrian government – which means accepting its authority – whilst relying on the help of Russia to secure such terms for them as it can.
The Russians will be reminding the Kurds that Russia has always been sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations, and they will be advising the Kurds to listen to Russia’s advice as advice coming from a friend.
As for the Syrian government, any agreement with the Kurds and with Turkey which detaches the Kurds from the US and which results in the establishment of a Syrian government presence in areas formerly under Kurdish control would be for it a good thing, advancing the Syrian government’s eventual goal of re-establishing its control over all of Syria’s territory, whilst if Turkish plans to establish a safe zone for Turkey’s Jihadi proxies in northern Syria can be prevented, then that would be even better.
The Russians will not only be telling the Syrians all this; they will also be telling the Syrians that accepting a limited and ultimately temporary presence of Turkish troops in northern Afrin and making some minor concessions to the Kurds on questions of cultural autonomy and local government is a small price to pay in order to achieve it.
Will it work?
Any negotiation involving President Erdogan and the Kurds is fraught with difficulty.
Both have maximalist objectives – in President Erdogan’s case for the establishment of a Jihadi dominated Islamist state in Syria under Turkish control, in the case of the Kurds for self-rule in an independent Kurdish state – to which they are emotionally deeply committed, and which they are very reluctant to give up.
Moreover there is the further complicating factor that neither President Erdogan nor the Kurds can be trusted to keep whatever agreements they make. That means that any agreement made with them requires constant effort to be kept effective.
Against this both President Erdogan and the Kurds find themselves in increasing difficulties.
For President Erdogan, whilst Operation Olive Branch has made some important advances in Afrin, it has done so at the price of heavy losses, and against combined Russian, Syrian and Kurdish opposition it is likely to run into increasing difficulties.
President Erdogan must also worry about Turkey’s rapidly deteriorating relations with the US, and may calculate that Turkey therefore needs at least the appearance of a good relationship with Russia in order to protect itself from the US.
Over and above these considerations, following the incident of the downing of the Russian SU-24 President Erdogan knows very well the heavy price Turkey will pay if it crosses Russia. With Turkey’s economy showing signs of overheating, and heavily dependent on Russia, he has every incentive to keep relations with Russia on track.
As for the Kurds, their recent setbacks in Afrin have shown them that for all their bragging they cannot take on the Turkish military by themselves, and that in a showdown with Turkey they cannot rely on the US to save them.
Both President Erdogan and the Kurds therefore have reasons to draw back, though whether the Russians can persuade them to do so is another matter.
Having said this, both President Erdogan and the Kurds have shown themselves to be willing to make compromises in the past, so the possibility that they can be persuaded to do so again should not be completely discounted.
What is beyond dispute is that Russian diplomacy is working flat out to achieve that very thing.
Not only is the Russian military talking to the Turkish military on the ground, but Alexander Lavrentyev, a top Russian diplomat and President Putin’s personal envoy, has just met with President Assad in Damascus, whilst President Putin and President Erdogan have again spoken to each other, as the Russians gear up for the summit they are trying to convene between President Putin of Russia, President Erdogan of Turkey and President Rouhani of Iran in Istanbul.
Much now rides on the success of this summit. However the possibility of a breakthrough is there.
Of course if that happens it will be the final end of the US’s Plan C, and the beginning of the end of the war in Syria.