Turkey Has Made a Quagmire for Itself in Syria #SyriaWar
Murmurs of kidnappings for ransom hung in the air, and shootings and bombings continued just outside the city.
Two women walked along the street adjacent to the government compound. “I’m scared to speak because of there,” one said, pointing to the collection of buildings from which Turkey and its local allies run the Afrin enclave. “There’s no safety. There’s no security.”
Inside the compound, Turkish officials and Syrian allies cited some good news about Afrin during a tour for international journalists sponsored by the Turkish government. Numerous major Turkish charities are operating inside Afrin, helping distribute aid, establish democratic governance, and train local security forces.
But even some working for the local authorities described lingering hostilities between the enclave’s Kurds and Arabs, as well as between those who came here to settle from other parts of Syria and those who are natives. Adding to the tensions have been a steady spate of attacks by the Kurdish-led forces who ran Afrin — a drab jumble of low-lying buildings and dilapidated roadways surrounded by hilltops — until they were ousted by Turkish forces in late March as part of a two-month military operation called Olive Branch. Turkey succeeded at driving its Kurdish enemies away from its own border and at connecting swaths of Syria controlled by Ankara’s Syrian partners to the east and south of Afrin.
But Turkey, without quite realizing it, also made itself the de facto ruler of this part of Syria. The responsibility seems more of a quagmire than the Turkish government originally expected.
“When the Turks invaded, they basically signed up to govern the place,” said Aaron Stein, a Turkey and Syria specialist at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “They are now on the hook for everything from delivering water, picking up trash, administering health and education. Security is not very good. There are clearly the indications of an insurgency. For now, it’s manageable. But talk to me in five years.”
Turkish authorities kept an eye on the journalists they brought on buses into Syria but also gave us a bit of leeway to wander near the city’s main bazaar. Many Turkish officials were candid about the challenges they face in bringing order. “The priority in Afrin is still security, security, security,” a senior Turkish official said.
The July 1 foray inside Syria offered a look at the future challenges involved in stitching back together a country torn apart by seven years of civil war. As with nearby Jarablus and Azaz to the east, which it has also occupied, Turkey hopes to shape Afrin into a livable enclave to draw back Syrian refugees — including more than 3 million who have settled in Turkey — and give itself more leverage over the future of Syria. Perhaps 140,000 Syrians have arrived in the Afrin region since the Turkish takeover, not least because of the successful distribution of humanitarian aid. But the Turks are clearly eager to pull out of Afrin and leave the region to be run by local allies.
Officials said that local security forces, many drawn from Free Syrian Army units, are being trained up, and hinted that Turkish forces would recede from the city center toward outposts in the countryside within days. As in Jarablus and Azaz, Turkish forces, together with interpreters, have launched five-week courses to prepare local Arab security personnel to take over.
After the training, the lightly armed security forces are capable of policing the streets and holding their own against Kurdish rebels. But they’d likely crumble under a sustained assault by Russian-backed Syrian forces. For now, Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran are clinging to a fragile understanding about which country holds sway over which part of Syria. But Turkey’s commitment to the enclave may falter should Russia, now the key power in Syria, forcefully demand the regime reimpose its rule.
Meanwhile, local violence remains a challenge and appears to be accelerating. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) claimed a July 7 attack on Turkish soldiers outside the city of Afrin. The same day, at least 10 people were severely wounded in a car bomb that struck Jarablus. Several people, including two children, were killed and injured in a July 8 motorcycle bomb that struck the nearby city of Bab. In recent days, Turkish warplanes and artillery struck alleged YPG positions on Afrin’s outskirts, local media reported.
The YPG has claimed involvement in some of the attacks. But locals attribute some of the security troubles to Turkey’s Arab and Turkmen allies — the Free Syrian Army units that took part in the war to oust the Kurdish militia and rebel units relocated from other parts of Syria to Afrin in deals with the regime in Damascus. One Kurdish resident of Afrin said the rebel units pin portraits of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who sprayed chemical weapons against Kurds, to their vehicles. “Free Syrian Army use terrible method to humiliate those suspected of being” members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), he said.
Originally published in https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/07/13/turkey-has-made-a-quagmire-for-itself-in-syria/