Afrin operation is just start of Turkey’s anti-terror fight
Turkey’s long-anticipated military operation in the Afrin province of northern Syria was launched on Jan. 20 with the aim of clearing the region of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia group that Ankara sees as a terrorist organization because of its links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a political group that represents the Syrian Kurdish population. Back in 2011, the year the Syrian civil war erupted, neither the PYD nor the YPG were known or accepted by either Syria or the international community.
In today’s world, however, the PYD-YPG has won the sponsorship of the world’s super power the U.S, and controls approximately a quarter of Syrian territories thanks to its ally’s unending military and political support. It is estimated that the group has recruited more than 30,000 armed fighters but has the potential to increase this number to around 80,000.
The group has also gained legitimacy in the eyes of the international community because of its efficient fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Not only the U.S. but other powers, such as Russia and even the Syrian regime, have opted to cooperate with the group for tactical reasons.
This reputation has allowed the PYD-YPG group to cover its terrorist activities in the region, which include expelling Arabs, Turkmens and other Kurdish groups from their homelands. Many villages that were originally either Arab or Turkmen are currently under the control of the YPG, particularly in the eastern Euphrates.
For many in Turkey, what is happening in today’s Syria is no different from the bitter experiences of Iraq, which almost disintegrated at the end of a three-decade conflict. The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are the groups that have benefited the most from chaos and instability in Iraq, with the latter’s bid for independence thwarted at the last minute in late 2017.
Using northern Iraq as a safe haven, the PKK, however, has become one of the bloodiest terror organizations in the last three decades, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of Turkish citizens. This is the historical perspective that has pushed Turkey to attack the YPG.
That is why one should not think Afrin is the last target. On the contrary, it is just the beginning. The next stages of the anti-YPG fight will enter the pipeline only after Afrin is fully cleared. It is believed that the Afrin operation could take around five or six months.
The next target is Manbij, in the western part of Euphrates, if the YPG elements are not withdrawn from the area in the following months. The U.S. had promised that the YPG would be pushed back to the eastern Euphrates after the city was captured from the ISIL but this never happened.
However, it is beyond doubt that Turkey should focus on the eastern Euphrates part of Syria if it really wants to deal with the YPG problem. The YPG controls around 600 kilometers of the Turkish-Syrian border as well as a number of border gates between the two countries. Although it is too early to talk about these hypothetical aspects of the military operations, one assumes this massive campaign against terror will last much longer than one can forecast.
All this military planning surely needs political and diplomatic preparations as well as public opinion support. The government has garnered popular support for the military operation and is in constant dialogue with prominent members of the international community.
Turkey has stressed its intention not to occupy Syrian territories, and has said the operation in no way constitutes an offensive against the Syrian Kurdish population. Protection of civilians is an issue the army will focus on to avoid a massive smear campaign against Turkey. Obviously, the success of the Afrin operation regarding these parameters will affect the Turkish army’s future military engagements in Syrian territories.