The situation in Afrin, which is located in northeastern Syria across the Turkish border, will be at the top of the regional agenda in the coming days. The reason is quite simple: The area is controlled by the People's Protection Units (YPG) - the PKK's Syrian branch. Unsettled by the terrorists' control over the area, Turkey considers the situation a threat to its national security. Throughout the Syrian civil war, Ankara has kept Afrin under close watch. But the area has recently become more important for two reasons.
First, some progress has been made in the Raqqa operation, which has been carried out under U.S. coordination. Washington has enlisted the services of YPG militants to launch the operation. At the same time, the U.S. has been trying to expand its sphere of influence by using the same group. For policymakers in the Turkish capital, Washington's steps amount a thinly veiled effort to form a new state in northern Syria under YPG control. With the Raqqa operation complete, they believe, the U.S.-backed terrorists will step up their efforts to seize more territory. To be clear, Operation Euphrates Shield was an important step against the YPG's future plans. But the YPG will continue its efforts to expand its terror corridor to the Mediterranean shore, according to Turkish officials.
Meanwhile, the ongoing debate on the situation in Idlib, which is located south of Afrin, provides valuable insights into the post-Raqqa plans. In June, Turkey and Russia announced that a deconflicting zone was going to be established in Idlib. Days later, al-Qaida militants seized control of the area - making it Washington's number one target. It would appear that a power struggle will take place in Idlib among the various stakeholders on the ground. If Turkey successfully negotiates the deconflicting zone deal with the Russians, Turkish troops will control the area through the proxy of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In order to keep Idlib under control, however, Turkey needs to neutralize national security threats in Afrin.
Due to the two developments mentioned above, many analysts expect Turkey to launch a military operation against Afrin. The military build-up at the border strengthens this expectation. Assuming that Turkey has already completed military preparations for the incursion, the only obstacle before the operation is to handle the diplomatic aspects. In order to get results from military engagement, it is necessary to accurately predict how each player will behave on the ground.
Needless to say, the diplomatic efforts mean more to Ankara than simply going through the motions. Over the past weeks, Turkey hosted top generals from Russia and Iran along with the U.S. Defense Secretary. My sense is that the plans regarding Afrin have become clearer as a result of the most recent negotiations.
Although concrete facts have not yet surfaced, it is possible to understand where each player stands on the impending Afrin operation.
Russia's take on the Syrian crisis has always been about ensuring the safety of its military personnel and safeguarding its interests in that country. As such, it is possible to suggest that the Russians are far more interested in Idlib than Afrin. At this point, Moscow thinks that the regime-controlled areas could be targeted by groups based in Idlib. As such, their talks with Ankara focus on taking necessary steps to prevent attacks against regime-held areas. Under the circumstances, Russia has no reason not to support the Afrin operation provided that Turkey is prepared to address its concerns in Idlib. If and when the incursion kicks off, the Assad regime will presumably raise objections but it is unlikely to do more than issuing statements. Likewise, Iran probably won't object to Turkey's efforts in Afrin provided that Ankara and Tehran have shared concerns about the PKK.
At this point, it is necessary to think about Washington's potential response at length. Having supported YPG terrorists under the pretext of fighting Daesh, the U.S. will presumably raise objections against the operation by arguing that the confrontation in Afrin would cripple the war on Daesh. As a matter of fact, it is possible to conclude that statements made by U.S. officials about the al-Qaida presence in Idlib as Turkey and Russia were engaging in negotiations in Syria were intended as a distraction from the main issues. At once, Washington made it clear that it was party to the situation in the area and hinted at Turkey that there were more important issues to deal with.
To be clear, Washington's national interests no longer dictate what is more important in Syria. For Turkey, Afrin remains extremely important and there are no U.S. troops stationed in the area - unlike in Manbij. Provided that U.S. troops are not at risk, we have no reason to believe that Washington will actively oppose Turkey's next operation in northern Syria.