Turkey Has Made a Quagmire for Itself in Syria
The Turkish military has discovered it's much easier to invade Syria than to govern it.
AFRIN, Syria — Murmurs of kidnappings for ransom hung in the air, and shootings and bombings continued just outside the city. Two women walked along the street adjacent to the government compound. “I’m scared to speak because of there,” one said, pointing to the collection of buildings from which Turkey and its local allies run the Afrin enclave. “There’s no safety. There’s no security.”
Inside the compound, Turkish officials and Syrian allies cited some good news about Afrin during a tour for international journalists sponsored by the Turkish government. Numerous major Turkish charities are operating inside Afrin, helping distribute aid, establish democratic governance, and train local security forces.
But even some working for the local authorities described lingering hostilities between the enclave’s Kurds and Arabs, as well as between those who came here to settle from other parts of Syria and those who are natives. Adding to the tensions have been a steady spate of attacks by the Kurdish-led forces who ran Afrin — a drab jumble of low-lying buildings and dilapidated roadways surrounded by hilltops — until they were ousted by Turkish forces in late March as part of a two-month military operation called Olive Branch. Turkey succeeded at driving its Kurdish enemies away from its own border and at connecting swaths of Syria controlled by Ankara’s Syrian partners to the east and south of Afrin.
But Turkey, without quite realizing it, also made itself the de facto ruler of this part of Syria. The responsibility seems more of a quagmire than the Turkish government originally expected.
“When the Turks invaded, they basically signed up to govern the place,” said Aaron Stein, a Turkey and Syria specialist at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “They are now on the hook for everything from delivering water, picking up trash, administering health and education. Security is not very good. There are clearly the indications of an insurgency. For now, it’s manageable. But talk to me in five years.”
Turkish authorities kept an eye on the journalists they brought on buses into Syria but also gave us a bit of leeway to wander near the city’s main bazaar. Many Turkish officials were candid about the challenges they face in bringing order. “The priority in Afrin is still security, security, security,” a senior Turkish official said.
The July 1 foray inside Syria offered a look at the future challenges involved in stitching back together a country torn apart by seven years of civil war. As with nearby Jarablus and Azaz to the east, which it has also occupied, Turkey hopes to shape Afrin into a livable enclave to draw back Syrian refugees — including more than 3 million who have settled in Turkey — and give itself more leverage over the future of Syria. Perhaps 140,000 Syrians have arrived in the Afrin region since the Turkish takeover, not least because of the successful distribution of humanitarian aid. But the Turks are clearly eager to pull out of Afrin and leave the region to be run by local allies.
Officials said that local security forces, many drawn from Free Syrian Army units, are being trained up, and hinted that Turkish forces would recede from the city center toward outposts in the countryside within days. As in Jarablus and Azaz, Turkish forces, together with interpreters, have launched five-week courses to prepare local Arab security personnel to take over.
After the training, the lightly armed security forces are capable of policing the streets and holding their own against Kurdish rebels. But they’d likely crumble under a sustained assault by Russian-backed Syrian forces. For now, Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran are clinging to a fragile understanding about which country holds sway over which part of Syria. But Turkey’s commitment to the enclave may falter should Russia, now the key power in Syria, forcefully demand the regime reimpose its rule.
Meanwhile, local violence remains a challenge and appears to be accelerating. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) claimed a July 7 attack on Turkish soldiers outside the city of Afrin. The same day, at least 10 people were severely wounded in a car bomb that struck Jarablus. Several people, including two children, were killed and injured in a July 8 motorcycle bomb that struck the nearby city of Bab. In recent days, Turkish warplanes and artillery struck alleged YPG positions on Afrin’s outskirts, local media reported.
The YPG has claimed involvement in some of the attacks. But locals attribute some of the security troubles to Turkey’s Arab and Turkmen allies — the Free Syrian Army units that took part in the war to oust the Kurdish militia and rebel units relocated from other parts of Syria to Afrin in deals with the regime in Damascus. One Kurdish resident of Afrin said the rebel units pin portraits of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who sprayed chemical weapons against Kurds, to their vehicles. “Free Syrian Army use terrible method to humiliate those suspected of being” members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), he said.
A June report on Afrin by the United Nations cited “high levels of violent crime, with civilians falling victim to robberies, harassment, abductions, and murder,” especially targeting those perceived as sympathetic to the Kurdish-led forces. The report also warned of “reports of lawlessness and rampant criminality” committed by rebel groups under the control of Turkish forces, naming several units of the Free Syrian Army.
A Kurdish resident of Afrin told Foreign Policy that more than 200 people have been detained by Free Syrian Army brigades that include the Shamiya (or Levant) Front, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, and the Hamza Division. Relatives pay ransoms of up to $20,000 to get loved ones released from makeshift detention centers at the rebel groups’ headquarters. Residents must also sometimes make payments of up to $5,000 to get motor vehicles back. Human Rights Watch last month accused the Syrian rebels of pillaging the homes of Afrin’s Kurdish residents.
“The rebels are trying to set up local protection rackets to pay their underling fighters,” Stein said. “They have high operating costs to keep their fighters on side.”
Many of the rebel fighters lack roots in Afrin. Amer Mohammed, a 38-year-old fighter of the Suleyman Shah Brigade, hails from Hama and has been fighting for years for Turkish-backed rebel groups — against the regime, the Islamic State, and the YPG. He has settled in Afrin with his wife and nine children.
The conservative values of the rebel groups and newcomers from areas such as the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, where besieged Syrians were forced to surrender to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and board buses for other parts of Syria earlier this year, sometimes clash with the region’s leftist-minded Kurds. One man showed a journalist on the trip a picture of his mother without her headscarf, complaining that the rebel groups that have taken over city make women uncomfortable being in public without conservative Islamic headdresses.
A Turkish flag flew atop the Syrian rebel flag on the administrative compound, but no one in Afrin said they cared about such symbolism. They welcomed the Turks so long as they provided services and security. Almost everyone in Afrin has harrowing tales about the time before Turkey’s arrival. Most had spent years wandering around Syria, escaping from various enclaves whenever they became engulfed in war.
Munzer Kano, 24, lived with his family in Afrin during the early years of the Syria conflict before it was taken over by the YPG, an affiliate of the PKK. He and his family escaped to the city of Aleppo but then fled back here once the YPG was driven out. “You have to have money here, but otherwise I feel free and safe,” Kano said — a gallon of milk here costs about $2.75, and a gallon of baby formula upward of $20, above the means of the vast majority of Syrians. Other locals said they were happy to be rid of the YPG’s draconian military draft, which forced young men to undergo highly ideological military training and to serve in its militia.
Those critical of Afrin’s post-YPG status quo tended to blame the problems on remnants of the Free Syrian Army, rather than Turkish forces seeking to take a hands-off approach to governance and policing. But confusion and chaos appear to be inching up. One of the two women walking alongside the government compound said she didn’t care who ran the enclave so long as they could provide security. “We hear explosions and gunfire,” she said. “We don’t know who’s responsible.”
Stein argued that Turks may be stuck in northern Syria, unable to fully pull out for domestic political reasons. “They can’t leave because security will deteriorate,” he said. “Security deteriorates, and people move back across the border. You’ve signed yourself up for a long-term occupation.”