An armed clash between the Turkish and Syrian armies over the disputed Afrin enclave was narrowly averted this week by Russian intervention. The US was in the picture. DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources reveal that Moscow established a special command center for orchestrating the truce at its Khmeimim Airbase in Latakia.
The military steps taken up until Wednesday, Feb. 21, the north Syrian enclave were less an escalation than maneuvers to ascertain that neither side gave ground to the opposite side before the accord went into effect. Hence. the troop movements by the Turkish, Kurdish and Syrian armies and the pro-Assad Afghan Shiite and Shabiha Alawite militias after a day of Turkish artillery pounding to block those movements.
The Kurdish YPG chiefs’ consent to Syrian forces entering Afrin was part of the deal. It was granted against a guarantee from Moscow that the Syrians would not remain there or interfere with Kurdish local government. Kurdish leaders decided to take a chance on the Moscow-mediated truce deal in preference to challenging Turkish tanks in street battles. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, for his part, chose acquiescence in the face of Moscow’s unbending threat to shoot down any Turkish warplanes entering airspace over the enclave. The Russians did not relent, even after the Turkish president made the gesture of sending Turkish MIT intelligence Direct Hakan Fidan to talk to the Russian generals at the Khmeimim air base, the first NATO official ever to set foot there. But without air cover. Turkish troops could not hope to beat the Kurdish defenders, and so the Turkish president bowed to the truce, even though his month-long Operation Olive Branch operation for driving the Kurdish militia out of Afrin was a total loss. His army had scarcely covered a few kilometers when it ended up face to face not just with the Kurds, but with Bashar Assad’s army to boot.
The Syria ruler in contrast believed he was the winner. Without firing a shot, his army had regained a presence in a territory over which his regime lost control at the outset of the civil war.
DEBKAfile’s military sources report that the special Afrin command at the Russian air base is still operating, since nothing has been solved and tension in Afrin remains high. The contestants can’t tell how long the truce will hold and each remains in place and braced ready for a fresh outbreak of hostilities.