No one should be surprised that Turkey is taking preemptive action to thwart the development of an existential security threat along its southern border, and despite the public statements by Russian and Syrian officials, it’s very likely that Ankara did, in fact, coordinate its operation with both of them beforehand, albeit to differing degrees.
Turkey just launched the successor to 2016’s “Operation Euphrates Shield” by commencing “Operation Olive Branch”, a mission that Turkish political commentator Serap Balaman notes has more than a cynical meaning. She says that the name is clearly designed to convey to Syria that the mission isn’t aimed at it, but is actually helping Damascus just as much as it’s assisting Ankara.
It might sound strange for some people to even countenance this, especially seeing as how serious Syria was in warning against this operation and publicly condemning it after it was initiated, but the fact of the matter is that Damascus does indeed stand to gain from Ankara’s attack, as do all of the other players involved in the country’s war except for of course the “federalist” Kurds.
The US-backed PYD-YPG Kurds are on a self-declared mission to “federalize” Syria in order to carve out their own de-facto independent statelet in the energy- and agriculturally-rich northern one-third of the country presently under their occupation, and the presence of at least 10 American bases near or beyond the Euphrates River “deconfliction line” makes it very unlikely that this plan will ever be successfully countered in its entirety no matter how hard Damascus and its allies may try.
Instead, the best possible scenario under the present circumstances is to “contain” this fledgling entity and then weaken it from within via proxy warfare fought by anti-PYD Kurds and Arabs in the bulk of “Rojava’s” territory east of the Euphrates. Even so, the “federal” virus might never be snuffed out in full, let alone prior to the upcoming “Syrian National Dialogue Congress” in Sochi at the end of the month, which is why the most realistic long-term outcome will probably be that some vague form or another of broadly defined “decentralization” along the lines of what’s suggested in the Russian-written “draft constitution” will be implemented, albeit with Russian-aligned pro-Turkish forces in the occupied territories instead of pro-American ones.
This is far from the ideal endgame “solution” that Syria wants but is the “best” that it can hope for under the circumstances since there’s no way that Turkey would “help” eliminate the Kurdish “federalists” without expecting to receive some “reward” for its efforts. For all intents and purposes, Moscow is calling the shots in the remaining two-thirds of Syria not under American proxy control, so Damascus has no choice but to reluctantly accept whatever deal Russia brokers on its “behalf” with Turkey, though it’ll still attempt to retain “plausible deniability” and refute such suppositions in order to “save face”, hence its vehement denials of this in public.
Should the most skeptical observers take the time to soberly think about it, even if Turkey was blatantly violating “international law”, then the only relevant enforcer in this case would be UNSC-member Russia whose armed forces are still in the Arab Republic and theoretically capable of serving as “first responders” to repulse the Turkish “invasion” if the Security Council decrees it in a forthcoming resolution, but that will never happen because Moscow was working hand-in-glove with Ankara this entire time behind the scenes in the run-up to “Operation Olive Branch”.
If faced with the choice of pro-American or pro-Turkish proxy forces occupying the Kurds’ de-facto independent “federalized” or “decentralized” statelet in northern Syria, the multipolar Tripartite of Great Powers (Russia-Iran-Turkey) would naturally prefer the second option and would inevitably get Damascus to go along with this by activating various levers of pressure in compelling the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to “back down” from any future liberation operation, thereby forcing it to pragmatically accept a “cold peace” such as the one that it’s already doing when it comes to the Euphrates River “deconfliction line”.
The geopolitical situation is such that Russia, as the preeminent military force in Syria, is the only one of the four aforementioned actors capable of cutting a “gentlemen’s deal” with the US over the previously mentioned “deconfliction line”, but such a speculated agreement probably only entails a freeze in conventional hostilities between the SAA and the Kurdish-led “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) umbrella group and not asymmetrical destabilization efforts such as the planned pro-Turkish Arab and Kurdish “uprising” that was written about earlier.
It should also be noted that all pro-American Kurdish positions west of the river likely don’t fall under the provisions of the presumed Russian-American “gentlemen’s agreement” and are therefore “fair game” for Turkey’s conventional forces, which explains why Ankara is moving against “Rojava’s” western-most outpost of Afrin before sweeping across the border to Manbij and pushing the Kurds east of the Euphrates, where they would no longer have any chance of creating their cherished “corridor to the sea” through Turkey’s formerly Syrian Hatay Province on the Eastern Mediterranean shore.
The establishment of a pro-American de-facto independent Kurdish statelet is detrimental enough to the Tripartite and Syria’s enduring multipolar interests, let alone if this entity broke out of its landlocked boundaries and achieved direct access to the greater world, so it’s logical that they’d seek to nip this threat in the bud however they most realistically can under the geopolitical conditions at play. Considering that the “gentlemen’s agreement” probably doesn’t apply to the areas west of the Euphrates River “deconfliction line” and particularly those without any reported American bases like Afrin, and that the SAA cannot directly attack the “federalist” Kurds out of fear that this might inadvertently spark a post-Daesh civil war, then it makes sense why Turkey would be tasked with executing this mission since it stands to lose the most out of everyone if America’s “Plan B” succeeds.
It should be said in connection with this that the fate of the Afrin “federalists” wasn’t inevitable because they had previously proven themselves to be the most pragmatic members of the PYD-YPG through their history of positive interactions with Russia and the SAA, motivated as they were by the shrewd realization that they needed to cooperate with them if they were to stand any hope of surviving their geographic isolation from the rest of their armed brethren further east in the country.
The Afrin branch of the PYD-YPG had such excellent working relations with Moscow that some observers had even taken to calling them “Russia’s Kurds”, which was a ridiculous description that dramatically oversimplified this group’s relationship with Russia and prudent geostrategic motivations for cooperating with it while completely overlooking its ideologically dogmatic obsession with fulfilling the group’s “federalist” fantasy.
It’s this blind adherence to Murray Bookchin’s “democratic confederalism” that ultimately served to doom the Afrin Kurds, as they refused to allow the SAA to enter the region and reestablish Damascus’ sovereignty there, instead choosing to remain zealously “loyal” to their “ideals” and opting to remain functionally independent as opposed to “compromising” on this in the interests of security. Had the Afrin Kurds been more concerned with ensuring their own survival than chasing their “utopian” dreams, then they would have cut a deal with Damascus and made it so that any Turkish intervention there would automatically trigger a state-to-state conventional conflict with Syria, thus serving as a foolproof deterrent against the Turks because of the certainty that Russia would have intervened to defend its Syrian ally in this case.
There were reportedly last-minute negotiations to have precisely this happen, but the Kurds declined Damascus’ precondition that the SAA would have to be allowed access to Afrin in exchange for the PYD-YPG flying the Syrian flag and stopping the imminent Turkish operation, and Ankara’s awareness of the overall sensitivity surrounding its intervention is why it decided to use the “Olive Branch” codename for this operation like was explained at the beginning of this analysis. While it’s not “politically correct” to admit, Afrin’s “federalist” Kurds are getting exactly what they deserve, and Turkey is beating them with the “Olive Branch” of war on behalf of its Tripartite partners and even Syria, however begrudgingly it may have been for Damascus to passively give its implicit consent to this mission in the face of what can only be presumed to have been enormous Russian pressure.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for Regional Rapport in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.
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Andrew Korybko is Moscow-based political analyst, journalist and a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia. His other areas of focus include tactics of regime change, color revolutions and unconventional warfare used across the world.