A month into the Turkish operation in the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin, Damascus and the Kurdish militias there reached a deal that would allow regime-aligned forces to enter the city. What followed could be one of the most confusing episodes in the Syrian conflict.
Let’s start from the beginning. For Turkey, Afrin is where the worst of the YPG, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, are domiciled. The enclave that includes the city became the most significant sanctuary for veterans of the Kurdish PKK currently operating in Syria, especially west of the Euphrates river. Afrin is also where the Kurdish militia does not enjoy the protection of the US.
These concerns made Afrin an ideal target for Turkey under current limitations. At the same time, it remains unlikely that Turkey will be able to storm the city. And if it does, it would be even more unlikely to control it. Instead, as I explained last week, Turkey seeks to bring about a lasting settlement that would address its national security concerns in that area. To do so, it has three main objectives: to compel the Kurdish militants to somehow cede control of the city, to establish a security belt along its borders north and west of Afrin and to push the Americans to take its concerns more seriously.
In recent days, Turkey seems to have edged closer to achieving all three goals at once. American policymakers have become more anxious about a Turkish assertive stance in Syria and an outreach effort is underway to bridge the divergence between the two Nato partners. Russia and the YPG had also resumed talks to allow the Syrian regime to enter Afrin, through various formulas negotiated by the two sides. Finally, Turkey got close, but not completely, to ending the Kurdish presence along its borders to the north and west of Afrin. Once complete, those gains would link the zone it created in the summer of 2016 known as the Euphrates Shield with the border stretch created during Operation Olive Branch over the past month.
Then a curious announcement was made by the Syrian regime on Monday. The state news agency Sana reported that an agreement has been reached between the YPG and Damascus that involved the entry of "popular forces" into Afrin to help repel the Turkish "aggression". Turkish officials had initially welcomed the agreement with a major caveat, namely that the regime's entry would only be accepted if it meant the end of the YPG's control in Afrin. Not long after, statements out of Ankara took a more aggressive tone.
That Turkey would welcome the Syrian regime's control of Afrin is indubitable. Officials have hinted at it and previously welcomed such a scenario in places like Manbij and Deir Ezzor. So what caused the escalation from a cautious and conditional welcome, to unequivocal rejection, to Turkish strikes against pro-regime militias approaching Afrin? Based on sources familiar with the process, the circumstances surrounding the episode can be best understood as follows.
Both Russia and Turkey wanted the YPG to cede control of Afrin. The regime originally also wanted a deal with the YPG modelled on the “reconciliation” deals that Damascus struck with various rebel towns over the course of the conflict, including the handover of heavy weaponry, with the ability of surrendered militias to police their areas using light arms and to man their own checkpoints. The YPG had consistently rejected any deal that would allow regime forces to meaningfully control the town.
The deal reached between the YPG and Damascus achieved absolutely nothing of the outcome that Turkey had envisioned and anticipated. The plan simply meant that government-aligned “popular forces” would join YPG fighters in manning Kurdish checkpoints. At the same time, Turkey has not yet completed the establishment of the security belt near Afrin. Consequently, Turkey naturally rejected the lopsided arrangement that would achieve none of its objectives.
The only perplexing question is why Damascus would opt for such a deal. After all, the compromise that Russia and Turkey wanted would equally benefit the regime, since it would enable it to control a strategic town well-positioned near rebel strongholds. Under the current deal, the pro-regime militias would essentially serve as an auxiliary to the YPG, not the other way around, hardly a compromise by the Kurds. The YPG-Russia negotiations, on the other hand, included a plan to allow a more meaningful army presence inside Afrin with the possibility of establishing joint regime-Turkish border outposts near Turkey.
One possible explanation, offered by a Syrian source familiar with the negotiations, is that the entry of the militias was only the first stage of the regime’s incrementally growing presence in Afrin, to be achieved on the regime’s terms rather than as part of a Russia-sponsored deal that would allow Turkey to maintain the gains achieved over the past month. Despite Russia’s approval of the Turkish intervention in the north, the regime views Turkey as an invader and the Afrin operation further outraged the regime’s base. The disruptive motive by the regime is a possible explanation but this aspect remains an open question.
Aside from the regime’s reasoning, Turkey’s calculations are less ambiguous. Its escalation of the campaign in Afrin will likely continue until the YPG’s control of the city is checked and its borders are secured. Such a scenario was pursued before the Afrin assault, through a Russian proposal for the YPG to allow the regime to take over the city. Any deal that does not meet the two conditions will likely be rejected by Ankara.
For Turkey, merely a month into the Afrin operation, it is too early to accept a deal that only strengthens the YPG in the city. In this, it has Russia on its side. Similarly, the US has begun to take Turkish interests more seriously.
Taken together, Turkey is getting closer to achieving what it long failed to achieve through diplomacy in Washington and it is difficult to see why it would now accept anything less than a deal that sustainably disrupts the YPG’s project near its borders.