The Kurdish quagmire
Turkey′s military incursion into the Kurdish-controlled northern Syrian canton of Afrin – launched on 20 January under the slighting codename Operation Olive Branch – ought to have taken no-one by surprise. While the bungled announcement of United States plans to incorporate the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in a 30,000 Syrian strong border force appears to be the temporary justification, the attack was long in the making: the Turkish government had been openly threatening military action in Afrin for more than a year.
The Turkish army (equipped with German Leopard 2A tanks) has advanced into Syria from five incursion points in the Turkish provinces of Kilis and Hatay under cover provided by the Turkish Air Force and artillery. While the reported number of so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters accompanying the Turkish army has been exaggerated, more than 3000 Syrian rebel militiamen are with the ranks as front-line soldiers.
These militias are essentially Turkish proxies used entirely in the service of Turkey′s goals. The fighters themselves are motivated primarily by the desire for revenge on the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing the People′s Protection Units (YPG) whom they despise.
Thus far the PYD/YPG – which Turkey correctly claims is merely the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers′ Party (PKK) – has mostly avoided meeting the Turkish force in the open and has instead chosen tactical retreat and ambush over engagement. Nonetheless, as the Turkish force advances and with the positions of the international powers muddled, the risk of greater conflict and bloodshed is considerable.
What is Turkey up to?
Turkey′s interests are clear. The incursion into Afrin canton allows Turkey to strike at valuable PKK strongholds close to the Turkish border, damage the strength of the Kurdish polity in northern Syria and thereby attempt to destroy the possibility of a Syrian Kurdish quasi-state emerging on its souther border in the aftermath of the war.