The Syrian War: Afrin encircled

On the fifty-third day of its offensive into the Afrin canton, Turkish forces inside Syria completed their encirclement of Afrin. According to Euro News, ninety villages including Afrin have been surrounded and the YPG alongside innocent men, women and children now face siege by the Turkish military and the coalition of rebels it supports. 

States of siege in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond  are not a new phenomenon in the Middle Eastern Wars. Brutal, condensed street-fighting, starvation, suicide bombs and airstrikes have been defining features of combat in high-profile battles in the Middle East, including Mosul, Falluja, Gaza, Tikrit, Ramadi, Homs, Raqqa, Kobani, Deir Ez-Zor, Madaya, Yarmouk, and, perhaps most notoriously, Aleppo. Afrin, Idlib and Eastern Ghouta's suburbs and streets are sure to be the next in line to be reduced to rubble, and its populations to suffer immeasurably. 

As fighting rages in the lush olive green landscape of Afrin canton, there are multiple fears about what could happen next for the town and, indeed, the rest of Syria. Speaking to The Independent, a Kurdish official, Aldar Khalil, co-chair of the Movement for a Democratic Society, the Syrian-Kurdish dominated organisation, has predicted that the Syrian War could be enlongated by a further four years because of Turkey's latest incursion into the country. Where there is a depressing sense of inevitability about the situation in Eastern Ghouta, the suburb under heavy attack by President Al-Asad, the situation in the Afrin canton has added to the contradictions and confusion of the civil war and fuelled more rumors about atrocities committed by all sides involved in the propaganda war. It is not only President Al-Asad, Daesh, and the vicious actions of various Alawite, Sunni and Shi'a paramilitary forces which have changed the demographic layout of the country through ethnic and sectarian violence. Both the YPG and Turkish-backed forces have been accused of committing war crimes including ethnic cleansing. 

Kurdish military wings in Iraq and Syria have been accused of demolishing Arab homes and displacing Arab populations by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and have often  forbad the men, women and children displaced from certain territories from returning under the rubric of conducting counter-terrorism operations against Daesh terror cells. Meanwhile, jihadist cells affiliated with Turkey have conducted multiple war crimes, executing and torturing POWs and Turkish airstrikes have killed civilians on many occasions in Operation Olive Branch alone. The ability of these different factions to commit such acts with impunity are a toxic consequence of the international community's inability if not lack of will to end the modern Thirty Years' War and the human rights violations of all sides have gravely undermined the credibility of the United Nations. Regional power politics have changed the dynamics of the Syrian War and the pursuit of their own interests, their own agenda and narrow national security interests have turned Syria's civil war into a complex regional conflict. 

With President Al-Asad loyalists, Iranian sponsored militias and President Putin's shadow army mopping up pockets of resistance across the country, including the bloody assault on Eastern Ghouta and Idlib, Syria's regime has already began to turn its attention to the north to Turkey and the east where American forces are precariously perched. Syrian loyalists have already clashed with the Turkish military in Afrin's canton and formed an alliance of convenience with the YPG who have requested assistance from regime forces as Operation Olive Branch gained momentum in late January and early February.  

Turkey's military operation has not come without cost. The efforts of Recip Erdogan's government to dislodge the YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces from Syria has led it into direct conflict with Al-Asad's government, soured relations further between Turkey and the West - particularly the United States and put Turkish soldiers and civilians at risk without any clear cut gains. The assault on Afrin, alongside pushing deeper into Syria will also put Turkey in the sights of Salafi and Wahabbi jihadists and foreign fighters who are not aligned with the country' geo-political ambitions.

Official statistics show over one-hundred and fifty members of Turkey's armed forces have been killed in fighting in Syria. Six times as many soldiers have been killed who are fighting in TFSA (Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army). Since the founding of the "Free Syrian Army" in 2012, Turkey has been training dissidents within its borders under the supervision of Turkish military intelligence. Most opposition forces inside Syria now carry a "Free Army" logo. However, the term has become an umbrella for a range of different forces with different objectives and ideologies. In its assault on Afrin, astutely noted by analyst Shiraz Maher in The NewStatesman, the international media was quick to identify that "Turkish forces were giving an armed escort into rebel territory by fighters from Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist umbrella movement that contains - at least in part - some remnants of Al-Qa'ida." More disturbingly, Syrian militiamen leading the Turkish attack on Afrin in northern Syria, and bearing the insignia of the Free Syrian Army were threatening to massacre its Kurdish population on live video 'unless they convert to the variant of Islam espoused by Isis and al-Qa'ida. In the past such demands have preceded the mass killings of sectarian and ethnic minorities in both Syria and Iraq.' As Patrick Cockburn describes, 'a militia fighter flanked by others describes the Kurds as “infidels” and issues a stark warning, saying "by Allah, if you repent and come back to Allah, then know that you are our brothers. But if you refuse, then we see that your heads are ripe, and that it's time for us to pluck them." Though the Kurds in Afrin are Sunni Muslims, Isis and al-Qaeda traditionally punish those who fail to subscribe to their beliefs as heretics deserving death.'

These threats - similar to that of Daesh - have been meted out on victims before by Turkish proxies, including an awful video showing members of the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement cutting of the head of  Palestinian boy, Al Issa, in the city of Aleppo. The group was also accused by Amnesty International of torturing journalists and humanitarians and throwing people from buildings in rebel-held Aleppo. As with the horrific conduct of Nour al-Din al-Zenki and affiliated jihadist groups since the conflict began, the fears of Turkey's paramilitary groups within the TFSA encircling Afrin are credible, the threat must be taken with absolute seriousness, and this threat must be acted upon with urgency to avoid more war crimes being committed.  

The implications, short-term and long-term, of Turkey, a member of NATO and the pivot towards both Europe and Middle East has sponsored, and still is, supporting extremists since the war began cannot be ignored. Any hopes that Syria's revolutionaries can build the capacity to develop a strong civil society and achieve a democratic process without President Al-Asad will fail not only when his Syrian Arab Army is slaughtering activists, but also when regional allies use volatile proxies to accomplish their goals in the war. 

Furthermore, more radical elements of the Kurdish forces and factions may consider targeting Turkey at home and abroad in an attempt to draw attention to the plight of the Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Turkey. This could put Western civilians and soldiers at risk as Western states' intelligence and security networks fight to contain attacks from Shi'a and Sunni sponsored terror. Kurdish acts of terror are a potential threat to Western interests in the short-term and the long-term if the Kurdish conflict remains unaddressed. The alignment of the YPG, for now, with Al-Asad loyalists and those disgruntled and angered at the United States' inaction in Syria could do bad damage to relations between Kurdish communities in the region and the Kurdish diaspora across the world. 

Turkey's actions in Syria are becoming clearer with each passing year. In Ankara, suicide bombers hit a lunchtime peace rally, killing over one-hundred people. This attack was claimed by Daesh. In January, 2016, a suicide bomber blew himself up and killed ten tourists in an attack on Istanbul's central historic district. In February, 2016, a blast in Ankara hit a convoy of buses filled with soldiers at a traffic light, killing twenty-eight and wounding more sixty others. A car rigged with explosives by a Kurdish militant group blew up in a public square in Ankara, killing more than thirty a month later. This was then swiftly followed by an attack by Daesh days later as a suicide bomber struck a main avenue in Istanbul killing eleven and wounding dozens more. At Istanbul airport three suicide bombers killed forty-five people and wounded even more. In August, 2016, fifty-seven civilians were killed at a wedding in Gaziantep in southern Turkey. 34 of the dead were reportedly under 18. In December 2016, a further thirty-eight were massacred by another double-bombing at a football stadium and one-hundred and thirty eight were wounded. The turmoil of 2016 was compounded by the assassination of Russia's ambassador to Turkey on live television at an art exhibit in Ankara and a devastating New Year's Eve attack on an Istanbul nightclub which left thirty-nine dead in the early hours of 2017.  

As with Pakistan's support for the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and the contradictory relations the Pakistani military and intelligence has had with the tribal areas linking Pakistan and Afghanistan, the result of Turkish support for extremist groups fighting in Syria has had dreadful repercussions within Turkey. The renewal of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and the current trajectory of Turkey's domestic politics, alongside its current foreign policy in Syria guarantees this cycle of violence in Syria will worsen Turkey's political crisis and worsen its security crisis along its border which by attacking the YPG, it hopes to resolve while increasing its influence as a regional power. It has failed in both endeavours.  

Turkey's war in Syria could easily become what Iraq was to the United States, what Lebanon was to Israel and what Yemen became for the Egyptians and the Saudis; a Middle Eastern Vietnam where criticism is fierce at home, foreign adventure undermines the military and the conflict tears at the country's social fabric. More dangerously,  by creating chaos in northern Syria, Turkish forces, through a combination of tacit support and military activity, is resuscitating Daesh and other jihadist cells operating in northern Syria. As with Saudi Arabia's actions in Yemen on the Arabian peninsula where millions face starvation and bombing, the Western powers must heavily scrutinise the Turkish assault in northern Syria lest more massacres - alongside those of President Al-Asad - are committed in a vacuum of impunity. The cost for Syria, the wider region and the West, will be too high if the conflict's current course is not corrected. 

Matthew C.K Williams