Turkish troops are just a few kilometres away from Afrin city centre and with little meaningful resistance, it appears as though Turkey will soon surround the city, thus representing a genuine ‘mission accomplished’ moment for Turkey vis-a-vis its aim of neutralising the YPG/PKK in the region. While President Erdogan has in the recent past stated that once Turkish troops capture Afrin from the YPG/PKK, they would then advance to Manbij before pushing all the way to the Iraqi border, it seems as though this initial aim has been modified.
While this strategy of pushing further east in Syria has not been officially ruled out, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has stated that Operation Olive Branch in Syria will likely conclude in early May and that around the same time, after Iraqi elections on the 12th of May, Turkey and Iraq will work together on cross-border anti-PKK operations.
When taken at face value, these statements have many long-term implications for the region.
Collapse of the SDF
To understand why Turkey seems to have amended its initial strategy of pushing east of Afrin to the Syria-Iraq border, it is important to remember that beginning in areas around Manbij and stretching east towards the Iraqi border, the United States has set up an illegal zone of occupation in northern Syria. In these areas the US is allied with YPG/PKK militants under the banner of the SDF.
While Turkey had warned the US not to interfere with further anti-YPG/PKK operations in north eastern Syria, it would appear that Turkey has weighed the options and has decided against risking possible clashes with US troops in Syria. Beyond the pragmatic thinking involved in seeking to avoid a clash between the two largest armies in NATO, Turkey will be aware that thousands of SDF flagged YPG/PKK militants have deserted their posts in the US zone of occupation in north eastern Syria, in order to travel west to Afrin for the purposes of fighting Turkey.
Because of this, the US has stated that its own SDF led operations have been “operationally paused” in north eastern Syria due to the size and scope of desertions. Therefore, it would appear that Turkey has taken the decision to fight the YPG/PKK/SDF soldiers who have come to Afrin in Afrin, rather than risk a conflict with the US in areas where Turkey’s targets are largely collapsed as a meaningful fighting force. Rather than come to the terrorists, the terrorists have come to Afrin and Turkey seems to be doing a very effective job of neutralising them.
It must be remembered that the proximate cause of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch was the US announcing its intention to create a so-called ‘border force’ in northern Syria made up of 30,000 SDF/YPG/PKK fighters. Such a statement would have been seen as provocative by any Turkish government and Ankara therefore responded in a predictable fashion. Now that the SDF is on the verge of total collapse amid operational mayhem, it does not appear as though the US will be able to create such a “border force” in any case. Turkey has thus amended the scope of Operation Olive Branch accordingly.
Exchanging Syria for Iraq
Turkey is well aware that from the perspective of Damascus, Turkish troops are not welcome in the country. Ankara is also aware that both Syria, Russia and Iran want the conflict to wind down. Russia in particular is keen to kick-start a political peace process – certainly as soon as Eastern Ghouta is liberated from Takfiri occupation, which due to Syria’s rapid military progress in that region, may happen within the next few months.
Far from seeking to permanently occupy northern Syria as Turkey previously considered, it is becoming clear that Turkey has been honest in stating that it’s goal is merely to neutralise YPG/PKK forces near its border before moving on. Not only is Turkey preparing to move on, but it is now clear where and when they will be moving on.
While Syria and Turkey still do not have diplomatic relations, the last year has seen Iraq and Turkey enjoying some of their best relations since the 1950s. During an attempted Kurdish insurgency in northern Iraq in the autumn of 2017, Turkey and Iran cooperated with Baghdad to enforce a no-fly-zone over northern Iraq while both Ankara and Tehran also offered military assistance to Iraq’s fight to pacify areas controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga militia. As it turned out, Iraqi forces and Popular Mobalisation Units allied with Baghdad quickly pacified the Kurdish insurgency.
As a result though, the good will that Turkey once had for the Kurdish autonomous regime in northern Iraq was severely damaged and in Baghdad, Turkey found the Arab partner it has long been looking for, ever since President Erdogan pivoted Turkey’s geopolitical alignment from ‘west’ to ‘east’.
Strategically, now that Turkey is on the verge of fully neutralising YPG/PKK positions in Afrin, rather than risk conflict with US troops in eastern Syria, Turkey will instead work to cut of the supply chains of Kurdish terrorists from the Iraqi side of the border. Under such a likely scenario, the US zone of occupation in eastern Syria is cut off from the east by an Iraqi/Turkish partnership, cut off to the west due to Turkey’s successful operations in Afrin, while it remains cut off from the Turkish side of the border.
For Turkey this is both a strategic and diplomatic win-win, as Turkey will accomplish its goal of cutting off the base of cross border Kurdish terrorism in Syria while working with an Iraqi partner, as opposed to risking the ire of a Syrian Arab Republic that remains opposed to Turkish operations on its soil.
Iraq uses Turkey to pressure the US
Washington recently announced that US troops can stay in Iraq indefinitely and this announcement has not gone down well in Baghdad. Iraqi leaders want to put an end to endless US operations on Iraqi soil and while Iraq isn’t yet in a strong enough position to make an ultimatum to a US government with a history of anti-Iraqi aggression, Baghdad is instead attempting to diversify its partnerships and alliances in order to weaken American influence in the country.
In addition to a strong alliance with Iran, the current Iraqi leadership has also become very close to Russia. Russia recently shipped multiple T-90 tanks to Iraq, while Baghdad eyes the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems.
When one adds Turkey into this mix of new Iraqi partners, one sees a diverse set of non-Arab Eurasian states that Iraq can work with to gradually diminish the role of US troops who for all intents and purposes are not welcomed by the Iraqi government any longer and are not wanted by the Iraqi people. This looks to be another win-win scenario for Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Russia. Crucially while the intricacies of the Syrian conflict mean that at times Iran, Turkey, Russia and Syria have disagreements on a future political strategy, when it comes to Iraq, there is far more unity. Tehran, Baghdad, Moscow and Ankara all want to strengthen their position in Iraq, while they all accept the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and are all at ease with the sectarian make up of the country. In Syria such unity is far from achievable at the moment. Thus while Syrian cooperation requires compromise on the part of Iran, Turkey and Russia, in Iraq, everyone is more or less content with the balance of power, except for a mutual dislike of the US presence in the country.
A situation that ran the risk of causing wider conflicts between Syria and Turkey and the US and Turkey (which would have only led to further chaos in Syria), appears to have been avoided. Turkey’s pivot to Iraq has replaced a difficult balancing act with a win-win partnership, all the while Operation Olive Branch seems to have reached its operational zenith without any major skirmishes between Turkey and pro-Syrian volunteers in the region. Crucially, the Syrian Arab Army avoided being drawn into the conflict in Afrin and instead has focused on the vital task of liberating Eastern Ghouta from Takfiri occupation.
Operation Olive Branch is not officially over and nor is Turkey’s physical involvement in Syria, but the trends in the region are clear. Turkey will conduct its future anti-PKK operations across the Turkey-Iraq border, while the US will find itself increasingly isolated from any allies in both Syria and Iraq, all the while Russia and Iran continue to help Syria defeat the final hotbeds of Takfiri terrorism.