By: Aaron Stein, foreign affairs
After five weeks of fighting, the Turkish military and its allied Syrian-Arab militias have taken control of Turkey’s border with Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled enclave in northwestern Syria. Ankara’s ground offensive has made slow but steady progress and, barring external intervention or a political decision to stop the offensive, it will almost certainly achieve its goal of upending Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) control of Afrin.
Yet Operation Olive Branch, as the Turkish offensive is known, is not only important for Ankara. It also has political repercussions for the other external actors involved in Syria’s civil war. In Washington, debates on U.S. Syria policy are rightly focused on questions about strategy and whether the United States can translate its military gains against the Islamic State (or ISIS) into a lasting peace settlement on terms favorable to U.S. interests. These debates, however, tend to ascribe strategic coherence to Washington’s adversaries. In reality, Turkey’s cross-border intervention demonstrates that the war’s main external actors are strategically adrift and potentially unable to realize their own goals without making difficult compromises.
The United States’ Syria policy, which U.S. President Donald Trump inherited from his predecessor, was originally designed as a narrow counterterrorist campaign to oust ISIS from territory it controlled in eastern Syria. This required Washington to ally with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella grouping of militias dominated by the YPG, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group active in Turkey for close to four decades. (In doing so, Washington has alienated its NATO ally Turkey.) The U.S.-SDF alliance has done its job: ISIS has been territorially defeated in Syria. And as the war shifted from offensive operations to holding captured territory, the United States has settled on a policy of using the territory it controls as leverage to try to force the Syrian government to make concessions at the UN peace talks in Geneva.
Washington has attempted to marry its military campaign with achievable policy goals, but in doing so it has signaled that it intends to remain in northeast Syria for the foreseeable future. This is at odds with the positions of Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the Syrian regime, which have been forced into overlapping and sometimes contradictory alliances of convenience. The Syrian war’s main external actors are strategically adrift and potentially unable to realize their own goals without making difficult compromises.
For Turkey, the U.S. presence in Syria ensures that Washington will continue to train and arm the SDF and, importantly, that Kurdish-led efforts to create autonomous governing structures in Syria—which Ankara views as a threat to its national security—will not be subordinated to a broader agreement centralizing political control in Damascus. To pressure the United States and weaken the Kurds, Ankara has launched two military offensives in Syria—Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in January.
In both cases, Turkey required Russian permission to use military force, lest it risk an unintended escalation with a superior power. Following a period of conflict after November 2015, when Turkey downed a Russian bomber for violating its airspace, the relationship between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin has deepened. Their rapprochement coincided with Turkey’s decision to use military force in Syria, and the two men now speak routinely on the phone to smooth over tensions and coordinate their efforts to try and manage the Syrian civil war.
Russia and Turkey have also chosen to work with Iran, perhaps the most stalwart backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on two interrelated initiatives. The first, known as the Astana process, is a trilateral diplomatic mechanism to oversee a series of cease-fires and so-called de-escalation zones; the second is a complimentary peace process that recently convened in Sochi, with the goal of jump-starting negotiations to end the war and draft a constitution. The Sochi process was rife with contradictions and ultimately required Russia to concede to Turkey on a number of issues, including scaling back the scope of the conference’s mandate. The Turkish-Russian diplomatic give and take is instructive and helps to explain the dynamics in Afrin.
In general, the Russian-Turkish arrangement hinges on cooperation in Syria’s Idlib province, the final de-escalation zone established at Astana. To monitor the supposed cease-fire between the Assad regime and Turkish-backed opposition groups, the Turkish military is expected to deploy to 12 locations in Idlib. Ankara is thus finding itself drawn ever more deeply into direct military involvement in Syria. And although this involvement has narrow, short-term goals, it risks becoming open-ended in the absence of a negotiated peace between the regime and the opposition. Moscow, in turn, is seeking to work with Ankara to achieve a peace settlement, but in doing so it has run afoul of the interests of its two other allies, Tehran and Damascus.
Iran and the Syrian government both appear intent on eventually forcing Turkish forces to withdraw from Syria, where their continued presence threatens to undermine Assad’s goal of defeating the insurgency and reasserting full territorial control. A regime-allied militia has targeted Turkish forces in al-Eiss, a Turkish-operated observation point in south Aleppo. In Afrin regime-allied militias (presumably linked to Iran) have deployed with the YPG and attacked Turkish soldiers on at least two different occasions. Russia, it seems, was against the regime’s moves in Afrin, and most certainly at odds with its allies over the targeting of Turkish forces deployed in Idlib, per the terms of the de-escalation agreement it brokered in Astana.
The Turkish deployment in Syria is part of Russia’s efforts to settle the conflict on its own terms. Ankara thus retains some leverage over Moscow, despite being the less powerful of the two. Turkey’s anti-YPG efforts are a nuisance to Russia, which strives to maintain cordial relations with the Kurds, but Putin is not willing to risk losing Turkish support for his broader efforts to bring the war to an end. As an added benefit, Turkey’s campaign against the Kurds has upset its relations with the United States. Yet for both Damascus and Tehran, the disruption of American-Turkish relations is less important than the immediate threat posed by an open-ended Turkish military presence. Ankara, meanwhile, shows no signs of bowing to external pressure to withdraw its forces.
Iran, Russia, Syria, and Turkey thus find themselves alternately working together and at cross-purposes. Each would be wise to acknowledge that their goals may be difficult, if not impossible, to realize in full. Ankara’s military campaign is driven by fears about Kurdish separatism and the obvious link between the political aspirations of Syrian and Turkish Kurds. Yet the broader challenge presented by the PKK will not be solved on the battlefield but by political concessions. The military intervention in Afrin inflames anti-government sentiment in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast, perpetuating the cycle of violence that sustains the PKK insurgency. Further still, Ankara is now on the hook for occupying and administering Afrin, presumably via a governing council comprising Turkish-backed opposition groups that have hostile relations with the local Kurds. (An outcome that is also at odds with Ankara’s stated desire for a united Syria.) In a few months, Turkey will be in control of a sizable chunk of Syria’s Aleppo governorate and will have assumed responsibility for administering services and propping up a local security force, while also having to account for the likelihood of a sustained low-level YPG insurgency against whatever force Ankara empowers.
Washington must continue to balance its short-term counterterrorism goals with its longer-term effort to repair relations with Turkey.
Russia, in turn, is now reliant on Ankara to ensure that the bulk of the anti-Assad opposition agrees to a future peace arrangement. To reach such an arrangement, however, Russia must also win the support of Iran and the Assad regime, both of which are hostile to Ankara’s presence inside Syria. Finally, the United States’ presence in northeastern Syria, as well as its alliance with the SDF, suggest that Turkish efforts defeat the YPG will remain incomplete at best. For Russia in particular, the broader question is how to match its political objectives to the ongoing military campaign. The Russian military has been fighting in Syria for almost three years and still Moscow is unable to forcibly end the civil war. Its diplomatic efforts will require a complicated balancing act between hostile allies and partners.
The internal division among these four actors lessens the pressure on the United States. Yet Washington must also continue to balance its short-term counterterrorism goals with its longer-term effort to repair relations with Turkey, a treaty ally. In addition, the United States has yet to come to terms with the likelihood that the Assad regime will control large swaths of the country despite U.S. gains in the northeast.
Each of the external actors in the Syrian civil war is treating it as a zero-sum game, ascribing strategic coherence to its adversaries (which may not exist), and using Syrians to fight and die for national interests that are at odds with any serious push to wind down the conflict. The Turkish intervention in Afrin has exposed cracks within the loose coalition of states hostile to the American presence in the northeast. The United States, too, has failed to seriously engage with the reality on the ground and think through the compromises that will have to be made to help end this war. Absent some serious changes, the Syrian civil war is likely to drag on—and kill more and more people.