Military movement is accelerating around the city of Afrin in northern Aleppo after the Turkish decision about starting the battle against the (Kurdish) “People’s Protection Units” in control of the city, turning the Syrian northwest borders into a space where Ankara would start paying political and military bills, for, currently, having control over any region in Syria would not be priceless amidst international bets and challenges.
In the latest statements addressing Afrin, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that the battle has already started on the ground and it will continue to the city of Manbij reaching the Iraqi borders; he also mentioned the protection of Turkey’s national security at the Syrian borders, in which no one is allowed to intervene or gamble on. The statements were followed by air raids at the Units’ sites for the first time in years.
These developments can be seen as separate from Turkey’s limited options in relation to the Syrian file, developments enhanced by the fragmentation and the massive division between the two sides, the Russian side and the American side which imposed itself as a new actor by announcing the armament of 30 thousand elements led by the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), which Turkey classify as terrorists.
With Turkey’s insistence and confirmation of the battle’s seriousness, its success started to be questioned, at the military level in which Afrin appears as a mountainous area, which file cannot be closed rapidly and at a political level which is linked to other areas that Turkey has placed at the other end of the scale, areas which it is ready to give up as a price for the Kurdish forces’ departure.
A Surgery on the Surface
Turkey did not exclude any of its strategic weapons, which it mobilized towards its borders with Afrin. The weapons included heavy artillery and tanks, except for the air defence missile system and the “Kayı” Border Security System, which is provided with advanced electronic sensors, that has been installed at the borders between the Turkish Hatay Province and the city of Afrin.
Depending on the information published by the Turkish “Yeni Şafak” newspaper, late in 2017, the Turkish army plans to enter via three pivotal axes to take over an area that expands along 85 kilometers and that goes 35 kilometers deep in northern Aleppo governorate; the army is planning to form a military passage starting from Darat Izza- Qalat Siman in the east and Kherbet Eljoz in the west. It is also planning to enter 35 kilometers deep in al-Ghab Plain in the western countryside of Hama from the borders of Hatay province in southern Turkey.
According to military sources, Turkey might enter through Atemh road to reach Darat Izza and Mount Barakat in western Aleppo.
The battle can be called “complicated,” for political and military conditions forced Turkey to conduct the battle surprisingly. However, the Turkish military holds some cards that might minimize its loss at different levels.
The military Analyst and Staff Colonel Khaled al-Mutlaq does not think that Turkey or any other party would enter Afrin; but rather, it would be cordoned off to pressure the Units to force them into retreat from the city according to an agreement, that might include the surrender of regions under the control of the “Free Army,” the way Aleppo has been surrendered before.
Al-Mutlaq told Enab Baladi that the ultimate result for the Afrin operation is connecting the areas of the “Euphrates Shield” with the rural Aleppo and Idlib, adding that the battle, in short, lies in cutting supply routes to Afrin.
The analyst believes that Turkey would not take the risk to slide into the Syrian mud and that it will utilize the “Euphrates Shield” to implement its strategic ends including the current battle.
The Military Analyst Colonel Adeeb Elaiwi confirmed what al-Motlaq has said considering that the issue of the battle is not new and that it started months ago after the “Astana 7”, which provided for including Idlib in the “De-escalation” areas, according to which three Turkish points were positioned around Afrin in Darat Izza in eastern Aleppo.
He explained that the battle is actually an international game and that the Turkish Army would not invade Afrin; the battle is a surgery to expel the Units from the region via the Turkish special forces (Commandos), which might follow military methods that are not intrusive but raid-based.
Russia and America are Closely Watching
In contrast to the active and serious attitude towards the Syrian file and the real presence in every political and military development, Colonel Elaiwi deems the American and Russian opinion as lacking seriousness about the Turkish battle over Afrin, for America gave up on the Kurdish fighters in the city via the US-led coalition statements, through which it excluded Afrin from the military operations against the “Islamic State” Group (IS).
On January 18 , Army Colonel Ryan Dillon the Spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), pointed out that the city of Afrin in northern Syria is not within the range of the US-led coalition’s operations against “IS,” stressing that America would not support the Units’ fighters in Afrin in northeren Syria if Turkey decided to conduct a military operation in the region.
Russia issued statements that are not related to the reality on the ground, such as negating its retreat from the city or expecting that the battle would not start in a definite manner; these statements were accompanied by Hulusi Akar’s, the Turkish Chief of the General Staff, visit to Russia during which he discussed the regional security, the last developments in Syria and the course of “Astana” and “Geneva,” with his Russian counterpart and in the presence of Hakan Fidan, the Head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization.
Analysts linked the Russian retreat with the coordination between Turkey, Russia and Iran amidst ambiguity enveloping the outcome of the condition on the ground in Afrin.
In the past days, Turkey tried to utilize its closeness to Russia, especially in “Astana,” to get what sounds like a deed that would allow it to have control over Afrin, similar to the pattern followed concerning the areas in Northern rural Aleppo, which substituted the city of Aleppo, from which Syrian opposition factions retreated according a Turkish-Russian deal.
However, the Kurdish presence in the “National Dialogue” Conference in “Sochi” and the accompanying sudden attacks targeting Idlib governorate, triggered Turkey to start the battle of Afrin in the absence of previous international agreements, a thing that Russia already knew about.
The “Free Army” is The Warhead on the Ground
The “Free Army’s” rapid steps in the past a few months were not random; rather, they were a part of the major preparations for this battle and the organization consisting of three corps will facilitate Turkey’s leadership of the Army’s fighters.
According to the “Free Army’s” military sources, the military factions will participate with about 20 thousand fighters in the battle of Afrin, which specified opening a passage between northern rural Aleppo and Idlib from Aleppo’s western countryside’s gate as its first goal.
The sources said that the Turkish side have informed the factions that the battle’s duration is not specified, pointing out that what is happening on the ground is an introduction and pushback operations only.
According to the sources, the invasion is expected to start in a concentrated manner from the areas which the Units have lately controlled, including Tall Rifat and Ayn Daqnah, to be met with a military action from the city’s western axis.
“SDF” controlled Tall Rifat, on 15 February 2016, after an attack against the opposition factions, that coincided with battles between the latter and Assad’s forces.
Before reaching Tall Rifat, “SDF” progressed to the two cities of Meng and Ayn Daqnah in an attempt to arrive at the city of Azaz, a thing which it failed to achieve.
Colonel Haitham al-Afisi, Deputy Chief of Staff, told Enab Baladi that the factions would participate in the military operation, stressing that the opening of the road between Aleppo and Idlib is, in the meantime, is a priority, without giving any further details in addition to confirming the date of the on ground action that will take place on Saturday, 20 of January.
According to military sources, the current disengagement lines between the factions and the “Units” stretch along 40 kilometers.
“The factions will be moved to strategic areas and positions that are more important at a military level,” the sources explained.