By Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai
The military operation initiated by Turkey at the beginning of the week under the code name “olive branch” is suitable for several players in the Syrian arena and has the potential to embarrass them at the same time. The biggest losers remain the Kurds, who failed to secure a domestic and international ally to protect them and stand by their goal, despite (and partly also because of) offering themselves as suitable allies of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
What is Damascus’s position towards the “Olive Branch”?
The Damascus government maybe the biggest winner in the Turkish Operation “Olive Branch” for various reasons. It is clear that Ankara is extending the “olive branch” to Damascus in an effort to inject warmth into their longtime turbulent relationship. The Turkish-Syrian security contacts began a while ago and with them Turkish officials released overt statements saying that “the Syrian government does not pose a threat to Turkey”. This positive Turkish approach materialised despite occasional sporadic aggressive statements by the Turkish President RecepTayyip Erdogan towards his Syrian counterpart President Bashar al-Assad. Erdogan needs to criticise Assad to satisfy his Middle Eastern allies and also his Syrian allies in the Syrian opposition and al-Qaeda who are still fighting under Ankara’s banner in Syria on various fronts.
As for Damascus, the Syrian government has asked the Kurds in Afrin to hand over the control of the security and the financial administration to Syrian representatives and officials so the Turkish attack on the entire province and the nearby cities under Kurdish control can be halted.
The Kurdish attitude towards other Syrians has been alarming to Damascus since no Syrian citizen was allowed access to Afrin without a permit from the “Kurdish Protection Units”. The Kurdish administration is levying taxes, collecting money from selling oil and crops, and buying land from Arab Syrians. The Kurds are sitting on wealth that is worth several billion dollars, unwilling to deliver it to the Syrian government.
During the negotiations with Damascus, the Kurdish officials declared their unwillingness to hand over the security and financial control despite the central government’s willingness to send 5,000 Syrian soldiers and officers to Afrin and deploy the units along the border with Turkey, which in turn agreed with Russia to stop its menace and bide by a Damascus-Afrin deal if and when it is reached. The Kurds in Afrin have been unwilling to give up their influence over the city and in fact demanded a small unit of the Syrian police, enough to convince Turkey of the presence of the Syrian army.
Damascus refused the Kurdish manoeuvre. Its stand was clear: either restore the state control over all Syrian territory or allow the Kurds to face the consequence of their decisions. The central government does not conceal its displeasure with the Turkish military operation because it would weaken the position of the United States, which is presented today as the country reneging on its allies and putting its interests above friendship. The distance the US is taking from events in Afrin is significant.
The US have used the Kurds in Syria to fight ISIS and consolidate Washington’s position and occupation over a part of Syria. The Kurds agreed to fight ISIS in exchange for the US support of a Kurdish state.
Damascus is also on the side-line, watching Turkey’s strength that is under test against the Kurdish protection units. Ankara has shown its weakness on the Syrian front when fighting against ISIS in Dabiq and other parts of northern Syria. Turkey’s allies have also shown their weakness in occupying large areas and failing to keep control over these areas for long, particularly when faced with determined military opponents. Therefore, the battle will definitely weaken the military power of the Kurds, of Turkey, and of its allies if it lasts long enough.
Thus, the Syrian army today can enjoy watching the forces of Turkey (its ally of the “Euphrates Shield”) in action, knowing that this reduces their presence in the vicinity of the city and rural Idlib. This brings back the memory the battle of Aleppo, when Turkey summoned its allies to fight ISIS and was forced to withdraw troops by the thousand from Aleppo. That move helped liberate of the city faster and with fewer losses.
Damascus is hoping Ankara will keep its promises (that it will “not retreat from its operations against Afrin”) to watch the battle from afar. Simultaneously, the central government hopes the time will come when Afrin’s Kurds will hand over the city, when both the Kurdish and Turkish parties have exhausted all possible elements of success (in defending Afrin on the Kurds’ side, and in trying to occupy it on the Turkish side).
America and its position on “Olive Branch”
America finds itself in a position that offers a lot of verbal support to the Kurds of Syria, asking everyone to “exercise restraint” and pay attention to avoid “civilian casualties”. However, Washington is pushing its European allies to demand the intervention of the Security Council to end the conflict in Afrin, a demand never formulated by any European country during the six years of war in Syria.
However, the US is observing the performance of the Turkish army with interest and wishes to see Erdogan humiliated, broken on the rocks of the Kurds in Afrin. Indeed, the US has delivered anti-tank weapons, already effectively used by the Kurds against the Turkish army (many tanks damaged during the attack on Afrin).
In America’s view, the Turkish intervention in Afrin is an unrealistic adventure. Ankara can control the start of the battle, but it cannot decide when to end it. However, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested to his Turkish counterpart a 30km “safe zone” deep in Syrian territory, with the aim to divided it between the Turks and the Kurds, obviously under US protection and governance. This proposal aims to avoid the battle if possible and ensure a “cut” for all three sides (US, Turkey and the Kurds). The US can’t understand that Ankara is not ready to see a rich and well-armed Kurdish “state” on its borders, disregarding the US’s tempting and generous offer. Actually, the US is offering a territory that not only does not belong to the Americans but is actually occupied by the US forces in north east Syria.
The US is one of the losers in this battle, regardless of the results, because Turkey will continue its operations until the defeat of the Kurds, either by military means or if Afrin returns to central government’s control.
Ankara has declared its first eight soldiers killed in the “Operation Olive Branch”, a branch with Turkish blood staining it. Turkey is launching an attack from four axes, occupying some positions and withdrawing from others. It aims to occupy a city inhabited by about one million people and an area of about 3,800 square kilometres: not an easy goal.
This “olive branch” will fall as a real burden on Turkey. The longer the battle lasts, the more the Kurdish and Turkish parties lose equipment, fighters and money to fund the military campaign. Their respective reputations are on the line. If Turkey fails in this battle, it will become a much less influential country – not only in Syria but in the Middle East as a whole, and its reputation as a NATO member state will be affected. The Turkish army and its allies are in an offensive position, therefore in need of more men and effort amid unfamiliarity with the unfriendly Kurdish territory and environment- while the Kurds have control of the land and know the terrain and therefore need less force to defend it.
But the Kurds remain the biggest losers in this equation and this war – unless they decide to stand and fight and are victorious. Weaving alliances with the US was a wrong choice even if, in the previous years of war, their choices were correct. Everything went wrong when Washington and its forces came to Hasakah and Kobani and persuaded the Kurds to divide Syria.
Today, the “Syrian Democratic Forces” group (SDF) accuses the Russians of “treachery”. This group was created and armed by the US Special Forces. The SDF expects Russian support yet it is working to thwart Moscow’s efforts in Syria, aiming to prevent the partition of the country.
Damascus is waiting for the Kurds at the end of the road, to pick them up during their fall, because it seems to be the only solution left to save them and stop the Turkish invasion.