All of this plays well domestically for the Turkish government. Where Turkey′s past incursion into Syria (Operation Euphrates Shield around Jarablus in August 2016) was presented as an anti-IS campaign, the incursion in Afrin is seen by nationalist Turks as open war with the PKK, which the Turkish state has been fighting in its brutal campaign within Turkey′s Kurdish province for decades. For added benefit, the Syrian Kurdish forces are painted by the Turkish government as proxies of the reviled United States.

Turkey′s ultimate objectives are, however, ambiguous. According to Turkish government officials, the goal is the establishment of a 30 kilometre buffer zone along its southern border as a bulwark against ″terrorism″ (no such buffer was sought when either al-Qaida or IS were embedded on the same border).

″The military operation in Afrin aims to liberate the area by eliminating the PKK-YPG-linked administration, which has been repressing the local population,″ one Turkish official said. This is bluster, whatever Turkey intends for Afrin, democracy has little to do with it.

Syrians mourn civilians and military personnel in Afrin, 25.01.2018 (photo: Getty Images/AFP/G. Ourfalian)
Despite claims by the U.S. Pentagon that it is ″unaware″ of civilian casualties, there are indications that the death toll among the population is rising. Kurdish leaders have appealed to the other world powers involved in the Syrian conflict to protect Afrin′s more than 320,000 residents. But the United States, relying heavily on an alliance led by the YPG to fight IS on the ground in eastern Syria, has only urged its NATO ally to "de-escalate, limit its military actions and avoid civilian casualties"

The most densely populated Kurdish region

Entering Afrin city itself, which is majority Kurdish, would be difficult for the Turkish forces. The PYD/YPG enjoy considerable support within Afrin, which is the most densely populated Kurdish region of Syria.

Turkey may look instead to seize the handful of primarily Arab towns around Afrin, including Tel Rifaat and then beseige Afrin in an attempt to force the PYD/YPG into a negotiated withdrawal. In addition, Turkey may try to open a small corridor east to connect the current incursion with the Euphrates Shield operation around Jarablus.

Counter-intuitively, Turkey may even look to force a deal with Russia and the Syrian government in which the PYD/YPG cede control of the city to the Assad regime. Given Turkey′s open intention to make a second, similar advance towards the city of Manbij, a quick win in Afrin along those lines would still be counted a strategic victory.

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