Back on January 20, Turkey started Operation Olive Branch, which aimed at displacing the Kurdish forces in the Afrin region, in northern Syria. At the time, Turkish President Recep Erdogan declared that the affair would take seven days to complete, The Guardian reported.
Two weeks have passed already.
The Turkish military kicked off the offensive with an artillery barrage, followed by air strikes and then a cross-border ground invasion. By all accounts, the Kurdish forces resisted bitterly, but the actual number of casualties for either side remains murky.
The political repercussions, albeit still unclear on a wider scope, start to take shape, though.
The local Kurds, who have taken control of the province and fought against the collapsing Islamic State, were essentially abandoned by their American and European allies, as the latter attempted to avoid a confrontation with Turkey, which is a member of NATO. The militias were provided weapons in the weeks before the invasion, but according to the locals, no more help is expected to arrive.
Moreover, Ankara aims at driving the Kurds away from its borders, ostensibly to impede them from supporting Kurdish terrorists within Turkey. It should be noted, though, that these advances wouldn’t be possible without at least some tacit support from Moscow.
According to the Independent, Russian forces within the city of Afrin, which were part of the detachment Moscow sent to support Bashar al-Assad’s forces, did pull out of their main base. However, they remain in the area.
Given the control the Russian Air Force has over the skies of Syria, it wouldn’t be possible for the Turkish Air Force to operate unopposed without the avowal of Moscow. As discussed by Al-Jazeera, the groundwork for this cooperation was laid down during the last summer, as the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Turkish Chief-of-Staff, Hulusi Akar, engaged in talks regarding future military operations in Syria.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, a successful cooperation in Syria could paint him as the man who brought stability to a war-torn country, and indeed the Syrian Army has been making advances in the north of the country parallel to the Turkish advances. At the same time, this could usher a deeper cooperation in the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, which goes from Russia through Turkish waters, and into Europe. This pipeline is due to be completed in 2019.
It should be noticed that the situation on the ground in Syria remains rather complex. The Islamic State is on the brink of collapse, indeed, but the constant infighting of its enemies has delayed what was once considered a done deal. Moreover, bands of militias supporting any of the major powers involved in the territory keep holding to some of their gains.
The Iranians and the Russians offered their support to Damascus, to keep the country within their respective spheres of influence and grant them access to the Mediterranean coast. Moreover, the U.S. supported the so-called moderate militias and the Kurds from the onset to drive al-Assad out of power and contain Moscow and Tehran, supporting the counter-encirclement efforts from Saudi Arabia against its Shia rival.
Turkish involvement remained somewhat uncertain for most of the conflict. However, the American support emboldened the Kurdish movements seen as a terrorist by Ankara, and even Washington itself. Nevertheless, the U.S. still declared that they would foster the creation of a border defense force of thousands of troops of which half would come from the Kurdish YPG ranks.
Additionally, the conflict sent millions of refugees across the border into Turkey, and then Europe. From a general perspective, it makes sense that Turkey would want to create a buffer zone alongside the border while driving out elements that it sees as disruptive.
The Kurds, on their hand, have been promised a home of their own. Their fight against the IS, in which they were the premier spearhead of the U.S.-aligned forces, allowed them to conquer an impressive amount of territory.
That dream is now on the verge of collapsing as the Turkish forces push into Afrin and threaten to turn east towards the other Kurdish stronghold of Manbij. As Kurdish ambitions in Iraq were effectively curbed, the possible collapse of the teetering Kurdistan in Syria would end any national ambitions for the foreseeable future.
That would be the Turkish idea: drive the PKK and its outlying organizations (like the YPG, according to Ankara) underground once more, as terrorist organizations without actual territorial holdouts.
As these forces clash, though, the actual results of the combats are still hazy. Both sides claim to have caused hundreds of casualties to their enemies. However, the Turkish forces keep claiming the control of more and more important hilltops. Ankara is also gathering special forces troops along the border for the inevitable urban battle in the city of Afrin.
Meanwhile, YPG forces have been using pickup trucks as mobile fire-platforms to fire rockets into Turkey, which have killed several civilians, the Arab News reports.
For the most part, the NATO powers have remained silent about the whole ordeal, with a few notable exceptions. French President Emmanuel Macron has spoke about what he described as an “invasion operation,” a declaration that angered the Turks.
Ankara also expects the U.S. to stop supplying weapons to the YPG and withdraw the embedded troops before the eastern side of the offensive comes alive.
A grim future seems to be at hand for the Kurdish fighters.
The same can be said about NATO, in a way. Ankara seems increasingly interested in making deals with Moscow, supposedly NATO’s main opponent. Meanwhile, President Erdogan’s chief advisor, Yigit Bulut, has made some threats towards Greece, should Athens attempt to claim some disputed isles in the Adriatic Sea, Russia Today reports.
Turkey seems to be ascending, and on its way to truly become the third power in the Middle East. Its strained relationship with the rest of NATO, though, brings some doubts about its standing on the world stage.
For now, the evident truth is that the war in Syria has changed.