What does Turkey’s seizure of Afrin mean for Syria war?
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What does Turkey’s seizure of Afrin mean for Syria war?

Ankara may move refugee populations back over border after taking control of Kurdish area, enlarging its territory

Turkish-backed Syrian Arab fighters stand in the back of a vehicle after seizing control of the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) on March 18, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC)
Turkish-backed Syrian Arab fighters stand in the back of a vehicle after seizing control of the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) on March 18, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The capture of Afrin from the Kurds by Turkish-led fighters on Sunday could have major repercussions for Syria’s protracted war.

Here we look at what it means for Turkey, the Syrian regime, and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia who were in control of the city.

What has Erdogan won?

Forces led by Turkey launched an offensive on January 20 to retake the enclave of Afrin from the YPG, which Ankara considers to be a “terrorist” offshoot of its own outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The capture of the key city was a major win for Ankara and consolidates its control along its border in northern Syria, where it already supported a wide variety of armed groups.

Syrian-Kurds demonstrate in Qamishli against Turkish-led fighters seizing control of the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) on March 18, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN)

“The Turks are victorious, they were always going to be victorious,” Aaron Stein, from the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, said.

“They have lopped off another piece of Syrian territory and will have incorporated it into Turkey governing structures.”

Syria’s seven-year war has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced more than half the country’s population either inside Syria or abroad — including more than three million to Turkey.

The territorial gains could see Ankara “move refugee populations based inside Turkey back into Turkish-controlled areas,” Stein said.

Nicholas Heras, a security fellow at the Center for a New American Security said taking Afrin was a success for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who shrugged off international concern to press on with the operation.

Turkish-backed Syrian Arab fighters loot shops after seizing control of the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) on March 18, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC)

“Afrin is one of the most strategic areas of northwest Syria. It is a piece of real estate that anchors Turkey’s presence for many years to come,” Heras said.

This victory may not be the end.

Erdogan has repeatedly said that after taking Afrin, Turkey’s offensive would expand to key border towns controlled by the YPG right up to the Iraqi frontier.

How disastrous for Kurds?

The loss of Afrin is a major setback for Syria’s Kurds who have largely stayed out of the country’s seven-year conflict as they focused on building an autonomous region after years of marginalization.

Before the Turkish assault, the Kurdish-controlled region — known as Rojava — ran across large swathes of Kurdish-majority parts of north and northeast Syria.

Now the community has lost control of one of the three “cantons” it ran and their dreams of self-determination look increasingly fragile.

Turkish-backed Syrian Arab fighters loot shops after seizing control of the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) on March 18, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC)

It is “a big blow for the Kurdish self-rule project,” Kurdish affairs expert Mutlu Civiroglu said.

“Now the other Kurdish regions are under risk.”

The Kurd’s struggle against Turkey has also had another major impact — diverting them from the US-backed fight to wipe out the remaining pockets of the Islamic State group in Syria.

The Kurds have been the mainstay of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance that has battled against jihadist with the support of a US-led coalition.

Earlier this month the SDF said 1,700 of its fighters had been redeployed to fight the Turkish-led onslaught against Afrin.

Fresh trouble for Assad?

While the Kurds and the Turks have been the main protagonists in the tussle for Afrin, its loss will also dent Syria’s President Bashar Assad.

A Syrian man draped in the national flag walks with another girl carrying a poster of President Bashar Assad, as they pass with other civilians evacuated from the Eastern Ghouta enclave through the regime-controlled corridor opened by government forces in Hawsh al-Ashaari, east of the enclave town of Hamouria on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 15, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / LOUAI BESHARA)

The Syrian regime fiercely opposed the Turkish incursion and gave the green light for pro-government fighters to head to front line to try to turn back the advance.

Ankara’s gain comes just as Assad and his Russian-backed forces are in the ascendancy elsewhere in the country — reasserting their authority on other areas beyond their control.

Now the Turkish seizure of Afrin appears to place a key strategic region which the regime was hoping to regain firmly out of its grasp.

“Every meter of Syria that Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel proxies march on is now placed well beyond the reach of Damascus,” analyst Heras said.

And despite the close ties between Assad and Moscow, Heras said Turkey’s consolidation of territory in Syria was done “with the blessing of Russia.”

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