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Published on Mar 27, 2018
Turkey’s advance in Afrin violates Syrian sovereignty

Clutching on to the hands of their children, grabbing as many bags as possible, a hundred thousand Kurds fled Afrin last week.

Afrin, a district of Aleppo in the north of Syria, is dominated by the Kurdish people. On 18 March, under thick clouds of fear carried by the winds from across the border in Turkey, families abandoned their homes and neighbourhoods and ran for the hills in Aleppo countryside.

The forces of Turkey’s President Racip Tayip Erdogan and factions of Syrian opposition he has been sheltering alighted from their armored vehicles, looted the belongings of the displaced and took control of the city. According to varying estimates, between 300- 500 people were believed to have been killed in the bloody Turkish campaign to oust the Kurds. “The majority of terrorists had already escaped, their tails between their legs,” boasted President Erdogan.

The man running an executive presidency imprisoning any one disagreeable opted for Gallipoli to give the victory speech. The symbolism of the location, he understood, won’t be lost. The Ottoman victory at Gallipoli in the first World War prevented Istanbul -- the historic city of Constantinople and Asia’s bridge to Europe -- from slipping out of Turkish hands. Kemal Mustafa’s role in that triumph a 100 years ago catapulted him from a mere Army officer to ‘Ataturk’ or the father of the Turks. Erdogan holds the exact opposite of Ataturk’s secular ideology, and leans towards the pious but craves the same stature as the founder of the Turkish state. He delivered the news of the conquest of Afrin in Gallipoli to draw a parallel and conveyed his desire fully.

Domestically, the success of operation olive branch in Afrin, is an indisputable gain for a divisive Erdogan but it vexes the U.S., no end.


The ISIS took over Afrin in the Syrian war. To rescue the locals, the People’s Protection Units or the YPG -- a group of Syrian Kurdish fighters in control of several cantons on the Syria-Turkey border -- rushed to Afrin and pushed out the ISIS. The Kurdish militia ran the district for the whole year with one aspiration -- they be rewarded a contiguous territory by their foreign patron, the United States, in the final settlement of the Syrian war. The Kurdish people have an autonomous region in North of Iraq and obtained it by US’s support in the wake of the Gulf war. The Syrian Kurds wished for a similar outcome by befriending the Americans in the Syrian war. They fought ISIS’s ruthlessness and lost thousands of men in the battle. Their sacrifices in the war, they hoped, would result into considerable autonomy, if not independence, to run the Kurdish affairs in Rojava, their region along the Turkish border.

Erdogan would have none of it. Turkey considers YPG to be terrorists, the same as Kurdistan Worker’s Party or the PKK which is a leftist, separatist militant outfit seeking independence for the Kurds of Turkey. Erdogan was determined to deny the Kurds their century old dream and so once the ISIS had been broadly tackled, Erdogan ignored Washington and marched in.

Turkey’s ambitions have become a festering sore in its relationship with their most significant NATO ally, America. To Afrin’s east is Manbij. US special forces are planked here ostensibly to avoid ISIS’s revival in the region.


Their presence inevitably also secures the Kurdish dominated Syria all the way from Manbij to Qamishli. Erodgan has repeatedly stated that the Turkish forces will attack Manbij and are firm in pushing back the Kurds to the east of the Euphrates. If the US and Turkey come to an understanding to avoid a conflagration and the US forces move beyond Manbij, it would amount to a betrayal of the Kurds. A further loss of territory gained after spilling much blood will not be easily forgettable for the Syrian Kurds who may react by making concessions to if not entirely tilt towards Russia.

Rebuffing Russia has already cost them Afrin. Kurds could have kept their control in the district had they taken the Russian offer to retreat from lands freed from the ISIS and handed them over to the regime. In turn, the Russians would have backed them in Afrin and even other Kurdish lands. But under US’s pressure, the Kurds did not concede. The Kurds and the regime have little difference of opinion but for Washington’s disapproval of Assad yet they have opted for the power brokers of Washington over Kremlin.

If, the US gives in to Istanbul’s pressure and leaves the Kurds on their own in Manbij, it is very likely that the Kurds will find Assad and Putin more useful to their cause.

Turkish ambitions altering the Syrian map

On the road from Hatay to Alexandria in south Turkey, beams of sunlight filtered through the gap in the clouds illuminating the citrus plantation. As I drove through the picturesque landscape, a local journalist helping me pointed out, “this is Syria, Turkey took it from us.” He was a Syrian refugee in Turkey and participated in anti-Assad protests in Damascus early in the uprising. Seeking refuge in Istanbul, he wasn’t particularly grateful to Turkey. His comments reeked of a historical sense of hostility between Syria and Turkey which runs deeper than the internal Syrian strife and opposition to the regime.

In Ottoman times, Hatay was a part of the vilayat of Aleppo. After the first world war, it came to the French as a part of Syria under the French mandate. Subsequently, the French offered it to the Turks and in 1937 Ataturk annexed it. Since, it has been disputed between the Syrians and the Turks.

With boots on the ground in Afrin, Turkey has effectively gone deeper into Syrian lands. Erdogan says Afrin would be returned to ‘its rightful owners’ alluding to the Syrian rebels propagated by it.


The fact is that from the very beginning, Erdogan wanted a friendly Sunni regime in Syria. An uber nationalist, Erdogan is also nick named a Muslim brother for vehemently backing the Muslim brotherhood. Erdogan fancies himself as the emperor of the Sunnis and saw an imperial as well as a religious objective in supporting the rebels. The opposition to Assad began with the quest to obtain more political and economic rights but soon it was hijacked by extremist Islamists who were never stopped from entering Syria through Turkey. A Sunni, Erdogan rose up to challenge Alawite Assad (Alawites are an off shoot of the Shia sect). By the end of it, although he has not succeeded in replacing the Syrian leadership, he has achieved partial goals.

Idlib has become a de facto Turkish territory. Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has close ties to Turkey and calls the shots in a city of 2 million displaced Syrians. Leaders of the myriad groups which form the free Syrian Army now live in Turkey and owe it a great deal.

If a final solution to the Syrian crises over power sharing is resolved, the free Syrian army will be a part of it. Indebted to Turkey, they are bound to do its bidding. If the regime and the rebels fail in arriving at a mutually acceptable solution, areas like Idlib and Afrin would be hard to regain. In either case, the annexation of Afrin would be unforgivable by a majority of Syrians. Whether pro Assad or against, Syrians don’t wish for a broken country. The Free Syrian army rebels fighting Turkey’s war against the Kurds are likely to lose their credibility among supportive Syrians.

The end-game

The end game in Syria looks rather bleak. Turkey’s presence in the North encourages other stake holders to move in for their share of bounty. An expanding Israeli buffer zone in the south beyond the occupied Syrian Golan Heights already poses the threat of the next war in the Middle east.

Turkey argues they are protecting their vital national security interests until the situation resolves. Syria says in the name of national security it has violated Syrian sovereignty. With Assad bound to stay in power, Turkey has essentially changed the Syrian map again and carved another piece for itself.

By disintegrating Syria, Turkey has set a dangerous precedent. The global community must ponder over the implications. Can every country claiming a security threat from a neighbor, justify military annexation? Even if it is handed over to the Syrian opposition, Turkey is set to control it. A section of Syrians call it a blatant land grab by the Turks.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Anchal Vohra

Anchal Vohra

Anchal Vohra was a Fellow at ORF. She writes on contemporary developments in West Asia and on foreign policy.

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