Turkey is losing in Afrin, this is a certainty. It is losing both at the military and the political levels against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which is made up of a majority of Kurds with Arab and Christian elements. One might doubt this assessment, faced as they are by an army superior in numbers and in equipment, with a considerable advantage in the air and in technology. Launched from a country where there is no more opposition, where every contradictory voice is purged, even from the army. The great danger in this situation is Turkish President Erdogan’s headlong rush forward that risks pushing him to extreme measures.
A recap on events
Urgency forces us to sacrifice the depth in our analyses of the balance of power between the opposing forces. The propaganda machine is at work. Information and disinformation are the essential stakes to win the war in people’s minds. The Turkish state is masterful at passing off its defeats as victories. If you listen to Erdogan, the Turkish army is at the doors of Afrin. Morale is an essential element in combat and in the upcoming mobilizations. Public messages must be simple in order to be undersood. But in a global analysis, there is need to take some distance and look at issues in a more complex manner.
What are the conditions under which Erdogan has launched his offensive on Afrin?
First of all, this intervention is poorly perceived by many actors on the international level. Not that the great powers feel compassion for the Kurds but, for the majority of them, the offensive does not serve their interests.
There is a clear lack of condemnation but official support for the intervention is also lacking. Which gives rise to calls for “restraint”. Thus, there is no clear support but rather a complicit silence.
The United States let the matter proceed but they are embarrassed by an attack against military forces they hope will be their best allies in Syria against Iran, after the downfall of ISIS.
Germany has suspended arms deliveries to Turkey, embarrassed by the use of its latest generation tanks in the operation.
In France, the foreign affairs minister, Mr. Le Drian, called for a meeting of the UN’s Security Council following the Turkish invasion of Afrin, before lowering his voice following a meeting with the Turkish ambassador to France. The minister of the armies, Florence Parly, clearly called on Turkey to cease the fighting explaining this was harming the fight against ISIS, shortly before President Macron championed Turkey in an interview in Le Figaro, calling France’s allies, the FDS, armed by France, “potential terrorists”. Within the presidential majority, deputy Paul Molac called the government himself on this question, leading to the perception that Emmanuel Macron’s position does not have the support of large segments of his majority.
This matches up with public opinions that are largely favorable to the Kurds and where the Islamist Erdogan is strongly detested, as demonstrated by the stances in several media. Among the great Western powers, only Great Britain has shown itself openly favorable to the Turkish invasion.
The often contradictory reactions of Western states can be explained by a few key elements.
The fear that Erdogan send masses of refugees into Europe is one of them. The European states also fear infiltration by Jihadists committing deadly attacks and ruining the tourist industry, as was the case on November 13.
The economic stakes play an important role, notably with the construction of the “Turkish Stream” pipeline, the construction of which would start in Russia, then passing through Turkey, thus bypassing politically unstable Eastern European countries. Of course, Turkey is a member of NATO and the Western States fear its closer ties with Russia. This pressure policy was used with the Soviets before, by Mustapha Kemal in his day.
And yet, the SDF insure the safety of both the Western people and states by fighting ISIS and Jihadists efficiently. What’s more, this is also a means through which Western powers can return to a territory from which they were almost absent for decades: Syria. It is a territory rich in agricultural and oil resources, occupying a choice geostrategical position at the very heart of the Middle-East. Contrary to Turkey, it is a reliable partner. For the Turkish State armed the Jihadists of Al-Qaeda and of ISIS. These last expelled a good part of the pro-Western rebels from the Syrian Revolutionary Front, in the north of the country, forcing the big Western powers to rely on the SDF in their fight against the Jihadists. One might as well say that several Western States no longer trust Turkey who does not keep its commitments and does not hesitate to betray its allies. This explains the hesitations, in particular those of France who will not be able to straddle the fence indefinitely.
Russia is playing its game with finesse. It is at the origin of the green light given to the invasion in the framework of a partition of Syria between the Turkey-Jihadist group and the Iran-Russia- Syrian regime axis, for Russia is the one who controls the air space. For Russia, this is a way of putting pressure on the Kurds it would like to see fall into its lap as a way to spite the United States. At the same time, this allows it to ask for greater shares of territory from Turkey in Syria, in exchange for its laisser-faire in Afrin. It also distances Turkey from NATO more and more. Russia will be in a position to negotiate with two adversaries-partners weakened by combat. On the diplomatic front, this appears like a winning draw for the Russian. At least, almost, as we shall see later.
Among the regional powers, several made noises against the intervention, Egypt first, then Irak, but the most important position against the intervention was that of Iran. Indeed, seeing its main military competitor in the Middle East carving out shares from his Syrian vassal does not agree with the Iranian agenda. Iran is against the intervention despite its openly hostile policy toward Rojava and the SDF. Visibly, Iran fears Turkey much more than it fears the SDF. Iran is said to have let Turkish army convoys be bombarded as they took position in the Idlib region. The Syrian regime has also condemned the intervention even if, just like Iran, it has not instigated a large scale military reaction against the Turkish invasion.
The domestic situation is far from stabilized for Erdogan. From an economic viewpoint, the Turkish lira is in a free fall and inflation has exploded. From a political perspective, having stripped bare the HDP, the third opposition force (pro-Kurdish) of its elected members and militants, the great majority of which are now locked into its gaols, it has begun the dangerous task of dismantling the CHP, the second opposition force, of Kemalist persuasion and much better implanted in the country than the HDP (to the repression of which the CHP participated). In this context, a war is the perfect way to trigger a fresh wave of purges against “enemies of the interior”, and close ranks.
The date for the launching of the invasion was carefully chosen with this perspective in mind: January 20 is deep in wintertime. Snow and glaciers on the mountains keep the PKK guerilla from carrying large offensive manoeuvers against the Turkish army (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party plays a major role in the training of the SDF).
The Turkish army itself is in great difficulty and not much inclined to invading Syrian territory. Since the purges, its hierarchy has been stripped of many competent officers, notably in the Air force from which most of the trained pilots were removed. Moreover, prior to the purges, the former Chief of Staff of the Turkish army, General Necdet Özel had declared during the summer of 2015, concerning a possible Turkish intervention in Syria: “Entering, that’s easy, but how do we come back out again?” This shows that the decision to invade Afrin may not be all that unanimous in the army.
The malaise is that much greater given that the “Euphrates Shield” operation in the summer of 2016 was marred by incidents. The operation aimed at preventing the junction of the Kurdish cantons of Afrin and Kobane in the framework of a Putin-Erdogan agreement, in which the latter would cede Aleppo in exchange for the entry of the Turkish army in Syria. At first, ISIS ceded ground without major incidents until the town of Al Bab was reached and transformed into a cemetery of armored cars, Turkish soldiers and Jihadist combatants following a decision by ISIS to keep the town, probably in order to negotiate better agreements with Turkey. During this operation, the Jihadist mercenaries (translation: the Free Syrian Army) at the service of Turkey demonstrated very poor efficiency against ISIS, despite its being already greatly enfeebled. Turkish officers resigned or put themselves on prolonged sick leave. Morale was poor and the losses, heavy. This was a direct result of the disorganization caused to the Turkish army by the purges, and of the incompetency of its auxiliaries.
Poorly motivated officers, a demoralized army, a vast quantity of material destroyed, unreliable Jihadist auxiliaries, fragile international agreements and an isolated Turkey, a country on the brink of a financial precipice and to top it off: weakened intelligence services.
Indeed, last summer, the PKK captured the director of national and international human resources of the MIT (Turkish secret services) and the man in charge of the fight against the separatists, meaning against the PKK and Kurds in general. The two “guests” began to talk in front of the camera on the ties between Turkey and ISIS. But they also started to talk about the MIT’s inner organization, which then had to urgently reorganize all its cells.
Which is the same as saying that the intelligence preceding the intervention in Afrin must have been of poor quality and as the Chinese war theoretician Sun Tzu said: “An army without spies is like a body without eyes and without ears.”
Also of poor quality were the rockets launched by the MIT against the Turkish town of Kilis in order to justify the intervention against the region of Afrin. Said rockets did not have a range sufficient to reach the targeted town from the SDF’s positions. The director of the MIT had mentioned such practices in 2014, speaking of sending men to throw rockets at Turkish towns in order to justify an intervention in Syria. Because of its largely nationalistic population, Turkish society has reunited in the face of a Kurdish domestic and exterior enemy, but how long will this last? How many coffins will it accept?
Now on the Afrin side, the interior situation is much more enviable. Afrin and Rojava are both largely pacified areas. Institutions set up since July 2012 are proving relatively efficient in an extremely chaotic environment.
Elections were organized, end of 2017. Approximately 70% of the electorate participated. It gave a very strong majority to the PYD (Democratic Union Party, a Syrian brother party to the PKK) and to its partners despite the civil war, the shortages and the international pressure.
Since 2012, the YPG (People’s Defence militias, main force in the SDF) and now the whole coalition within the SDF have been considerably reinforced in weapons, combatants and know-how. The SDF control a territory ringfenced by the United States against the regime and against Turkey, with the exception of Afrin and of the Kurdish quarter of Sheikh Maqsud in Aleppo.
The fight against ISIS has partially pulled Rojava out of the international isolation in which it found itself prior to the battle and the recapture of Kobané. Moreover, the terrain of wooded mountains in Afrin is perfectly adapted to defensive manoeuvers against mechanized attacking forces.
Advancing on Afrin implies passing through valleys crossing the mountains. Mechanized forces can only progress with difficulty in the heights, rendering all progression very perilous. It is very easy for the light infantry units to move through the mountains in order to harass the enemy’s flanks engulfed in the valley. Taking the mountains appears very complicated for the Turkish army who would need adapted infantry forces, good knowledge of the terrain and good preparation. Three elements the Turkish forces will have trouble combining. Not simplifying matters, over the past six years, the SDF have fortified the zone, creating a defensive network of trenches, tunnels and bunkers in the most strategic spots. Thus, the SDF have the advantage in launching assaults against the lowlands from their fortified positions and capturing their enemy in a pincer movement. Videos showing the destruction of tanks give testimony to this, often showing the guided missiles launched by the SDF touching the flanks or the rear of the tank.
The PYD has managed to put in place a system of mass mobilization, as verified in the enormous demonstrations across Rojava and in Afrin in particular, despite the threat of bombings. Rojava can mobilize vast sections of its population for battle. We must never forget that this is a people in revolution. In the heat of the revolution the (French) Jacobins had managed to turn around a desperate sitation thanks to a massive popular mobilization. The same holds true in many historical examples such as that of the Bolcheviks during the Russian civil war. Another important factor: the Syrian regime, probably in accord with Iran and Russia, allows combatants and weapons to pass through its territory, making of Afrin an supplied area that is not under siege. Videos showing combatants leaving from Kobané all the way to Afrin testify to the fact the road is open and barely masked. Moreover, the supply routes crossing through the regime’s territory on the way to Afrin do not appear to be bombarded, the Russians having probably forbidden fly-overs by Turkish planes in this zone, making the situation still more delicate for Turkey, potentially facing all the forces of Rojava.
As a final element, and perhaps the most imortant, the determination can be understood given the stakes this confrontation represents for both forces. For the Kurds in Afrin, resisting the invasion is a question of survival. If the Turkish army and the Jihadist mercenaries reach Afrin, the Kurds will lose everything. They will lose their lives, their families, their belongings. Whereas the Jihadist mercenaries are paid a few hundred dollars per month and have nothing but meager perspectives of looting, the Turkish soldiers are galvanized by speeches of a nationalistic and conquering Islam. But what can they really gain in this offensive apart from blood and tears? The Kurds have much deeper motivations in defending their land. In the same vein, the society of Rojava applying the paradigm of democratic confederalism, in losing their land they would also lose their life system and their belief in a democracy to which they are deeply attached. The thought of falling under a colonial tutelage again is unacceptable to them. On this basis, the Kurdish combatants are largely accustomed to the idea of dying as martyrs for their people.
So of course, what can determination achieve against an unfurling wave of tanks, mercenaries and planes? The Vietnamese general Giap had already answered this question when, in his day, he participated in the defeat of the United States and of France. The author of these lignes had announced a breach toward victory in Kobané, in October 2014, during the darker hours of the battle and the quotation evoked at the time has not aged at all. It stands as a reminder of General Giap’s words:
« Man’s spirit is stronger than his own machines…It will be a war between a tiger and an elephant. If ever the tiger stops, the elephant will pierce him with his powerful tusks. Except the tiger will not stop. It will hide in the jungle during the day only to come out at night. It will pounce on the elephant and rip his back into great shreds then it will disappear again in the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will die of exhaustion and haemorhage. This is how the war will be in Indochina.”
Evolutions in the course of operations
Now that we know our starting point, we can add that numerous twists have occurred in the course of the operation. The most visible is the image given off by this invasion. Indeed, the Turkish President does not have a good press in international public opinions, the Islmaists on which he relies even less so, whereas the SDF have a positive image since they vanquished ISIS in Raqqa and in Kobané. The Turkish state and the Jihadists contribute to the deepening of this gap. The Turkish bombings have already caused many dead and wounded (in less than 3 weeks of interventions, more than 150 dead and 330 wounded when these lines were written). Images of children’s bodies, torn and mangled by the bombs reinforce the antipathy against the Erdogan regime. The Turkish army has targeted several Arab refugee camps, bombing them while officially intervening in order to “hand the region back to his legitimate owners”, which is to say the Arabs. Still in this same vein, declarations aiming at ethnic cleansing against the Kurds don’t improve the image of an inopportune and unjustifiable invasion in the eyes of international law, neither Afrin nor Rojava having ever threatened or attacked Turkey.
Added to this are the horrors broadcast by the Jihadists and the Turkish army themselves. Torture of aged villagers, beatings on war prisoners, use of chemical weapons (confirmed by the SOHR, the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights), threats of extermination against the Kurds of Afrin. Everything is on display, even veering to the ridiculous as when several Jihadists are filmed stealing chickens and pigeons from Kurdish peasants, to the cry of “Allah Akbar” (God is great). On social networks, some took hold of the affair, using the flag of the SLA but replacing the red stars by chickens.
On a more dramatic note, the intervention took a particularly terrifying turn after Jihadists themselves showed the video of their actions on the body of of Barîn Kobané. This woman, a Kurdish combatant victim of feminicide, died fighting against the Turkish State and its mercenaries. When her body fell between their hands, they undressed it, disemboweled it and cut off the breasts. During the video, a Jihadist plays at touching the bits of flesh left where her breasts were. These actions are a crime against all women and a threat clearly adressed to them. This video shocked well beyond the Kurdish community as can be seen by the tribune in Le Figaro denouncing it, as well as the numerous press articles. But perhaps most revealing of the malaise was the reaction of Turkish partisans themselves. Romain Caillet, familiar with the Jihadist sphere for having once belonged to it, recently improvised himself as a spokesman for Turkey. He intervened in several tweets, claiming a kamikaze group had done this to the body and denying the violence of the Jihadists (he prefers to call them ‘Sunnis’). Yet, the SLA had already declared it was investigating the event, acknowledging its veracity. What is most sinister about this may be how it brings to light what the Islamists have been doing since the beginning of the war in Syria. It reveals a profondly brutal and reactionary mentality. These images, shared by the Jihadists themselves, demonstrated their feeling of total impunity.
The campaign has also given rise to a major incident with Russia, one of its fighter-bombers being brought down by Syrian Islamists supported by Turkey. The pilot is dead. Russia’s first measure of retorsion was to close off the air space to Turkish planes. Taking advantage of this respite, the SDF fighters counter-attacked and took back positions held by the Turkish army. In this context, they captured an ACV-15 armored vehicle. In parallel, the Syrian regime attempted an assult on SDF positions. The United States, whose support for the SDF had been put in doubt by the latest events, stepped up to the plate and are said to have killed 100 of the regime’s fighters. A few hours later, Turkish bombings started again with a vengeance against the SDF positions, after Russia re-opened the air space. But this reveals the American strategy since the beginning of the civil war in Syria. The United States want to push the SDF and the Bachar el Assad regime into a direct confrontation. This intervention occurred when the Turkish planes had stopped their bombing. It is far from the first incursion of the regime into the Kurdish zone and reactions are usually more moderate, which indicates an intention to pass on a message. The United States, in bombing with the consequences that followed, which is to say the renewal of Turkish bombings, are telling the SDF: we will protect you against the Turks if you fight Iran’s indebted one, Bachar El Assad. If you refuse, we will send the Turks after you.
Operations on the ground have trouble advancing. More serious yet, positions acquired in the day are taken back by the SDF during the night. At best, the Turkish army has penetrated 5 km into the front lines. Following the re-opening of the air space, two Turkish helicopters were downed and Turkey is acknowledging more losses. Tensions are appearing between the Jihadist auxiliaries and the Turkish army sending them massively on to their deaths. As announced, the valleys of Afrin have become deadly traps for the Turkish army and its auxiliaries. Murat Karayilan, commander of the PKK, declared Afrin’s defending forces should let Turkey enter in order to crush it. Many tanks have been pulverized, notably a Leopard tank 2, famed for its resistance, which was blown apart by the antitank missile of the Kurdish women’s militia, the YPJ.
All this to say the operation risks being long and murderous. As more time goes by, this intervention will rot and reveal the hideous face of contemporary Turkey and its auxiliaries.
A few hypotheses
The intervention may end in one of several ways, including of course a Turkish victory and its disastrous consequences, but recent events do not suggest such a scenario. Turkey could also become bogged down and establish a status quo on any of its advances. One or several great powers might use their positions to stop the invasion and declare a no-fly zone if it is in their interest to defend Rojava and/or if public opinions mobilize against the intervention. The third option being that, following a murderous war, the Turkish troops are pushed back with the possibility of attempting the junction of the cantons of Afrin and of Kobané in the face of weakened Jihadist auxiliaries. Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s founder, jailed in Turkey since 1999, had said that the day Turkey would attack Rojava would see the end of Erdogan. In this perspective, the YPG’s spokesman declared that the liberation of Azaz, Jarablus and Al-Bab had arrived (towns located between Kobané and Afrin that would serve to link the cantons) as he had also announced for Raqqa during the battle of Kobané.
The Iran-Russia-Syrian regime axis is taking advantage of the situation to occupy important segments of territory in the Islamist rebellion zones of Ghouta and Idlib. The Jihadists being mobilized on the other front, these territories become easier to seize.
The most uncertain scenario in all this remaining Turkey itself. How will the population react to an invasion costly in human and material terms? How will people react to the coffins coming home? How will the army react if pushed to the limit? Will dismantling the CHP be as easy as Erdogan wishes? Will the new dissident leader of the Grey Wolves (one of the main extreme Turkish right wing movements), Meral Aksener known as the she-wolf, take advantage of Erdogan’s difficulties in Syria? Once the snow melts, will the army be in a position to both attack Afrin and fight the guerilla? Erdogan has no choice, he must push forward in order to impose his dictatorship. He cannot allow himself a defeat and therein lies the problem. He has passed the point of no return and cannot back down. War and generalized repression are his only means of staying in power. This is the most troubling part, an all-or-nothing for the dictator. Erdogan knows what happened to the last Islamist in power in Turkey who wanted to invade Syria in the early sixties. He was hung.
This situation could push him into extreme measures, as was the case for the Ottoman empire with the Armenian genocide. This genocide occurred in the context of the Ottomans’ defeat and faced with an Armenian population spread out over several frontiers, as is the case for the Kurds. Concern is great, given the many parallels between the two situations, with a Turkey sinking into decay and Kurdish massacres on a background of neo-Ottomanism. To the Turkish power’s virulent nationalism is added a poisonous islamism. The Kurds are now the ones who have become infidels and enemies within. The silence maintained by Western powers while Kurdish towns were razed in Turkey speaks volumes on the risk to these populations.
The greatest danger is not in the military defeat itself but in the lunge forward by the Turkish president at a pivotal point in the history of the Middle-East. This is why a mobilization by public opinion is more necessary than ever and why this invasion must urgently be stopped, as must be the one who launched it.