A joint operation of Turkish troops and the inherently Islamic units of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Afrin, in the northwest of Syria, has continued for the fourth week already. Launched on January 20, that “anti-terrorist mission” codenamed “Olive Branch” develops sluggishly. On some sections of the frontline Turkish-Islamic forces fighting against YPG Kurdish People’s Protection Units have penetrated into the region for 7 km. Within almost month of military actions, the 25-thousand-strong troops supported by air force, artillery and raids of Turkish special units have not managed to take control of any large populated area in Afrin.
Turkey’s military campaign against “Turkish terrorists” is too sluggish, considering that the military command and political leaders of Turkey promised fast storming of Afrin. Meantime, they still fight for control over periphery towns of the Kurdish canton, Jinderes and Raju in the west of the administrative center. On February 13, Kurdish sources reported the first large-scale artillery shelling of the central quarters in Afrin.
Turkish Armed Forces General Staff launched the operation in four critical regions at once: Bulbul, Shinkal in the north, Raju and Sheikh Hadid in the west, Jinderes in the southwest and Bersaya hills in the northeast. Synchronized operation on four fronts requires high level of coordination and consistency of actions between Turkish troops and FSA. No evident failures in coordination have been recorded so far, though casualties are growing, especially in the Turkish “segment,” which speaks of negative scenario for Ankara.
Turkish troops have faced parameters of fight quite different from the Shield of Euphrates campaign against ISIS in the north of Syria (August 26, 2016-Feb 24, 2017) as to casualties and routine battles.
Unlike ISIS, Kurdish YPG is fighting against Turkish-Islamic troops along the entire frontline clinging to every square kilometer. Kurdish commanders and their Turkish “colleagues” are well aware that Ankara will not have those 6 months to suppress the enemy like it did during Shield of Euphrates operation.
During their previous campaign, no one urged Turks forward. Besides, at some phase of the Shield of Euphrates campaign, they even received intelligence and air support by American troops in the region and at the last phase – even by Russian Aerospace Force. Meantime, two leading foreign military forces in Syria – Russia and U.S. – show quite negative attitude to ongoing Olive Branch campaign.
Moscow is, to put it mildly, not happy with Turkey’s attempts to suppress hotbed of “Kurdish terrorism” in Afrin amid escalation of tensions throughout Syria. The ceasefire regime achieved by guarantor-states (Russia, Iran and Turkey) between Syrian government troops and “moderate opposition” armed units yet at the end of 2016 is due to break finally.
Washington does not consider Syrian Kurds as a target and criticizes Turks over their ongoing campaign. U.S. uselessly tried to keep Turkey from launching the military campaign in Afrin. Presently, the relations of U.S. and Turkey are on the verge of “destruction.” Foreign Minister of Turkey Mevlut Cavusoglu has recently warned against it.
Media coverage of the Olive Branch is not on Turkey’s side either. Kurds have not appeared in information blockade and their stance is actively promoted by Arabic and Western press. Besides, Washington blames Turkey for random nature of attacks in Afrin that claim the lives of civilians. Besides, Ankara has managed to take control over some 7% of the total territory of the Kurdish enclave within almost one month of military actions.
By official data for February 15, Turkish troops suffered over 30 casualties, including 11 on February 10. Two pilots of Turkish strike helicopter were killed near Hatay after Kurdish militia hit the helicopter. Kurds report much bigger number of Turkish casualties, though their figures seem rather exaggerated. Thus, earlier this week, Firat Kurdish media outlet cited Murat Karayılan, one of Turkey’s PKK Party leaders (a YPG commander) saying “350 Al-Qaeda militants (he meant FSA fighters) and about 200 Turkish troops” were killed. As to their own casualties, Kurds report some 100 YPG fighters.
Although the figures of both the sides are far from reality (1), even the casualties officially reported by Turks speak volumes. According to official data of Turkish side, they lost 71 militaries during the first campaign in the north of Syria, while FSA units supporting Turks lost over 500 militants by March, 2017. In late January, 2017, when ISIS still held Al-Baba, 56 Turkish casualties were reported since the start of Shield of Euphrates campaign (it was launched on August 26, 2016). Actually, within less than one month of Olive Branch campaign, Turkey has already lost half as many troops as it did during 5-6 months of Shield of Euphrates campaign against ISIS.
Yet before Turkish Supreme Commander Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered launching the attack on Afrin, the local Kurds promised to turn the region into a “cemetery of Turkish troops.” Although such loud statement by YPG is far from reality, the current situation is rather alarming for Erdogan and his generals. To advance into Afrin, Turkish troops have to show maximum concentration and coordination for every kilometer they fight for suffering casualties (both human and military hardware).
Although 31 killed soldiers is not a reason for Turkish Command to face serious public discontent, they need crucial changes within the coming days. Otherwise, they may get stuck in position war against Kurds and face a more serious foreign pressure. By February 20, when the first month of Olive Branch campaign will end, Turkish generals may intensify the military actions in Afrin dramatically.
(1) Turkey’s General Staff reports the number of neutralized “terrorists” in Afrin on a daily basis. On February 16, they reported 1551 killed PKK, PYD and YPG “terrorists.” Speaking of “neutralization,” Turkish military command means human losses, the wounded and captives.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau