The Syrian civil war allowed the Kurds to form a semi-independent Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, also known as Rojava, dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its affiliated militia—the People’s Protection Units (YPG). In 2012, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdrew from the north, handing over control to the YPG. The Kurds have not since engaged pro-al-Assad forces and Iran-sponsored militias, but (backed by the United States–led international coalition) have battled the Islamic State and other jihadist groups. As the PYD and YPG expanded their poly-ethnic Rojava enclave, Turkish authorities and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became increasingly hostile, accusing the PYD of being a Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK—recognized as a terrorist organization in Turkey the European Union and the United States). In 2016–2017, the Turkish military and its allies from the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) began “Operation Euphrates Shield” north of Aleppo province to push out the Islamic State and to prevent the Kurdish enclave of Afrin from linking up with the rest of Rojava. In the east of Rojava, YPG units, backed by several thousand US soldiers and instructors, formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) together with local Arabs. In the summer of 2017, the SDF captured Raqqa—the Islamic State’s “capital”—and pushed down the Euphrates valley to the Iraqi border. In Afrin, the local PYD invited the Russian military—a couple hundred personnel in all, composed of a group of “Pacification Center” operatives, a military hospital and a military police unit to guard them. The local PYD/YPG commanders in Afrin described themselves as a “Russian Kurdistan” and believed Moscow’s presence guaranteed the Turkish military and its Syrian opposition allies would not attack (Vzglyad, October 17, 2017).
This was a mistake: Last week (January 18), a Turkish delegation led by the chief of the General Staff, Army General Hulusi Akar, and the National Intelligence Organization chief, Hakan Fidan, came to Moscow to finalize a deal on Afrin in talks with Russia’s defense minister, Army General Sergei Shoigu, and chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov (Militarynews.ru, January 18).The Russians withdrew from Afrin, opening the way for a Turkish invasion. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters no withdrawal was happening (Vzglyad, January 19). Lavrov, apparently, was uninformed: He is in essence a decorated spokesperson, not a true decision-maker inside the Russian government.
On January 20, the Ministry of Defense confirmed all Russian troops were “repositioned to avoid being in harm’s way in Afrin, where the Turkish military began a special operation against Kurdish forces” (Militarynews.ru, January 20). Of course, the defense ministry blamed the US for provoking the Turks into military action by supplying arms to the Kurds in the first place and helping them establish a separate region in northern Syria. According to well-informed Moscow defense analyst Colonel (ret.) Viktor Murakhovsky, “The Turkish ‘Operation Olive Branch’ has certainly been agreed with Russia” (Militarynews.ru, January 20). Turkish officials, including Erdoğan, confirm they agreed Operation Olive Branch with the Russians, while the YPG command has accused Moscow of complicity in signing off on “Turkish attacks on civilians” (Militarynews.ru, January 21). Official Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused during a press briefing to comment on the YPG’s accusation that Russia had rescinded its security guarantees to the Kurds, allowing the Turks to attack (Newsru.com, January 23).
An agreement may have been struck between Ankara and Moscow on a territorial exchange in Syria: Russia withdraws from Afrin, while Turkish-sponsored forces allow the al-Assad regime to take over a substantial part of opposition-held Idlib province (Vzglyad, January 19). In December 2017, pro-al-Assad forces, supported by bombers of the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS), moved deep into Idlib province to reach and capture Abu al-Duhur—a town and strategically important airbase on the edge of the Syrian Desert. If Abu al-Duhur falls, the resistance-controlled Idlib province could be cut in half. On January 9, Ankara protested, accusing Moscow and Tehran of violating the so-called “de-escalation zone” in Idlib. After that, the offensive apparently stopped on the outskirts of Abu al-Duhur, maybe because of the protest, or maybe because of counterattacks by Turkish-supported opposition forces (see EDM, January 11).
As soon as Operation Olive Branch began, the pro-al-Assad offensive resumed, Abu al-Duhur was captured and Idlib province cut in half (Militarynews.ru, January 21). The Russian defense ministry boasted that some 1,500 former al-Nusra Front (former name of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) fighters have been surrounded in eastern Idlib and “will be eliminated” (Militarynews.ru, January 22). The number of surrounded fighters does not seem impressive and may even be inflated. It is possible the FSA and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters were withdrawn by the Turks to attack Afrin, leaving the way open for pro-al-Assad forces, while the Russians, in accordance with the deal finalized in Moscow on January 18, marched out of Afrin.
To minimize their own casualties, the Turkish military, while massively bombing Afrin, sent in mostly FSA fighters as infantry, supported by a limited number of Turkish armor and special forces. Erdoğan boasted, Operation Olive Branch will be “swift and victorious.” Moreover, he announced, “The Kurds are on the run,” and promised that, after Afrin, “we will continue with Manbij”—a town on the western bank of the Euphrates, east of Afrin. Manbij had been liberated from the Islamic State by the YPG in 2016, with support from the US-led coalition. A small US Special Forces unit is still operating in Manbij today (Militarynews.ru, January 21). Apparently, part of the Russian-Turkish deal was an understanding that Moscow will pressure their YPG allies into agreeing to withdraw their fighters from Afrin instead of facing a hopeless siege and heavy bombardment. The Russians reportedly proposed to hand over Kurdish-populated parts of Afrin to pro-al-Assad forces so that Erdoğan could celebrate an easy PR victory, while simultaneously bolstering the al-Assad regime’s position. But the YPG reportedly refused to leave and seem to have dug in for a long fight (Rosbalt, January 22). Instead of a nice PR victory, Erdoğan may end up with a bloody mess on his hands, as his pro-Turkish FSA fighters appear to lack motivation or readiness to go in and rout the well dug-in YPG. The Afrin siege could last for months, with mounting civilian and combatant casualties—a tragedy and a likely PR disaster for all the perpetrating parties.