Xander Snyder: Hi and welcome to the Geopolitical Futures podcast. I’m Xander Snyder and I’m joined today by our director of analysis, Jacob Shapiro. How’s everything going Jacob?
Jacob L. Shapiro: Everything’s going fine Xander. My head hurts a little bit but I’m alive and I’m not in Syria so everything is good. How are you doing?
XS: Everything’s good here in Los Angeles today Jacob, thanks. So today on a relevant note, we’re going to be talking about Syria and more particularly, Turkey’s recent intervention, invasion really of the northwestern region of Afrin in Syria. And what that means in terms of the broader strategic situation in the Middle East.
So we’ve now written on this in a couple of articles but if you look at a map and we’ll throw one up when we post, you can see that Aleppo which sits sort of in the northwest of Syria is sort of surrounded on the west by a number of anti-Assad rebels which are really Turkish proxies like the Free Syrian Army and then in the north by some leftover forces, Turkish forces, from when Turkey invaded in late 2016 in Operation Euphrates Shield. And then at the very tip northwest of Syria, there’s this Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
Now if Syria were to take Afrin Jacob, what does that entail for the security of Aleppo and the Assad regime?
JLS: Well I think that this greatly threatens the security of Aleppo and I think that this is something that has been a little bit missed by people in the media. They think that, and there is all this other stuff that we need to talk about, but one of the most important things to realize here is that when Turkey goes forward to take Afrin, it really puts itself in prime striking distance of Aleppo.
And I think the reason Turkey took this step was because they saw that the Assad regime and Russia and Iran were really not complying with Turkish requests on the ground. They were doing the things that Turkey wanted. Turkey is supposed to be managing a de-escalation zone or basically a cease-fire zone in this area. And the Assad regime had commenced a major offensive in this area backed by Russian air assets and Iranian advisors on the ground.
So they complained and nobody listened to them and then they had to move forward and what they did was they basically put you know their soldiers, once they conquer Afrin, I think that’s a foregone conclusion, they will put their soldiers very close to Aleppo. They will link up the two biggest strongholds or the two biggest anti-Assad strongholds left in the country and improve the position there a great deal.
And Xander, you’ve actually done a lot of work on what those anti-Assad rebels look like. They’re a bunch of different types of groups. So how would you characterize sort of the lay of the land of those particular rebels?
XS: Yeah it really is sort of a conglomeration of a lot of different actors. Sort of the main fighting force has been the Free Syrian Army, which was one of the not so moderate anti-Assad rebel groups and there are elements within it such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which is generally considered to be sort of a branch of al-Qaida.
And they’re involved now working alongside Turkey even though last year they were actually an enemy of Turkey. Turkey was relying on another group called Ahrar al-Sham, which was in the same region and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham fought Ahrar al-Sham and won. So Turkey’s main proxy at that point got destroyed in sort of the Idlib region.
And when Turkey moved into the Idlib province in order to enforce this de-escalation zone that you mentioned, they recognized that they still needed to work with the dominant power there. So since that point, they’ve been working with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham which was their erstwhile enemy.
Now we also saw an announcement later, I think it was late last year of Turkey creating this national Syrian Army, which was going to incorporate the Free Syrian Army as well as another of other disparate rebel groups. Since that item came out and we caught on our watchlist, I’ve seen no references to it. I’ve seen everyone still referring to Free Syrian Army. So, I’m frankly not sure what the status on that conversion is.
But we do have what seems to be a fairly reliable sense of the size of the force involved in the West, Turkey’s fighting proxies, which it’s about 15 to 20,000. And it might be a little bit more than that, it might be like 22 or 23,000. But some of those forces are going to remain in the Idlib province to tie down Assad on his offensive in the Idlib province. But the majority of those, upwards of 20,000 out of the 22 or 23,000 seem to be being diverted to the north to support the Turkish Army’s invasion of Afrin.
Now the numbers we have for Turkish Army troops on the border of Afrin or now moving into Afrin is also about the same size so 15 to 20,000 so we can kind of say that there are probably between 30 and 40,000 soldiers either in the Turkish military or aligned with the Turkish military moving on the Kurdish enclave which the best numbers we’ve seen so far are like 8 to 10,000 but those numbers I first saw in Anadolu Agency and Daily Sabah, which are both pro Turkish government newspapers. And since then like every media outlet has just like picked up and repeated those numbers. But I’ve seen no third-party corroborating evidence.
But that’s kind of the best we have right now in the figures. And obviously the balance of power there in terms of like the tactical advantage obviously goes to Turkey. But you gotta remember that invading an offensive takes a lot more firepower than defending. And I think in the first couple of days as the initial battles unfolded between Turkey and the YPG. It was maybe not surprising but in the state of the Turkish military capabilities to see the Kurds putting up a pretty good defense.
So there was this one hill outside of Afrin, I think it was called Bursayah, but forgive me if I’m mispronouncing that, where the Turkish forces assaulted it, took it over and the Kurds launched a counteroffensive and then the Turks took it again. So even though Turkey has all this heavy armor and military equipment, the Kurds are still able to push the Turks off this strategically located hill. It probably like you said will unfold in a way that Turkey ends up taking Afrin but it might actually, I mean the Kurds are going to try to make it as difficult and as bloody a process for Turkey as possible.
JLS: I think you’ve pointed out a number of key dynamics that we need to keep in mind when we’re talking about what’s going on here. The first is you know this alphabet soup of different militias and armies and groups that have been organized on the ground are hard even for people who follow this every day to keep track of, let alone people who just check in on Syria once a week.
Honestly this really underscores why the Syrian civil war is going to be a very long protracted conflict and the reason why it’s really just going to kick into a second gear now that the Islamic State is in retreat. There are so many different groups that it’s a little hard to keep track of but at the end of the day when you just look at the demographics of Syria, Syria is a majority Sunni Arab country and that means that of all of the different outside actors here that are playing around in Syria and I’m thinking of Iran and Russia and the United States, none of them have the religious similarity that Turkey does to them and none of these countries have also actually ruled Syria before. I mean this part of Syria used to be a province of the Ottoman Empire and there are good strategic reasons for modern-day Turkey and then the Ottoman Empire before it to want to control this region.
And then the last part of that is also that Aleppo is a predominantly Arab city. Other cities in Syria are a lot more diverse and Aleppo does have some diversity, I am not saying it’s a 100% Arab but the majority of the population there is Sunni and is Arab and that’s why it has been one of the hot spots in the Syrian civil war and I think that’s why it will continue to be one of the hot spots in the Syrian civil war.
And then the second thing you underlined was the fate of the Syrian Kurds. And the Syrian Kurds have to fight because you know if they don’t fight, it’s not going to be good for them anyway. They’re really fighting for their survival. But Afrin has always been a difficult proposition. This is a Kurdish enclave but it is separated from the rest of the major Kurdish enclaves in Syria.
You know the Syrian Democratic Forces which is sort of the U.S. proxy group on the ground, it’s really sort of the front group for the YPG, which is the militia for the Syrian Kurds and again I apologize for the alphabet soup of militias. They are predominantly in eastern Syria and they have you know fought very well against the Islamic State in eastern Syria and you know have been managing their own territory there in the part of Syria that is really the breadbasket of Syria in terms of agriculture production. They’ve been managing that for a couple years now.
Afrin has always been cut off from that. They’ve never had the military support of the fighters in Afrin that they did in the rest of the Syrian Kurdish areas and because of the way the geography is, the Syrian Kurdish areas couldn’t reinforce Afrin. You saw that when the Syrian Kurds initially crossed the Euphrates, hopefully we can put this on the map, you know that was when Turkey really sort of woke up, and that was what lead to their first military intervention because they didn’t want the Syrian Kurds to push past the Euphrates and eventually link up the Kurdish enclaves.
But if we’re thinking about how this conflict is going to continue, once Turkey handles Afrin, we’re going to have to think in terms of well what is Turkey going to do with this other much stronger Kurdish enclave that is backed by the United States. You actually were the one that pointed out to me originally that the United States basically gave Turkey a green light in Afrin. They basically said look this is not under the jurisdiction of the coalition against the Islamic State, the United States is not going to defend here.
I don’t think that’s true of eastern Syria. Even so though, the Syrian Kurds are in a very, very difficult position. That’s not a very good geography to defend at all and in terms of firepower, they don’t have a lot going for them.
XS: I think that’s right and something’s really that is worth keeping in mind when looking at the Turkish invasion of Afrin is that the U.S. has not included it in its area of operations so when the spokesperson for the U.S forces in Syria a couple weeks ago came out and announced that the U.S. is going to create this new 30,000 strong army/militia in northern Syria compromised of Kurdish and other militias, Turkey freaked out. And then the next day the same spokesperson came back on and said specifically you know Afrin’s not in our area of operations. And that was the impetus for Turkey launching the attack. I think they did it several days later over the weekend.
And the narrative that’s been picked up is oh well Turkey is now fighting U.S. allies. And what does that imply? You know is the U.S. going to have to respond? And I think that really kind of misses the point and again it comes down to the complexity of the situation as you outlined it Jacob, which is yes the YPG and the SDF, sorry all the Kurdish military forces in Syria, some of the Kurdish military forces in Syria are U.S. allies. But it’s not in the U.S.’s interest to defend Afrin because it doesn’t confer a large strategic advantage to the U.S. And we’ve written about this in detail and we won’t get into all the detail here, but the situation is that the U.S does support the YPG but it doesn’t need Afrin to be defended.
So even though everyone thinks that like this clash between the U.S. and Turkey is imminent, the U.S. basically allowed Turkey to move into Afrin. And I think you can make the argument that Turkey taking Afrin actually works in the US’s interest. Because as we mentioned at the beginning of the show, it surrounds Aleppo and it puts a lot of pressure on Assad and therefore Iran’s position in Syria and I think to a lesser degree Russia’s position in Syria but certainly that as well.
So what that means is Iran is now looking at a tactical situation where Aleppo was this really bloody battle that was fought earlier in the Syrian civil war, a lot of lives were expended to take it back and Iran is seeing Turkish power grow and projected through Syria. So Iran will be forced to either provide enough assistance to Assad to defend Aleppo or run the risk of perhaps Turkey pushing further east at some point in the future. I don’t think that would happen imminently because the battle for Afrin I think is gonna end up being more costly for Turkey than they imagined. Even though I still think they will take Afrin.
JLS: Well I just want to complicate a couple of things you’ve said Xander and say first of all, I think you’re correct that there is no like immediate military conflict or even break in the alliance between Turkey and the United States coming. If you want a litmus test for how Turkish/U.S. relations are doing, as long as U.S. forces are at Incirlik Air Base, the U.S. Turkish relationship even though there is a lot of sort of public bravado and back and forth, is ultimately fine.
I don’t think that the U.S. and Turkey are going to come into any real conflict over Afrin. But I think there are two things to think about here. The first is that you know the U.S. has been wanting Turkey to come into this conflict for a long time. Now that Turkey has come into it, I think the U.S. might begin to second guess itself a little bit. Because Turkey has shown that it is far more willing to work with groups that the U.S. would categorize as radical Islamic groups. Turkey is more willing to work with those groups than the United States is. And Turkey has different definitions for what they think of as too far beyond the pale. And if Turkey is going to enable some of those groups, that’s not a situation that the United States necessarily wants to see.
On the second issue and this has to do with you know where the Syrian Kurds are stronger in the east of the country, you are correct that the United States really doesn’t have any hard, cold geopolitical interests in terms of it’s not important for the United States to control territory or have proxies in the eastern Syrian desert. What I would say though is that the U.S. has built the SDF and the Syrian Kurds into a U.S. ally both on the ground and in the media, and the U.S. has made a point of talking about these Syrian Kurds as their best ally in the fight against the Islamic State which has rankled people in Turkey because they think of themselves as the most helpful and effective enemy of the Islamic State. And if the United States is going to let Turkey in eventually and is not going to defend its own ally, that has major implications for U.S. security promises throughout the region.
Now I will also say that a U.S. security promise in the Middle East post second Iraq war was not very good in the first place anyway. And at a certain point, you know we have to think about the second Iraq war, the rise of the Islamic State, the Obama Administration’s Syria chemical weapons red line, you know supporting the protests in Egypt before really understanding what was really going on there. The U.S. has continually sort of stuck its foot in its mouth when it has been in the Middle East. And it might be that people in the Middle East just don’t take the U.S. very seriously.
But I would say the U.S. is setting the stage for some kind of either embarrassment or conflict down the road in the way that it has built up the Syrian Kurds as a U.S. ally.
XS: Yeah, no I definitely agree with you. When I said that the U.S. doesn’t have geopolitical interests, I was speaking more of the Afrin region. I do agree with you that it has a greater interest in the northern and northeastern Syrian Kurds. And that’s why the U.S. is sponsoring this what is it called Border Frontier Force or something like that, that’s supposed to be 30,000 people strong even though they are only training 230 people right now so we’ll see what actually materializes, right?
And if you look at a map, the question you have to ask yourself is why the U.S. is doing that, maybe because purportedly during the entire war it has been focused on destroying ISIS and ISIS is not completely gone. But most of its territory has been lost and it has been reduced more or less to an insurgency. We’ve seen some signs that it might be making a very small comeback in certain areas.
But it seems like ISIS is basically dead. So why is the U.S. you know committing to this long-term strategy in Syria? It must be for something else. And we write about this a lot in a number of different pieces we’ve published, how at the end of the day the U.S. is interested in balancing power in different regions to prevent one regional power from taking over and becoming a regional hegemon. So what the force in the north does is one, it does cement some U.S. influence if you know Iran was ever to try to project power through the Assad government further west.
But also if Turkey were to get powerful enough to push further east, it would force them to consider holding back a certain number of reserves to protect their northern flank on that advance. Now I don’t think the U.S. would actually encourage the Kurds to attack Turkey at any point. But it is something that strategically Turkey would need to consider and that would diminish the amount of power that it could project further east. So even though Turkey is an American ally and currently still remains an American ally, that contributes to this balance of power strategy.
JLS: I think that’s also right and I think you also can’t undersell that you know the Islamic State hasn’t been defeated mostly as a territorial entity. But the fight against the Islamic State for the U.S. is not just a fight against the territorial entity, it’s a fight against radical Islam in general because the United States since 2001 has made it a point to try and strike against these type of Islamic Jihadi groups wherever they are.
And you know the Islamic State is still there and when I say it’s still there, I mean that there are still people who believe in that ideology who are on the ground who are biding their time waiting for another power vacuum to reemerge. When I say they’re still there in some of the anti-Assad strongholds like you talked about, we have the Syrian version of al-Qaida. Iraq which we haven’t talked about very much, is also not particularly stable. There was a very large suicide bombing in Baghdad just a couple weeks ago that ISIS claimed responsibility for. And you know the blueprint for ISIS was really about taking advantage of different sectarian rivalries to emerge.
So you know I wouldn’t underestimate just how much the United States in its current strategic framework thinks in terms of having to continue to fight against the Islamic State or whatever Islamic radical group is the most powerful at the time. I would say though that the United States has sort of boxed itself in since 9/11 in the sense that the war when it began was the war on terror and now it’s the war on sort of you know jihadism if you will. And these are very difficult things to defeat. It’s very difficult to defeat an ideology and in a lot of ways, all the U.S. can do is sort of play a game of Whac-A-Mole. It can hit them where they are and make sure that they don’t have bases and all those other things.
But it becomes a tactical nightmare to continue hitting these Jihadi groups where they hop up and it also puts the United States in a very difficult strategic position. So I think you can kind of see in you know the U.S.’s current posture towards the Middle East all that dynamic playing out. And I would also point out that you also begin to see how different U.S. administrations no matter what their political ideology face the very same problems and have a very difficult time dealing with them. The Obama Administration had one way of trying to do it, the Trump Administration has one of trying to do it. Either way, those groups are still there.
XS: Jacob one question I want to be sure to ask you before we close out today, how does Russia play into the Afrin invasion. Where do they sit? What do they want? What are they getting out of it? How are they interacting with Turkey?
JLS: Well we just talked about the U.S. boxing itself in a corner, I think Russia has also boxed itself into a little bit of a corner here too. You know Russia all things being equal doesn’t want to see anything happen that increases Turkish strength. And while I don’t think that Turkey being forced into this move is particularly a good show of strength for Turkey, I will say that the long-term strategic position that it puts Turkey in, is not a position that Russia particularly likes.
Russia wants to preserve the Assad regime and wants to preserve Syria as an enemy of Turkey and as a buffer zone and as a Russian ally in the region. And if you’re going to put Turkish forces within 30 miles you know of the most popular, not the most popular, the most populous city in Syria, and I mean Aleppo there, that’s not good.
On the flip side of this though, we have to remember that Russia came into Syria really looking to distract its population from some of the economic problems it was having and some of its failures in Ukraine. And also to get its military some on the ground training. It’s accomplished all that. The Russian military intervention achieved its goals even with a very limited deployment.
And it’s been very popular, in terms of its ability to keep a Russian ally at the home of an important country. At the same time though, Russia does not want an unending engagement in the Middle East any more than the United States does. So you know Vladimir Putin announced in December that you know he had declared victory in Syria and that it was time to reach a diplomatic solution. And Russia has been orchestrating this relationship between Iran and Turkey and Russia to try and bring that to pass.
There’s actually a big conference coming up in Sochi between the different anti-Assad rebel groups. And I think that what happened here was, and this is inference and I don’t have any proof of this. But I would say that probably what happened here is that Russia agreed to pull its military observers out of Afrin in return for Turkey guaranteeing that it would get the anti-Assad rebels at the negotiation table in Sochi.
I think that what Russia has done here is prioritize its need to be able to show some kind of diplomatic victory in Syria and have something to show for its military intervention over actually holding Afrin and trusting that if anybody actually did try to make any kind of move to Aleppo that the Syrian Army in conjunction with Russia and Iran would be able to fend them off.
I think in some ways you have to think in terms of you know for Russia they made a little bit of a gamble. They supported the Assad regime’s offensive into this Idlib de-escalation zone. If Turkey didn’t do anything, then the Assad regime would look very good and some of the anti-Assad rebels were beaten back. And if Turkey did do something, then at least Turkey has drawn into the Syrian morass. And at least they might be able to get Turkey to agree to some kind of deal in getting those anti-Assad rebels to Sochi. So that’s more speculation.
What I can tell you for sure is that Russia does not want to be in Syria forever, any more than the United States want to be Syria forever. And Russia here I think has prioritized its need for an overall settlement against maybe some of the more tactical issues or it needs this hill or that hill to be defended. And also it should be noted, I mean you know they had military observers in Afrin and they were there to try and prevent exactly what’s happening right now. So this was a bit of a retreat from a Russian perspective.
XS: Yeah I think that’s right and it just goes to show you that alliances do not dictate interests, it’s the other way around right? So Russia’s going to be doing what’s best for it with in Syria. And that will mean supporting Assad to a degree. But a lot of people saying oh well Russia is Assad’s ally, so does that mean they are going to come you know and start fighting Turkey right now? And Russia doesn’t want to fight Turkey right now. So while it’s not happy that Turkey is moving in to Afrin, it’s not sufficiently worthwhile for Russia to start a war with Turkey in order to defend that area.
JLS: No and I mean like I said I think from Russia’s perspective, if Turkey is going to be you know involving itself in different areas of Russian influence, Russia would prefer that it be Syria as opposed to the Balkans or the Caucasus or any of the other places that Turkey can compete with Russia.
And just one more thing I would like to bring up before we end the podcast Xander is just, you know we work for George Friedmann and one of George’s I would say well not most noticeable, his most distinctive forecast I think has been that Turkey is the rising power in the Middle East. And a lot of times when we write stuff about Turkey, people get upset on social media or they write in and they tell us we’re completely biased. And how could we know what we’re talking about and why are we so pro-Turkish or pro that and the other thing.
And I just want to point out that this forecast is a major long-term forecast at GPF, it’s not built on any kind of ideology or political desire, it’s just that when you look at the geopolitics of the region, it seems to us that this is going to be an area where Turkish power is going to be strongly felt. And you know you can’t necessarily predict the exact things that are going to draw Turkey into this region. But I think we’re beginning to see it a little bit.
You’re beginning to see that Turkish power is not being exercised here because Turkey feels like it needs to come in and conquer Syria to defend its security, right? Turkey has almost had its hand forced, it’s doing these little piecemeal interventions in Syria and these different place, because you know a threat comes up here and it has exhausted all of its options and then it has to intervene. Same thing happened in Afrin. A threat popped up there with the rebel groups that it was supporting in Syria. It exhausted all the different means that it could to try and solve the situation. That didn’t work.
Eventually they had to go to their last resort and use their own military. This is one of the ways that geopolitics compels nations I think to act rather than this idea that nations can sort of sit down and set goals. So when we think about Turkey and when we’re thinking the long-term here for us at Geopolitical Futures. We’re looking at this in terms of not just what’s happening right now although that’s very important, we’ve talked about it a little bit today.
But also in the long-term, what this means 10 years from now and 20 years from now. And that’s why when you think about the idea of Turkish troops you know within 30 miles of Aleppo and what that means 10 years from now, that might be a major deal. And when you think about what Turkish power is going to look like 10 years from now and Russian power 10 years from now and Iranian power 10 years from now and all the stuff that’s going on in the ground right now, you can kind of begin to see not just Turkey’s underlying strength and its underlying advantage in this particular region. But also the things that are going to drag Turkey into this region even though Turkey might actually want to spend its resources elsewhere.
XS: Well with that, we hope this podcast has been clarifying and didn’t make it more confusing to follow everything. It really is a very, very complex battlefield right now. But follow some of our writing and you’ll get even more of the nitty gritty details and some more of the long-term context that Jacob just talked about. So Jacob thanks for chatting and thanks for listening to Geopolitical Futures podcast.
JLS: Always a pleasure. See you out there.