On Sunday, Turkish-backed forces seized the city of Afrin in northwestern Syria, less than two months after Ankara began the operation to drive out the Kurdish YPG, the People's Protection Units. The immediate outcome of the battle seems clear: Turkey wins, the YPG loses, the United States is left shaken while Russia benefits. And in many ways, these effects will continue to be true for some time.
Since the Turkish operation began, American officials have tried to distance themselves from the YPG in Afrin, asserting that the Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria was not part of the mandate of the international counter-ISIL coalition. But such assertions quickly proved to be short-sighted. The events there had both operational and psychological effects on the Syrian Democratic Forces and the US strategy in eastern Syria in general.
For example, officials in Washington became worried after the YPG threatened to abandon the fight against ISIL in Deir Ezzor and instead focus on repelling the Turkish assault in Afrin. Along with other factors, the YPG’s focus on Afrin caused America to make an “operational pause” in the battles against ISIL in the rural areas of Abu Kamal, where the terror group still controls a handful of villages east of the Euphrates River.
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Forces battling ISIL in those areas had already been stretched thin. Sources from inside the SDF say fighting was mostly limited to American sorties against ISIL fighters, rather than actual fighting between the group and the US-backed forces. One source claimed that the American-led coalition would conduct an airstrike against one ISIL fighter or sniper hiding in a building, instead of attempts by ground forces to take him out. With the YPG’s refocus on Afrin, the fighting situation became even less tenable.
After the operational pause, local reports indicate that ISIL has seized the calm to reorganise its forces. Iraqi commanders were replaced by foreign members. The ISIL leader in those areas also issued instructions warning against mistreatment of civilians. The group also distributed fertiliser and offered free ploughing services for farmers.
These measures, reportedly a response to recent popular outcry over mistreatment and looting of houses abandoned by their owners, could further stiffen the group’s resistance in the remaining areas. Over the past few days, ISIL also used the calm to launch multiple attacks against the regime west of the river, controlling an outpost in an area outside Albu Kamal known as Al Kam.
Another way the Afrin battle is affecting the US focus on ISIL is less tangible. The tension over Afrin has already created friction between the US and the YPG, and between the latter and the local population. This friction is caused by the realisation that over-reliance on the YPG brings with it a sense of uncertainty, especially in areas far from the group's centre of gravity. Also, the events surrounding the Afrin battle have eroded trust in the US ability to defend its allies.
Other factors add to the current confusion. Previously, Washington could push back against Ankara’s attempts to attack the SDF because the US had picked a side and stood by its Kurdish ally against Turkey. Today, American officials seek to appease Turkey for multiple reasons, one of which is to pull it away from Russia. This effort means that the US will now try to accommodate not confront Turkish concerns about the YPG, which led the two to discuss formulas to address differences, a clear departure from previous instances in which the two seemed close to a military confrontation.
Adding to the YPG’s misfortunes is American recognition of the need to address the demographic imbalance in the SDF. This is not necessarily to appease Turkey, but to strengthen the Kurdish-dominated legitimacy in predominately-Arab areas. Kurdish dominance refers not just to numbers, but more importantly to the monopoly of key positions and key sectors by Kurds loyal to the so-called Democratic Union Party, or the PYD. In this sense, the YPG’s losses are poised to go beyond its loss of Afrin.
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Another potential loser is the Syrian regime and its allies. With the loss of Afrin and most of its presence west of the Euphrates River, Russia, Iran and Damascus have lost a point of leverage they previously had with the Kurdish group. The YPG is now mostly under American protection, in areas east of the Euphrates River plus Manbij. The defeat of the group there was not possible without a Russian political backing to the operation, to maintain its alliance with Turkey to redraw the Syrian map, much to the dismay of the US.
This new reality has ended the delicate dance the YPG was able to engage in for nearly three years, when it aligned with Russia in Afrin and with the US elsewhere. The US no longer has to worry about that awkward situation.
The YPG is more reliant on the US, and Russia lost its ability to use the group as a political and military lever against the rebels or the US. This may give prominence to the already existing suspicion within the YPG towards Iran, instead of the live-and-let-live policy the group had with the regime since 2012, and the pragmatic alliance with Russia since 2015.
Taken together, the Afrin battle marks a turning point for the Syrian conflict. Turkey threw a stone into the geopolitical lake of northern Syria, and the ripple effect is not going to stop any time soon.