NEWS ANALYSIS: Syria’s Afrin becoming less significant for Russia, US

NEWS ANALYSIS: Syria’s Afrin becoming less significant for Russia, US

Serkan Demirtaş - BAGHDAD

Turkey’s long-expected military operation into Afrin has not created much opposition from the international community, especially from big powers, senior diplomatic sources have said, drawing on the fact that both Russia and the U.S. have long ago abandoned their mandate in that particular region.

According to assessments by diplomatic sources, Turkey’s operation was not regarded as shocking news by the big international powers for three main reasons.

First, Turkey had made it clear that an operation into Afrin was in the pipeline after the completion of the Euphrates Shield Operation and even before the start of the Idlib operation in mid-2017. Senior Turkish officials, particularly President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have long been voicing Turkey’s plans to provide security to its borders in the Afrin region. Therefore, this offensive has already been anticipated by the international community, particularly the big powers.

Second, Turkey has been in constant dialogue with all the big powers over the last few weeks in order to inform them and ask their political and practical support for the operation. Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar and National Intelligence Organization head Hakan Fidan’s visit to Moscow played a crucial role in making this operation possible. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s in-person meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis last week in Vancouver sought to garner Washington’s support for the TSK’s operation.

These talks resulted in the opening of the Syrian air space for the Turkish air forces as well as the removal of Russian military observers from Afrin thanks to coordination provided between Ankara and Moscow. From the U.S. perspective, American military officials made it clear that Afrin was not part of their mandate and thus signaled a crucial green light to the Turkish offensive.

Third point is the fact that the Afrin region no longer plays a significant and strategic role in both Russian and American perspectives and priorities in the Syrian theater. In a sense, both powers have abandoned the region to Turkey’s domain given the presumption that this operation would preoccupy Turkey for more than six months.

For Russia, it is important that the Turkish operation does not endanger efforts to reach a political settlement through the Sochi process. And for the U.S., greater concerns would be raised if the TSK’s military planning included an operation into Manbij and east of Euphrates, areas under the U.S. mandate in the fight against the jihadists.

Two risks cited

According to the same sources, the ongoing operation carries two main risks.The first concerns unwanted military and civilian casualties as the YPG uses locals as human shields, particularly in and around the Afrin region.

The second is that the Syrian regime may advance its military operations in the northern parts of Idlib in retaliation to the TSK’s Afrin move.

Syria had recently launched a massive military campaign in the Idlib region at the expense of violating a three-way agreement between Turkey, Russia and Iran, which aims to establish a de-escalation zone in this rebel-held region. Ankara’s concern is that the Syrian regime may intensify its operation in the north of the Idlib region, leading to an unwanted military engagement between Damascus and the armed opposition groups. Turkey’s troops are also in the same theater with the task of establishing military observation spots in the field, sources have said.

Serkan Demirtaş, Olive Branch, Olive Branch Operation,