Turkey’s Invasion of Afrin, failure of Intelligence or a Part of a Bigger Plan

By now, the international community is well aware of what happened – though remains largely story. The story, at first, appears relatively straight-forward.

The US, which had no affirmative policy for Syria, underestimated Turkey’s commitment to follow through on its threat to invade Afrin. Divergent State Department and Pentagon policies produced an unclear stand and incoherent messaging. Turkey took advantage of the US confusion, (knowing fully well that the US plan to create a 30,000 border force was not an actual threat to Turkey), and pushed onwards leaving the US in the dust.

Prior to the invasion, Assad regime gave Kurds in Afrin an ultimatum to return the area into the state hands or face the wrath of Erdogan. Russia likewise greenlighted the operation, despite previously supporting the Kurds in Syria. As a result, the Kurds saw themselves as betrayed by both Russia and the consequent silence of the US. They are no longer planning to participate in the Sochi talks, further complicating an already difficult peace process.

According to Seth Frantzman, Turkey is using Syrian rebels, whose raison d’etre was opposition to the Assad region, to attack Kurds, whom the rebels perceive as adversaries. He predicts that in the near future, Turkey will abandon the rebels to the regime, but that the rebels will end up supporting Assad, despite previous opposition. Meanwhile, the West appears to create a bizarre distinction between the YPG allies in the areas where the US is present, and Afrin, which is closer to Turkey, and which Turkey perceives as a threat.

The one thing that is clear is that despite the fact that there is no difference between Turkish PKK and its sister organization YPG in Syria, the US State Department is trying to assuage Erdogan’s fury by continuing to emphasize US understanding of Erdogan’s troubles with PKK and continues to favor their designation as a terrorist organization. Turkey meanwhile claimed to have killed numerous ISIS terrorists, in addition to Kurdish fighters – even as an actual terrorist, Muslim Al-Shishani, the seemingly immortal Chechen jihadist commander, designated by the United States, joined the fray on her behalf. Indeed, by not protesting the grotesque operation, which involves indiscriminate shelling of civilians, the United States is buying into Turkish premise that Syrian Kurds are a danger to Turkey by the mere fact of living in a city close to the border and building an autonomy. Surely, the top policymakers should understand the consequences of maintaining the bizarre positions that YPG’s terrorist status is defined by its location inside Syria?

Nevertheless, there are still more questions than answers about this ongoing operation, which killed many Kurds, including civilian women and children, and several members of Turkish forces, as well.

First,  is this the story of an intelligence failure, at least as much as poor communications and lack of planning for strategy? After all, the United States should have been aware that Turkey was making decisive operational plans, taking steps towards the border, and was having internal discussions about the action sequence. Did the US not have the reliable source of information, or did the analysts underestimate Turkey’s commitment to follow through?

If so, they may have committed the fallacy of relying on past experience rather than on existing evidence. Indeed, much of the time, Erdogan’s demagogic warmongering does not lead to concrete action. He has not yet invaded Israel, nor even sever its relationship with Israel after President Trump’s embassy move announcement. The failure of intelligence analysis seems to have become a consistent pattern in US intelligence gathering efforts abroad, and perhaps the review of the procedures, as well as the overhaul of the 19 intelligence agency-behemoth is long overdue.

Second, why did Russia betray Kurds? Part of Russia’s success story in the Middle East has been its ability to build relationships with all parties in the multitude of conflicts. Her credibility was boosted by her apparent dedication to sticking by her allies through thick and thin.  Previously, Russia defended Kurds against Erdogan, and appeared to have an upper hand over Turkey on that issue; even managing to get Kurds into the peace negotiation despite Erdogan’s opposition. With Russia giving in to Turkish claims, and Kurds bitterly condemning her silence in the aftermath, Russia appears to have lost that leverage.

Third, why did Assad, whose relationship with Erdogan is anything but stellar, and who only a few days prior to the invasion warned that he would attack Turkey if Turkey invaded, had taken no action since the attack, and in fact, has been acting like nothing is happening?  Why has it also taken no action against the rebels, who are now firmly in Turkey’s camp? Iran issued a mild condemnation, but despite recent rumors that Turkey is moving away from Russia and Iran, has likewise not challenged Turkey’s ongoing attack in any meaningful way. Indeed, Turkey had earlier this month challenged Assad’s own advances in the strategic Idlib, one of the four deescalation zones. Does Turkey really perceive the stateless Kurds as a greater threat than Assad, backed by two states?

Finally, despite deaths of multiple civilians, the United States merely warned Turkey to exercise “restraint”. A flurry of diplomatic activity on Syria’s humanitarian situation also prompted the visit of high level US officials to Turkey and an hour-long phone call between Trump and Erdogan. But was the phone call really about this ongoing operation? Or is there more going on? Conventional wisdom suggests that the US is trying hard not to lose Turkey to Russia, and for that reason trying to balance the interest of various parties. However,  as we know, Turkey has been growing consistently closer to Russia and Iran, has now firmly aligned itself with Qatar, and has been pursuing aggressive militarizing policy everywhere that it can. In fact, by appeasing its attacks on the Kurds in Syria, the US is actually facilitating Turkey’s aggression everywhere else.

Finally, why is everyone else silent? France has called one emergency meeting, but nothing really came out of it. Overall, the international community has not taken any formal steps to recognize Turkish invasion of another state, nor to condemn Turkish attacks on civilians. Turkey is also becoming an increasing thorn in the side of Egypt and the Gulf States, excepting Qatar, and this would have been a good opportunity for them to take Erdogan down a peg or two. Is the entire world really so afraid of what Turkey might do if it’s stopped or sanctioned for its bellicose actions?  Is appeasement of a warmongering tyrant really likely to preserve remnants of fragile stability in the region? Or do these world leaders know something we don’t?

For instance, it could all very well be that the attack on the Kurds has been pre-planned and coordinated, at the very least among Assad, Tehran, and Moscow, if not the United States. However, while the elements in the State Department and Pentagon may agree on little else, they both share the proclivity to try to work things out with Erdogan if at all possible. The US is likely the only actor of the cohort that underestimated just how little control it had over the situation. That, too, is part of a long ongoing pattern where lack of interest and lack of education about both the peoples and the governments of other countries have led the United States astray. There are several mistakes the US has been engaged in that have led to this willful blindness and surprise.

First, they failed to connect the outcome with the KRG and the events in Syria. In fact, KRG has sent peshmerga to defend Afrin. Once upon a time, not so long ago, YPG and KRG were at each other’s throats.That situation has changed, largely thanks to Iranian aggression – but the US continues to treat the two groups as separate entities. For those who watched US reaction in Iran, the events that followed in Syria were hardly a surprise, despite the close alliance between US and YPG. There was no grand strategy to throw the Kurds under the rock in a clever continuation of the Iraq policy. Rather, the failure to connect the dots of the regional dynamics was mostly at fault. US policy turned out to be dangerously reactive rather than proactive. Having a separate Syrian policy, not in any way integrated with Iraq, made no sense – and yet, that is what the United States tried to do.

The past mistakes have come back to haunt the US. Giving Iran a free reign through the region, ignoring Turkey’s emboldened position, giving up on business ventures in favor of Russia’s growing dominance, all culminated in the standoff in Syria.  But just as when in Iraq, until Baghdad aligned itself with Iran-backed militias, the administration kept hoping against hope that it would turn out to be a bulwark against Iran – and sacrificing Kirkuk would be worth it – so now, US has come to believe that Turkey might be a valuable bulwark against Iran, and giving up at least some of the Kurds may be worth it.

For the Kurds, the only real way to fight back against the absurdly persistent divide-and-conquer policy the US has pursued when dealing with them is to create a united front such that the world finally perceives them as one nation with same goals, rather than disparate factions, acting against one another on various essential fronts. As far as Russia is concerned, Kurds were never really allies – there were tools for achieving a particular end: establishing a firm foothold in the region, earning the respect of the other parties, and being a negotiating tool against Turkey. Building a relationship with a strong nation-state is infinitely more valuable to Russia than the support of a group of people trying to carve out an autonomy within a largely failed state. For that reason, they have deceived Kurds into believing they were allies, whereas, in reality, they were temporary fellow travelers. From Russia’s perspective, this is not a betrayal, because they never had a firm, longstanding relationship – just a temporary bringing together of interests.

In fact, for Russia, this was a clever political move. They made a pretense of discouraging Turkey but left it up to Assad to make an ultimatum and demands for the return of territory.  They also had supported Kurds diplomatically until such time they felt their relationship with Turkey has progressed sufficiently that certain goodwill gestures could be safely made. Staying silent about Kurds meant earning brownie points and deriving benefits elsewhere.  As for the peace process in Sochi, that is a long ongoing farce, and for that reason, it did not cost Russia all that much to bring the Kurds to the negotiation table despite Turkey’s dissatisfaction, and it will also not ultimately matter if Kurds do not show up.

Ultimately, if their voice is not heard, they are the ones to suffer. Russia is in an advantageous position because Kurds cannot fight on 2 or 3 or even 4 fronts – hunting down remnants of ISIS, dealing with Turkish attacks, fighting with Russia, getting potentially lambasted by Iran’s proxies. For that reason, however angry they are with Russia for the moment, they may indeed eventually come around. US calculus at the moment is similar. The political elites are making a big show of trying to resolve a situation that could have been resolved in five minutes. In reality, they are probably negotiating an assortment of matters, very little of which have to do with the Kurds. Why?  Because the Kurds aren’t the problem. There is no reason to back people who are not going to be massive disruptions to your own presence in the region. The US cares much more about eliminating or subduing enemies than about keeping and defending friends, particularly if those friends seem to not have much more to give at the moment. A short-sighted attitude indeed, but it is driven by tactical thinking, rather than a long-term strategic consideration.

How will this operation end? Bloodily. The Kurds are putting up a valiant resistance, perhaps more so than Turkey has bargained for. Nevertheless, Turkey has a formidable military apparatus and is willing to run down civilians and incur tremendous human costs in the process.  As for the US? Kurds may be angry with it – but only because the US somehow still manages to retain credibility with them. Otherwise, it’s short-sighted, poorly thought out, and reactive policy is making the US the laughingstock of the region. At the end of the day, it is less what President Trump says or tweets that matter, and more what he actually does. And right now, he is not doing anything, much less enough.

By Irina Tsukerman