A year ago, during January 2018, Turkey threatened to launch a major operation in northwestern Syria's Afrin region. Eventually Turkey did launch the operation, leading to tens of thousands fleeing the Kurdish area. Like today's threats by Turkey to launch an operation in northern Syria as the US withdraws, the same rhetoric and assembly of military forces underpins the prelude to battle.
A Turkish tank rolls through the city of Afrin in northern Syria.
Syrian rebels, some of them linked to religious extremists, vow to defeat the mostly Kurdish fighters who have been working with the US-led coalition against ISIS. What happened in Afrin a year ago now hangs over the decision by local groups in northern Syria to seek a kind of protection from Syria's regime and Russia when the US leaves. Left with an impossible choice of facing a new war or allowing Syria's dictatorship to run things, local left-leaning Kurdish groups increasingly say they want Damascus, rather than war.
In January 2018, Afrin was run by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey accused of being linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The US and Turkey view the PKK as a terrorist organization. Turkey had warned since 2017 that it would launch a military operation in Afrin.
But the YPG didn't believe it would happen. In eastern Syria, the YPG was part of a series of groups that make up the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and they believed their partnership with the US would mean that Washington would work to broker come compromise in Afrin. They also thought that the Syrian regime and Russia wouldn't allow Ankara to launch a major offensive into Syria. Ankara was working with Syrian rebel groups and promising that after Afrin millions of Syrian refugees might return to Syria. The YPG and its local councils appeared to believe that the Syrian regime wouldn't want these Syrian rebel groups gaining a victory.
But Turkey outmaneuvered the YPG. It sent a delegation to Russia and got an agreement that Moscow would not interfere. Moscow, a key backer of the Syrian regime, did not prevent Turkey's air force from pounding the YPG in Afrin.
The US also was moot in its criticism. It said that the battle in Afrin would distract from the war on ISIS. But it didn't work to stop its NATO-ally, Turkey, from attacking Afrin because it sought to portray the YPG in Afrin as separate from the SDF partners in eastern Syria.
This led to a crisis of confidence in the US among not only the SDF but also Turkey. Turkey saw that pressure would get Washington to eventually change its views. The SDF learned that in the end it would be left facing Turkey, Russia and the Syrian regime. Turkey's offensive, backed by Syrian rebels, began on January 20 and lasted for two months.
During that time, reports indicated that the YPG had sought negotiations with Damascus and Russia to stop Turkey's operation. Damascus, realizing the Kurds were pushed into a corner, drove a hard bargain. According to a report at the Defense Post in February 2018, Russia pressured the SDF to reduce its alliance with the US and even give up areas to the Syrian regime in Deir Ezzor. This might have included oil fields that Russian contractors and Syrian regime supporters tried to seize in February 2018. Instead, the US air force decimated the Syrian-allied forces.
The SDF and its YPG elements made a difficult choice: to sacrifice Afrin to save the partnership with the US in eastern Syria. The US partnership gave the SDF autonomy at least in eastern Syria; an agreement with the Syrian regime would mean the regime would return to Afrin and eastern Syria. Many Kurds remembered the brutality of the Syrian regime.
Salih Muslim, head of foreign relations for the Democratic Union Party (PYD), said in an interview published on ANF News on December 31 that YPG and PYD miscalculated the Afrin crisis.
"We cannot say that we conducted an adequate diplomacy for Afrinm," he said. He indicated that the negotiators were not adequately prepared. The Kurdish leadership in eastern Syria was isolated from talks about the future of Syria.
Because the US was not present in Astana, Sochi or other discussions between Russia and Turkey, and the US didn't bother to push the interests of its SDF partners in eastern Syria in the diplomatic arena, the Kurdish diplomats were left alone.
"We talked with the Syrian regime in 2018, but we could not reach a result," Muslim said. "We showed to the world that we are open to dialogue."
The YPG was defeated in the battle for Afrin and tens of thousands of Kurds fled Afrin to IDP camps. They still want to return but they say their houses have been looted and even their olive orchards plundered. Reports speak of abuses by the Syrian rebel factions in Afrin and infighting among them.
The whole situation has left the Kurdish leadership in eastern Syria concerned that the same thing will happen there when the US leaves. They didn't expect this a few months ago. The US said it would stay for years.
The sudden decision now makes it clear that the SDF or other components of the YPG and PYD will seek mediation with Moscow and Damascus. They come to that mediation much weaker and more isolated than in the past. This is a win for Russia and Damascus. This is because the US never sought any diplomatic cover for its partners on the ground. It was solely a military-to-militia arrangement.
The US called the SDF "sub-state" actors and a "temporary, transactional and tactical" relationship. US envoy James Jeffrey indicated in a talk on December 17 that the SDF should seek a place in a future Syrian political framework. But the US never bothered to play a role in that framework, either in Astana, Sochi or Geneva.
Instead, Iran, Turkey and Russia met in Geneva on December 18 to iron out a future Syrian constitution. There were no SDF or YPG or PYD representatives.
Turkey is still galvanizing its army for a major operation in northern Syria aimed at defeating the YPG there. Syrian rebel groups, some of them religious extremists, boast about attacking Manbij, which is held by the SDF. Reporters say that the locals are afraid and reference Afrin as an example of what is in store for Manbij or Kobani or other areas.
The US is now talking about creating a buffer between Turkey and the YPG over the next few months as the US leaves. How the US can leave and also create a buffer is unclear. Behind the scenes, the stark choice for the SDF and its allied groups in eastern Syria looks likely to be either the Syrian regime returns or Turkey launches a major offensive.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.