Battle of Afrin reshuffles the deck

Bassel Oudat , Saturday 3 Mar 2018

Regime flags are now flying in the northern Syrian city of Afrin, ostensibly under Kurdish militia control

Syrian fighters
This photo taken on Tuesday, 20 February, 2018, shows a convoy of pro-Syrian government fighters arriving in Syria's northern city of Afrin (Photo: AFP )

The Syrian opposition was not surprised when the Kurds in the northern Syrian city of Afrin asked the regime to assist them, since it accuses the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which oversees the Kurdish militias, of being part of the regime.

Documents have revealed that the PYD has been collaborating with the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad for the past seven years.

The opposition is dismayed that the PYD has fought the armed opposition, struck an alliance with Iran, refused to cooperate with the political opposition, taken exclusive control of northern Syria, excluded Kurdish parties allied with the opposition, made an enemy of Turkey, and launched a war against it in northern Syria. It thus came as no surprise when the PYD realigned itself with the regime.

Meanwhile, supporters of the regime know that PYD leaders have been historically linked to the regime which for years has hosted the activities of the Turkish Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Syria, providing it with training camps and political and financial support.

Key Syrian officials have admitted providing the party with weapons to take control of northern Syria, and it came as no surprise when the PYD welcomed the Syrian army with open arms in Afrin.

The Syrian army thus strolled through northern Syria and regained control of Afrin, which Turkey had been pummeling via its armed Syrian opposition allies to prevent the total Kurdish control of northern and central Syria.

The Turkish attacks, which began over one month ago, caused the PYD to quickly return to the regime fold. The Kurdish militias were close to defeat due to strong Turkish air cover and well-armed opposition forces on the ground. This made it easier for the opposition to move towards Afrin, causing the Kurds to call on their regime ally to protect them.

Turkey could be amenable to the Syrian army entering Afrin because it means that many weapons will now be surrendered by the Kurds and security will be enforced inside the city.

This would curb Kurdish power on the border with Turkey in favour of the Al-Assad regime, which complies with Turkish interests. Ankara views the Kurdish groups as “terrorists” and a threat to its national security.

Although the Kurdish troops have not left Afrin, they have lost control and will now have at most a civilian and a limited military role, especially in running local affairs. The city’s residents are now mostly Kurds since the Kurdish militias earlier chased out Arab Syrians using force or threats.

This Kurdish presence will be toothless and guaranteed by the regime and Iran. For the Turks, this is a better situation than an independent Kurdish entity in Afrin, which the Turkish intervention was designed to avoid.

The political and armed opposition feel bitter at the situation, however, since they fought alongside Turkey in Afrin, only to see the regime later take control of the area. They had relied on Turkey, causing a fracture with the Kurds.

The international “Friends of Syria” group also no longer see the Syrian scene through the eyes of the opposition, but rather through the prism of their own national priorities.

For the regime, the occupation of Afrin has been portrayed as a great victory since it was portrayed as a saviour sought out for protection. The regime army arrived with great pomp, chanting “we are coming for you Erdogan” and “we will fight the Ottomans” – an expression of the true feelings of the Iran-backed militias regarding Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

However, it would be a mistake to think the situation in Afrin is stable, when in fact the city is teetering on the edge. The Kurds rely on US support, without which they would not control any part of northern Syria, and allowing regime forces to enter Afrin will impact Kurdish relations with Washington.

Moreover, Russian-US understandings about the regime’s presence in the area are incomplete, and Ankara wants clear guarantees that the Kurds will be cleared from the area.

Ankara’s confidence in Tehran is also fragile, and it wants stronger guarantees than a “gentlemen’s agreement” with these players, especially since Iran (connected to the Kurds) wants to take advantage of the current warmth between the Kurds and the regime to move forward into areas controlled by the Turkish-backed opposition.

It wants to force the Turks to withdraw and return the control of these areas to the regime. If this were to happen, it would mean that after the elimination of the jihadist threat Iran could take steps to eliminate its regional competitors in Syria, most notably Turkey.

Despite the celebrations, regime forces have not yet entered Afrin itself and are still waiting 10 km outside the city. Turkey has fired warning shots at regime positions near Afrin, and their troops then returned to Aleppo to wait for instructions.

Those who entered Afrin are individuals sent by the regime for propaganda purposes.

The picture remains uncertain, but the discovery of the alliance between the Kurds and the Syrian regime will reshuffle the deck in this northern area of the country. It was formerly a battleground for just two sides – Turkey against the Kurds (with US backing) – but now many more players are involved, including the Syrian regime, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the Kurds (backed by the US).

The Kremlin is said not to be happy about negotiations between the Kurds and the regime, and it does not want regime forces to enter Afrin because this would spoil Russian-Turkish understandings in northwest Syria.

The arrival of regime troops would put these in confrontation with Turkish soldiers, something neither Ankara nor Moscow wants to see.

Iran may be sponsoring the process by playing on such contradictions and taking advantage of the mayhem.

However, others believe that it is the outcome of a US-Turkey-Russia agreement to undermine the Kurds in Afrin and expel the Kurdish militias in return for the regime taking control. This would be acceptable to Turkey if it were guaranteed by Russia and the US, which explains why the Kurds made their move.

While regime troops have not entered Afrin, they have long been the “joker” in the pack in the hands of one or more parties to play at the right time. The regime has benefited from its propaganda, and the Russians have hoped that this could be the start of better relations between Ankara and Damascus.

Commenting on the situation, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “Turkey’s security concerns can be met through direct dialogue between Turkey and Syria,” which is something Russia has pressed on the Turkish leadership for years.

Regime forces in Afrin with Russian-US-Turkish approval could thus make everyone a winner. The regime will win a propaganda victory, Turkey will push the Kurdish militias away from its borders and could even claim to have defeated the “terrorists,” the Kurds can claim they have defeated the “Turkish assault” and saved “the Kurdish people,” the Russians will have closer bonds with Turkey, and the US will not sacrifice its Kurdish allies.

Nonetheless, the presence of regime troops in the Kurdish city could become more complicated. Those entering Afrin are likely to be a mix of a regime soldiers, mercenaries, and Iran-backed militias such as the Shiite Iraqi Al-Baqir Brigade, Fatimid Brigade, Zeinab Iraqi-Afghani Brigade and Lebanon’s Hizbullah.

The regime will also likely use non-Syrian Kurdish militias from the Qandil Mountains, which would be a threat to Turkey, the US and the opposition. No one can predict the battles that could erupt over even a small military skirmish between these sides.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim Kalin, a political adviser to Turkey’s president, has said that Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch against the Kurds in Afrin will continue until it achieves its goals.

It is difficult to predict Afrin’s fate or the fate of any party fighting in northwest Syria, especially since so many sides are now embroiled. Each of these has its own agenda, interests and strategies that rival those of the others.

The sole losers are the Syrian people, both the Arabs and the Kurds, whose hostility to each other has become such that it could take generations to reverse.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly  

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