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Paradigm Shift in Syria After Afrin
On March 18, after two months of the Turkish military repeatedly shelling the Kurdish-held city of Afrin, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels occupied the city. Turkey’s campaign into Syria began a year and a half ago, initially focusing on uprooting the Islamic State. But with the sharp decline in power of the Islamic State following the fall of its de facto capital, Raqqa, Turkey has redirected its focus onto Kurdish forces in Syria. The capture of Afrin creates another power shift in Syria in favor of both Turkey and the Assad government, as well as possibly the Islamic State, at the expense of the Kurds but also the rebels.
The Syrian civil war has been anything but one-sided from the very start. The Assad regime (government forces), the loosely connected Syrian rebels (anti-government forces), the Kurds and assorted allies (Syrian Democratic Forces), and the Islamic State are the four major military factions in Syria. Their fortunes have been greatly aided and hindered by the support and opposition of foreign powers, including the United States, Russia, and Turkey.
Perhaps the most apt description of the factions can be taken from pop culture: “They're all just spokes on a wheel. This ones on top, then that ones on top and on and on it spins crushing those on the ground.” Each faction was pulling ahead at one point only to be pushed back by some new development. Backed by the United States, the Kurds’ capture of Raqqa signaled the effective death knell of the Islamic State. But now Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish campaign against the Syrian Kurds, has put the Kurds in full-scale retreat. The capture of Afrin has far-ranging consequences for each of the four factions.
Kurds – With the loss of Afrin, the small Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria will almost certainly fall to its enemies. Despite the fall of Afrin, Kurdish forces still control large parts of northern Syria from their de facto capital of Manbij. However, the Kurds are certainly on the defensive and must focus on countering Turkish and Turkish-backed offensives against them rather than focus on consolidating their position. The Turkish-backed capture of Afrin shows that the Turkish military was not just posturing, but is willing to push into Syria to meet its objectives against the Kurds.
Rebels – The rebel forces in Syria can claim a victory by capturing the city of Afrin, but the real credit goes to Turkey. The rebel forces have been divided and in sharp decline. They currently only hold isolated pockets in Syria, primarily in the northwest. The capture of Afrin further extends their lines and opens up another front that they cannot afford to maintain. The overextension of the rebels opens them up to attack, sacrificing long-term development for a misguided victory.
Assad Regime – The forces of Bashar al-Assad have been steadily gaining ground in past year and a half, beginning with the recapture of Aleppo. The effective disintegration of the Islamic State in many parts of the country also allowed government forces to move in relatively unhindered. The capture of Afrin probably most benefits the Assad forces, which will take advantage of the fighting among their enemies to push further into northern Syria. Assad is no friend of Turkey’s; Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan explicitly said that Assad is a terrorist and must go. Assad allowed Kurdish fighters to travel through government-held territory to Afrin and provided some forces to aid in the defense of Afrin. While Assad was no doubt trying to counter Turkey, he also was fueling the infighting between his enemies.
Islamic State – The Islamic State is badly beaten, but not yet entirely destroyed. It was the Kurds who mostly undertook the major campaigns against the Islamic State in Syria. As the Kurds have to focus their defenses on Turkey to survive, the Islamic State may have a chance to regain lost ground in northern Syria as Kurdish priorities are focused elsewhere.
The capture of Afrin also signals a shift in international influence in Syria. While the United States, Russia, and Iran, among others, have contributed to the military conflict through the supply of weapons, cash, and aerial bombardment, Turkey has actively carved out parts of northwestern Syria. This means that Turkish influence in Syria is on the rise at the expense of other more distant international participants, particularly the United States, which is the major backer of the Kurds. Russia and Iran have to come to terms with the increased Turkish presence in Syria at the expense of Assad, whom they support. The United States now must face the decision it has long refused to make: whether to support Turkey or the Kurds. There is no way around negotiating with Turkey during the remainder of the war and once a winner has finally emerged in the civil war.
The Turkish-backed capture of Afrin has moved the wheel in the Syrian civil war once again, with the war between the Syrian rebels and Turks against the Kurds allowing an opportunity for the Assad government and even the Islamic State to take advantage of the situation. The various stakeholders, both inside and outside Syria, must recognize this paradigm shift in local Syrian power and foreign influence when strategizing what to do next.