Turkish forces use donkeys to carry supplies in Kurdistan Region’s Avashin-Basyan region. Photo: Ozkan Bilgin/Anadolu Agency
Turkey has sought to portray its cross-border operations against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and its affiliates as major strategic victories and it's not hard to see why. So far this year Ankara has forced its Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) adversaries from Syrian Kurdistan's (Rojava) isolated landlocked northwest exclave of Afrin, reached an agreement with the United States to get the same group out of the Syrian Arab city of Manbij, and launched a new ground operation against the PKK in the Kurdistan Region.
On the surface these developments are quite easy for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to point to as proof that he is making progress in afflicting major lasting defeats against his enemies.
Upon closer inspection, however, it's clear that none of these developments have afflicted a serious strategic defeat against Turkey's PKK or YPG adversaries.
Ankara's present operation into the Kurdistan Region, launched in March, has seen Turkish troops capture the most substantial amount of territory and villages from the PKK since the late 1990s – operations since then and until now were always much shorter and relied heavily on airstrikes rather than land offensives.
It still remains unclear if this current offensive has the momentum or the strength to actually dislodge the PKK from Qandil. So far the troop movements have been confined largely to the Sidakan region rather than Qandil Mountain and Ankara is still relying entirely on airpower to target the PKK in its mountain stronghold, a tactic they have used constantly for years now with questionable results.
In Afrin Erdogan certainly has grounds to say he afflicted a significant defeat against the YPG. However, it's crucial to note that Afrin was completely isolated, encircled, and geographically an extremely hard territory to defend.
Turkey also had an advantage in its overwhelming firepower with which to target YPG forces, who mostly fought in open areas throughout the two month offensive and did not make a last ditch attempt to fight in Afrin city against the incoming Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) militiamen proxies. This ultimately saved Ankara from having to carry out an urban warfare campaign, which would have made its invasion much longer and more costly.
During its previous Euphrates Shield operation – in which it focused primarily on destroying ISIS along its border and establishing a troop presence in that strategic part of northwestern Syria's frontier region that sits between Afrin and the rest of Rojava – Ankara became embroiled in a long drawn out urban battle against the Islamist militants in the city of al-Bab. The battle for al-Bab alone resulted in Euphrates Shield dragging on for seven months rather than three and a half, in other words twice as long and costly, and required Turkey to substantially bolster its own troop presence there in support of its beleaguered FSA proxies.
Since 2016 the Turkish president has made intermittent threats to seize Manbij from the YPG, who captured it from ISIS in a costly three-month battle. The US sent armoured vehicles and troops into that potential flashpoint in March 2017, the same month Euphrates Shield formally ended, to prevent Turkish FSA forces from attacking the YPG. The presence of those troops arguably deterred Turkey from actually attacking the city but did little to quell Erdogan's frequent threats to do so.
Regarding Manbij, Turkey arguably did have grounds for stubbornly demanding a YPG pullback. Ankara spent much of the first half of 2016 threatening to attack the YPG if they established a presence on the west bank of the Euphrates (which they slowly began doing after capturing the Tishrin Dam from ISIS in December 2015), warning that this would constitute a "red-line" for it.
In late May 2016 the US managed to placate Turkey's concerns and garnered its tacit acquiescence for a cross-river operation against ISIS in Manbij spearheaded by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with YPG fighters playing a supporting role. Ankara was assured by the Americans that no YPG fighters would remain in Manbij following ISIS’ removal, just Arab SDF members. This is essentially what is happening with the recent roadmap agreement which, rather than a victory for Ankara, is really a belated implementation of that two-year-old promise.
While Turkish action in Afrin and its deal in Manbij are portrayed as progress in dismantling the terror corridor, the term Erdogan invariably uses to describe Rojava and the territories it has incorporated, none of these developments or military actions are really major strategic breakthroughs.
The conquest of Afrin was essentially the overrunning of Rojava's most vulnerable, and arguably least important, territory. Ankara's October 1998 threat to attack Syria for its support of the PKK arguably garnered it a much more significant victory by getting Abdulla Ocalan deported and shortly thereafter captured than the Euphrates Shield and the Afrin operations combined, without a single shot being fired.
The Manbij deal, as mentioned above, was Turkey finally getting what it was promised over two years ago. Its current ground campaign against the PKK in the Kurdistan Region is far smaller, with just a few hundred troops, than the Turkish operations of the late 1990s that consisted of approximately 30,000 troops and that ultimately failed to afflict decisive defeats against the entrenched group there.
Put in this context, it's clear that while Turkey's cross-border operations since 2016 have been very significant and substantial, Ankara has yet to afflict any "lasting defeat" against its adversaries in neither Qamishli nor Qandil and will unlikely prove able to do so for quite some time.