Turkey may have to pay a steep diplomatic price for ignoring a UN-ordered cease-fire in Syria. UN Security Council Resolution 2401, passed Feb. 24, calls on parties in Syria to observe a 30-day cease-fire. Ankara initially supported the decision, until realizing the resolution applies to it as well.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had said, “All the actors in Syria must comply with the 30-day cease-fire call of the UN all over the country.” But now Ankara is pretending the call wasn’t meant for Turkey.
The cease-fire aims to permit humanitarian aid to reach civilians. However, the resolution does allow for continued combat against the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and their affiliates. Turkey is seeking to drive out of Afrin the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which it considers a terrorist-affiliated group.
But the United States, France and Germany soon made it clear that the cease-fire indeed includes Afrin. As the disagreement with its Western partners continued, Turkey deployed its special operations teams for the second phase of the operation.
On Feb. 26, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to a statement from Macron, he told Erdogan that the “humanitarian agreement covers all of Syria, including Afrin, and has to be implemented all over without delay.”
The next day, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert also said the resolution applies to all of Syria and called on Turkey to read the text again. This was followed by the German Foreign Ministry calling on Turkey to respect the resolution. Statements from the European Union also called on Turkey to stop its Afrin operations.
Turkey’s response to all these warnings was equally harsh: Its Foreign Ministry said Afrin was not mentioned in the conversation with Macron and accused France of lying. Ankara also said Nauert’s remarks had no basis and that she either didn’t understand the resolution or was being intentionally misleading in her interpretation.
Erdogan said Turkey will struggle against anyone confronting it. He pointed out that cement-mixing machinery from Paris-based company Lafarge can be seen in Afrin — insinuating that France supports the YPG. France has investigated Lafarge's role in financing IS and other extremist groups in Syria. Lafarge no longer manages a cement plant in Jalabiya, a town between Kobani and Ain Issa in northeastern Syria, which was first taken over by IS and then by the YPG.
Turkey controls a crescent of land 20 kilometers (12 miles) deep around Afrin. Despite increasingly tough rhetoric against Turkey, Ankara will continue its operations. What is Turkey’s goal? To terminate YPG domination of Afrin, to put an end to the Kurdish goal of "democratic autonomy," to resettle in Afrin the Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey — and to repeat the same script at Manbij.
Why is Ankara so intent on keeping the operation going?
- If the operation is interrupted, Turkey believes it will not be possible to create the diplomatic and military circumstances needed for it to succeed.
- Not achieving declared goals will cast a shadow on Turkey’s deterrence capacity in the region.
- A YPG that survives might emerge even stronger and Turkey might not get a second chance to intervene.
- Turkey's government, because of domestic political considerations, can't risk losing at Afrin. The operation has become a campaign issue that could affect Erdogan’s presidential calculations.
- A step back in Afrin could diminish Turkey’s influence over other developments in Syria.
Primed by these assessments, Turkey deployed its elite forces to Afrin. Gendarmerie and police special operations teams sent to Afrin had spearheaded the urban warfare campaigns against Kurdish militants in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeastern provinces and cities. Those campaigns turned the historic Sur district of Turkey’s Diyarbakir province to rubble, razed 1,786 buildings in Nusaybin province and displaced 300,000-500,000 people. The special operations teams became known for not compromising.
Turkey’s state-run news operation, Anadolu Agency, glorifies these special operations teams as the “nightmare of terrorists.” Now they have been deployed close to Jindires and Rajo. They will be tasked with dismantling explosives and searching buildings before joining the operation for the center of Afrin city.
Preparations for urban war are increasing fears of civilian casualties and destruction, but Turkey's government and military command are at ease. The military on March 1 announced that “2,222 terrorists have been neutralized,” but as usual didn’t offer any figures for civilian casualties.
Turkey has two major goals in its strategic and tactical planning. After entering central Afrin city following Jindires and Rajo, it plans to open a corridor between Azaz and Idlib to link its proxy forces. Russia had given “cautious approval” to the overall Turkish operation, and the new phase will depend on Russia's attitude.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives Ankara latitude because he places importance on Turkey's influence over many armed groups. Putin is hoping Erdogan will be able to convince Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated factions Failaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham to let civilians evacuate eastern Ghouta, which is near Damascus in southern Syria. Putin is also counting on Saudi Arabia to do the same with Jaish al-Islam, which controls much of eastern Ghouta. The fourth local group that has a role there is al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which Turkey has been dealing with to set up de-escalation zones in Idlib.
Putin will probably try to make cease-fire progress in eastern Ghouta and then in Idlib, without offending Erdogan. But that doesn’t mean he will give Erdogan free rein.
The US reaction follows a logical pattern similar to Russia’s. Washington thinks Turkey’s Afrin operation hampers the US struggle against IS. To keep Turkey, a NATO ally, on its side, the United States has set up a joint commission with Turkey to find a way to get the YPG out of Manbij, while relying on the UN resolution to keep Turkey under control.
The UN resolution may not stop Turkey’s Afrin operation, but it will present a hurdle for Turkey internationally. Will Ankara resort to more active negotiations to fend off the diplomatic pressure it's under? Turkey has to be prepared for a long list of troubles if its uncompromising attitude is also reflected in the field.