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Factors affecting Turkey's new operation in Syria

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

110. Unlike the rest of Syria, the Afrin region is partially mountainous with an unusual density of trees. To these land features that limit armored movements we have to add the heavy rains and fog of January. The harsh weather and terrain conditions favor the YPG defenses.

It appears Turkey had Moscow's go-ahead for the offensive, given that Russia controls all Syrian airspace west of the Euphrates River. Russia no doubt sees that the operation will drive a deeper wedge between the NATO allies Turkey and the United States in light of the latter’s support for the YPG.

Moreover, Russia probably calculates that, faced with the threat of being overrun by Turkey and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies, the YPG will now be more open to Moscow's earlier suggestion of handing Afrin back to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A key risk indicator will be whether Moscow provides Turkey with 24/7 access to the airspace over Afrin, or restricts the incursions, as was the case during Euphrates Shield.

If it chooses the latter, Russia is likely to control the operation's tempo, synchronizing it with the Syrian army’s advances in Idlib province south of Afrin and any confrontation with the US-backed YPG forces around Deir ez-Zor over the control of oil reserves.

This would allow Russia to give the Syrian army more time to consolidate its territorial control in Idlib province, bringing it into a better position to take over the remaining YPG-controlled areas in Afrin and gain the upper hand in Deir ez-Zor to keep the YPG under pressure.

Turkey, which has gone back and forth on the issue of whether Assad should remain in power, has been negotiating with Assad about possibly working together against the YPG and the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD).

But the Syrian president knows Erdogan's preference is an Assad-free Syria, so the Syrian army may end up assisting the Kurdish forces to an extent. Assad may decide to help evacuate the YPG units that appear to be squeezed in at Afrin, or help them receive reinforcements from east of the Euphrates.

Still, another Assad policy could be to "wait and see,"thinking that at the end of the day Afrin will be handed over to the government.

Another consideration is the capacity of the Ankara-backed FSA force. The fighters aren't the most dependable and could evaporate when faced with strong resistance, as happened at al-Bab during Euphrates Shield.

That weakness could force Ankara to deploy more commando/infantry units to replace FSA units, increasing the risk of losing Turkish soldiers in urban warfare.

Then there is Turkish public opinion. Although there is no pertinent, reliable polling data, experience with Operation Euphrates Shield tells us the government won't have much problem securing public support for the Afrin offensive.

If Turkey can wrap up the operation quickly, say by August, the country is likely to retain its current socio-economic posture.

However, the longer the operation stretches out, and the more territory it involves — especially if it leads to a confrontation with the United States — the more likely it is to harm Turkey’s economic and political stability and its social cohesion.

Will Erdogan and his personal charisma manage the current operation in his favor, accelerating his fast-track toward becoming Turkey’s first executive president?

Or will the operation spiral into more than the country can handle, further damaging Turkey’s already fluctuating economic performance, crippling bureaucratic capacity and deteriorating ethnic, sectarian and social-political neurological points?

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