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After My Recent Trip to Syria, I Knew Afrin's Fall Was Inevitable
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The fall of Afrin city to the Turkish army and Syrian rebel forces was inevitable, but the situation remains full of dangers. A central question now is whether or not the takeover of this Kurdish enclave will lead to the ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish majority there.

The first act of the fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, an overwhelmingly Arab force, was to bulldoze the statue of a Kurdish mythological hero in the centre of Afrin. Videos taken by FSA fighters suggest that many are former Isis or al-Qaeda fighters who see the Kurds and non-Muslim minorities as enemies to be expelled or eradicated.

Some 200,000 Kurds have fled from Afrin over the past few days, many suspecting that they will never be permitted to return. If they are right, they will join the six million Syrians displaced since 2011 and a similar number who have become refugees outside the country. Given that the Syrian population in that year was about 23 million people, more than half have lost their homes in seven years of violence.

Afrin was easy pickings for Turkey: it is on the Turkish border and cut off from the main body of Kurdish-held territory east of the Euphrates. The only supply route south to Aleppo was controlled by the Syrian army, which would allow civilians to pass but not arms and ammunition. YPG commanders said that they had 10,000 men in the enclave, but there was never much sign of their presence. The FSA says it was able to enter the city without resistance from three directions on Sunday morning, though another report claims that some fighting is still going on.

The commanders of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) were evidently convinced that Afrin was indefensible and pulled out because they had no alternative. If this was the case, then they were wise not to fight to the finish in a battle they were bound to lose with heavy loss of life.

The outcome of the struggle for Afrin was evident from the moment the Turkish invasion began on 20 January. The occasion of it was a provocative statement by the then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that US forces were going to stay in Syria, thereby guaranteeing the security of the de facto Kurdish state created by the YPG-US military alliance against Isis. By the time Isis was defeated when Raqqa fell last October, the Kurds had gained control of about a quarter of Syrian territory.

Tillerson declared that the US would not only stay in Syria – something it had promised Turkey would not happen once the battle against Isis was won – but would also seek the departure of President Bashar al-Assad from power and the rolling back of Iranian influence. These were ambitious and unrealistic aims, but they were enough to bring Turkey and Russia together.

President Putin withdrew the Russian air umbrella protecting Afrin, enabling the Turkish air force to bomb at will. This was decisive: the YPG are determined and experienced soldiers but they have no air defence or heavy weapons and knew they could not win.


Russia presumably wants to lock the Turks into a permanent conflict with the US as the allies of the Kurds. It will also make Turkey somewhat dependent on Russia since its forces will be carrying out military operations in an area in which Russia is the superior power.

What happens next after the fall of Afrin? The first thing to see is whether it is followed by ethnic cleansing and the “Arabisation” of the enclave. The removal of opposing ethnic or sectarian communities has become a frequent feature of the Syrian civil war.

For the Turks this may have been an easy victory, but it is still a victory. It will make them a more important player in the Syrian crisis, but they could overplay their hand.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is triumphant, maybe too triumphant. He said on Sunday that “in the centre of Afrin, symbols of trust and stability are waving instead of rags of terrorists”. Destruction of Kurdish symbols in the city is not a good sign for the future. Some Syrian Kurdish leaders fear that Erdogan plans to create a Sunni Arab bloc under Turkish control in northern Syria.

A crucial question is where Erdogan goes from here. He may have got Afrin, but the main Syrian Kurdish zone stretches from the Arab city of Manbij, just west of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border, is still where it was. Here, unlike Afrin, the Kurdish and Kurdish-linked forces are under US protection. Very visible patrols of US armoured vehicles patrol the front line around Manbij. It will also be easier for the YPG to fight close to their main territorial bases.

The Kurds fear the US might abandon them, but purely from the point of view of US interests, the US needs an allied ground force in Syria if it is to remain a power there and the only candidates are the Kurds. “If the US abandons the Kurds, then it will have to leave Syria,” said one Kurdish leader. US commitment may ebb, but it has not happened yet. If Erdogan wants to move against the main Kurdish enclave in Syria, he will have to bide his time.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Kurds, Syria, Turkey 
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  1. After My Recent Trip to Syria, I Knew Afrin’s Fall Was Inevitable

    But, Paddy, we thought you lived there permanently. All those “first hand” accounts of life in Aleppo, Raqqa et al weren’t first hand at all. In reality, you occasionally jet in to some American-backed enclave, take a few interviews, and then it’s back to the farmhouse in Ireland. Very disappointing,

  2. “If the US abandons the Kurds, then it will have to leave Syria,” said one Kurdish leader.

    Am I supposed to think this is a bad thing?

  3. headrick says:

    Kurds have managed to make an enemy of SAA and Assad now, that Russia is giving nods to
    the use of Turkish air power, and of courseTurkey and FSA hates their guts. All they have is Israel
    and the poodle- USA. They have chosen poorly. The Russians are done backing down to ISIS and the USA/FSA. They will stand and fight, and they will probably control the air over the battlefield.
    So Israel will end up with Assad and Iran, and Russia with their air power right over the Golan soon.
    This is evidence that Israel does not really play 4-D chess too well. They are too sneaky and clever by half, and sometimes such such underhanded skul-duggery ends up badly. All that IAF will have to do is to bomb defenseless Gaza strip.

  4. What made the fall of Afrin inevitable wasn’t the Turkish invasion, but Trump’s decision not to get involved. If he had read the riot act to the Turks, they would have backed off, or risked the loss of their entire invasion force, along with any Turkish aircraft flying in to support them. The Kurds keep pushing their luck, not understanding that Trump is the complete opposite of the pro-Kurd administrations of most of the past 30 years.

    • Replies: @truth hurts
    , @JL
  5. anon • Disclaimer says:

    “..from the point of view of US interests, the US needs an allied ground force in Syria if it is to remain a power there..”

    Pardon me for asking but WHY does the US “need” to either be or remain a “power” in Syria? I don’t see how America, with a sane foreign policy and sans its all powerful corrupt Jewish lobby, has any interests in Syria at all that would require any forces. In reality Syria is no more important to America’s true national interests then it is to Mexico’s or Brazil.

  6. Yevardian says:

    Can we get Robert Fisk’s column here?

  7. @Johann Ricke

    If he had read the riot act to the Turks, they would have backed off …

    And how was he gonna read the riot act? US cannot fly a kite on the western side of Euphrates in Syria. Was he gonna threaten with launching cruise missiles? That is a possibility and something Russia eagerly awaits. Such an attack would hit the final blow to the wedge between US and Turkey. And Russia would get the much needed additional ally. In that case Russia really would not even need Syria anymore. Turkey will give them whatever permanent base they want on the Mediterrenean coast. Actually US has read the riot act multiple times to Turkey (sending 5000 containers of heavy weapons to PKK, staging yet another coup in Turkey, financial sanctions in the making, attacking Turkey through PKK and ISIS proxies etc., ) However directly militarily confronting Turkey would take things to another level, and Russia prays for that.

  8. Randal says:

    If he had read the riot act to the Turks, they would have backed off, or risked the loss of their entire invasion force, along with any Turkish aircraft flying in to support them.

    Truth hurts has it right, above. Do you seriously believe the US could credibly have threatened Turkey with military action over Afrin, and not been openly laughed at?

    Indeed, the interesting question is whether, if and when Turkey goes after Manbij and Kobane as they have stated their intention of doing, the US will be willing to openly attack Turkish forces in even those places. My suspicion is that Turkey intends to go ahead and dare the US to do anything. And further, I think there’s a good chance the US will have more sense than to openly attack Turkish forces.

    None of this should be any surprise to US strategists – the problems they were making for themselves were pointed out when they first started to use the Kurds as their pretext for occupying parts of Syria.

  9. JL says:
    @Johann Ricke

    You do realize, right, that the first two sentences of your comment directly contradict the third, concluding sentence? It sounds like you suffer from serious cognitive dissonance.

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