Turkey’s Offensive Into Afrin Is Slow and Bloody
Operation Olive Branch has been anything but swift
On Jan. 20, the Turkish military launched Operation Olive Branch — the ongoing invasion of the northwestern Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin Canton. From the onset, Turkey claimed that the operation would result in a swift victory. However, a month later, Olive Branch is showing clear signs of becoming a costly embroilment.
Perhaps the Turkish government reasoned that Afrin would prove to be the best location to make an example out of its adversary, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The Kurdish enclave is a small and isolated part of Syrian Kurdistan — or Rojava in Kurdish — situated approximately 60 miles from the main Rojavan territories of Kobane and Jazira, which span across two-thirds of the Syrian border.
Between August 2016 and March 2017, the Turkish army and its Free Syrian Army proxy militia fighters captured a swath of border territory between Afrin and Kobane from Islamic State in the Euphrates Shield operation, cutting Kurdish territories in half.
Northwestern Syria, Turkish observation points marked with watchtowers. Green is Syrian opposition, pale green is Turkish-occupied territory, yellow Kurdish, with Syrian government in red. Map via syria.liveuamap.com
The fact that United States never deployed any of its troops to Afrin, or worked with the Afrin wing of the YPG in Syria, has meant that the Turkish invasion has not resulted in serious opposition from the United States.
In spite of Turkey’s grounds for optimism, the Turkish military has failed to make serious gains during Olive Branch’s first month. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 YPG fighters have held their own against 25,000 Turkish-backed FSA militiamen supported with Turkish artillery and aircraft. On the first day alone a reported 72 Turkish fighter-bombers attacked Afrin.
Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad has staunchly opposed the invasion, ordered anti-aircraft missiles to deploy in nearby Aleppo and Idlib provinces, and permitted YPG fighters from Rojava’s east to transit through territories he controls to reinforce their Afrin-based comrades.
Russia reportedly closed the airspace over northwest Syria on Feb. 4, the day after the shooting down of a Russian Su-25 over neighboring Idlib province, purportedly by opposition fighters. While Turkish strikes resumed on Feb. 9, the ease with which Russia can close Syria’s northwestern skies means that Turkey essentially relies on Russian acquiescence to use its air force against the YPG.
Above — YPJ fighters in Afrin. Kurdishstruggle photo via Flickr. At top — Turkish armored vehicles heading toward Afrin. VoA photo
The Turkish government is certainly aware of the dangers of antagonizing Russia, in light of having experienced firsthand seven months of economic sanctions imposed following the shooting down of a Russian Su-24 attack jet by two Turkish F-16s on Nov. 24, 2015. The Kurds contend that without their air support Turkish troops and the FSA “will be driven out in no time.”
On the ground, progress has proven painstakingly slow for the Turkish-FSA assault.
During the first three weeks of the operation the YPG killed more than 30 Turkish soldiers and FSA militia fighters. YPG has used anti-tank missiles to destroy Turkish tanks, and the Kurdish fighters shot down one of Turkey’s domestically-produced T-129 ATAK attack helicopters – a symbolic blow since the state-run Turkish press highlighted that particular helicopter’s combat debut in Olive Branch as a sign of Turkey’s domestic arms industry’s growing prowess.
Kurdish fighters pride themselves on their mountain-fighting prowess. The YPG are deeply entrenched in Afrin’s mountainous terrain, on which the Kurdish fighters have built extensive tunnel networks.
“They’re thick and sturdy and they burrow deep into the mountains,” Osama Akkari, a spokesman for one of the FSA groups, told the Washington Post. “We have to progress carefully so we can clear every one.”
Turkey has meanwhile asserted that it will remove the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, from the rugged Qandil mountain range in Iraqi Kurdistan in spite of a two-decade track record of failing to uproot the group from that stronghold.
As of Feb. 14, the offensive has only captured 23 of Afrin’s 350 villages, or seven percent of the tiny territory. And even this figure only includes villages situated right on Turkey’s border, where it is difficult for the YPG to mount a sufficient defense. Villages deeper into the enclave will likely prove harder to capture.
The Turkish military claims it has “neutralized” 1,600 enemy fighters in Afrin. While these figures are almost impossible to verify, given the questionable quality of the Turkish government and military’s many claims, it’s clear that Ankara has already caused a great deal of destruction on Afrin in the past month. More than 40,000 youth currently cannot attend school as a result of the war and several civilians have sought shelter from Turkish air strikes in caves.
“Olive Branch” will likely drag on for many more months with significant cost for the Turkish military and its allies. Turkey’s heavy reliance on FSA proxies has already divided public opinion in Turkey as the question of the country’s post-coup military effectiveness is once again put to the test.
In the words of one retired Turkish colonel to Al-Monitor, “it’s always difficult for regular armies to keep militia[s] under control. If Afrin is a long-term engagement, in time the relationship inevitably will generate higher costs [than returns] for the Turkish Armed Forces.”
Pro-regime Syrian forces are reportedly deploying to Afrin to deter the Turkish-led forces at the behest of the region’s Kurds. Official Syrian state media claims that this deployment will “support the steadfastness of their people in the face of the aggression carried out by the forces of the Turkish regime.”
During a press conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavuslogu struck a confident tone. “There is no problem if Syrian forces enter Afrin to get rid of the YPG or the PKK. But if they enter Afrin to protect the YPG, then no one can stop Turkish forces.”
It stands to reason that Turkey would happily acquiesce to Syria were the regime to attack the YPG. However, if Turkey is seriously contemplating taking on Damascus and the YPG simultaneously, then it could well end up biting off more than it can chew.
Turkey’s only other choice, which is much more logical, is to end Olive Branch — having achieved no decisive, never mind “swift,” military victory.