Since its incursion into Afrin began in January, Turkey has made significant progress in turning the military landscape in Syria in its favour. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has signalled that further operations are to come in Syria, and perhaps in Iraq, too. These next operations would present new challenges, particularly politically, an area where Turkey has not made quite as much progress.
Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch began on Jan. 20, with roughly 5,000 Turkish soldiers and 10,000 Syrian Arab fighters using the Free Syrian Army (FSA) brand involved. The intention was to clear the Afrin canton of north-west Aleppo that borders Turkey of what Erdogan called “terrorists”—the majority-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The PYD and YPG are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally-designated terrorist group that has run an insurgency against Turkey for more than thirty years.
The Turkish-led forces captured Afrin city on Mar. 18. The casualties are subject to much propaganda on all sides. Something over fifty Turkish soldiers were killed and at least 300 FSA fighters . The claim by the Turkish government to have killed over 3,000 YPG militiamen in Afrin seemed exaggerated. The civilian casualties were unclear, though the YPG claim—which made its way into Western press coverage—of 500 killed civilians is implausibly high. Estimates of 200 civilian casualties from the Olive Branch operation are likely closer to the truth.
Commentary in the Turkish press noted—not unreasonably—that Afrin had been swept of terrorists without the destruction visited on Mosul and Raqqa by the American-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS), let alone the unmerciful devastation in Aleppo as the Bashar al-Assad regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, crushed the rebellion in the city at the end of 2016. There is no comparison, morally, between what the anti-ISIS coalition did and what the pro-Assad coalition did, but they have become linked in the popular imagination of the region, and Turkey’s conduct avoided any association with these past events. But this requires two qualifications.
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