AFRIN, Syria – Pro-Turkish forces now occupy the town of Jandaris after a day of fierce fighting that saw casualties on both sides. Jandaris is the second largest and most populous town in the canton of Afrin. Only a handful of villages still remain under Kurdish control.
What happened? Not having heavy equipment and artillery for defense, Kurdish formations from the very beginning of operation “Olive branch” could not organize significant resistance to the advancing pro-Turkish forces. Despite the shocking and surprising (especially for Erdogan’s pride) attacks on Turkish positions, in which we saw the destruction a Leopard 2A4, one of the most modern Turkish tanks, and attacks the Turkish military from an elite Kurdish unit, the Kurds quickly lost this Jandaris territory.
Kurdish forces did not prepare standard defenses for the main routes used by the Turkish troops and the insurgent formations that joined them. Instead, they carried guerrilla style attacks on their rear positions, for fear of engaging in major clashes against Turkish backed forces. The situation in Afrin clearly showed the wrongheadedness of the chosen strategy, and the inability of the Kurds to independently organize an effective defense against a numerically superior enemy. Success in the war with ISIS was achieved at the expense of unlimited support of the West as the Kurds were then backed with weapons, ammunition, and instructors. On the battlefield, they were assisted by aviation and foreign special forces.
US made a specific deal with Turkey on this question –
Detachments of the group Jaysh Suvar, part of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDS), had stoped fighting with ISIS in the province of Deir ez Zor and more than 1,000 fighters (numbers from 1200 to 3000 are cited) were sent to the canton of Afrin to help the Kurds and to strengthen their positions in the area of Manbij. According to them, the struggle against Turkey and the pro-Turkish factions is no different from the fight against the ISIS, because between jihadists and Turkish forces for them there is no difference.
Simultaneously, the coalition forces led by United States stated that they will suspend ground operations against the ISIS in the province of Deir ez Zor because of the regrouping of the SDS. Previously, US officials said that if the SDS intervened in Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, they could stop supporting the group.
However, against the so-called “Free Syrian Army” (FSA), which did not have such openly Turkish support in 2014-2016, the Kurds successfully maintained their defenses.
What can we draw from this? We can thus conclude from this that the Turkish army and aviation has played the key role in Turkey’s “Olive Branch” operation, no matter how hard Turkey tries to show that most of the fighting done against the Kurds is carried out by the FSA. In reality, Turkish ground and air forces are the critical game-changing factor.
Reinforcements from other areas of Syria did not materialize to help Kurds in Afrin. Robust attempts by European politicians to influence Erdogan were also useless. The US did not apparently object to Turkey’s actions either. And after the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) had sent part of their forces out from province of Deir-ez-Zor to help fight in Afrin weeks ago, they have stopped reinforcing there as the fight is no longer against ISIS.
What all of this shows the interdependence of the Kurds on the US backed SDS, and foreign aid, including guidance and tactical/technical support. Without active force, the SDS coalition led by the United States can not conduct offensive operations against the IS. Moreover, the SDS without support from the coalition from the air, and foreign special forces on the ground, as well, can do little to counter ISIS. And only together they make an effective alliance in the fight against ISIS.
What can we expect next? Kurdish forces are unlikely to radically change the situation. But the war for Afrin is far from over. Though Kurds have lost control of critical territories, they will continue what they know best: guerrilla warfare. The highlands of the Afrin canton will only enable this.
After Ankara states that the “Afrin issue” has been resolved and parts of the Turkish regular troops are withdrawn (or transferred to another region of Syria), Kurdish guerrilla activity will likely become more active. It is unlikely that parts of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which are at war with Turkey and are now fighting against it in Afrin, will allow pro-Turkish militants (on which Turkey will control the administration) to quietly move around the canton. The larger question remains, will the Afrin canton, an integral part of the Syrian state, ever again come under the legitimate government of Damascus?