Poor Fighting Skills, Low Morale and Allied Disfavor Beset the Turkish Army’s Afrin Operation

The Turkish military Olive Branch campaign to clear the Kurdish militia out of Afrin, and then all of northern Syria, is faring badly on the ground, and up against the stern demands of three powers, the US, Russia and Iran, to back off forthwith.

The coming Saturday, Jan. 20, rounds off the third week of the operation, in which President Tayyip Erdogan has invested heavily with meager results. He assigned 12,000 Turkish troops, backed by 3,000 fighters of the Syrian Free Army, who were trained and armed ready for the operation. The Turkish high command allotted another 3,000 members of five commando battalions, gendarmerie and police special units to the operation for the capture of Afrin Town, with its dense population of 450,000, of which 300,000 are refugees from other war fronts. The spearhead was armed with advanced German-made Leopard 2A4 battle tanks supported by Turkish air force jets and assault helicopters.

Nevertheless, this impressive, well-armed fighting force covered no more than 3-5 percent of northern Afrin in three weeks, just 4-6 km deep in any of the sectors, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report. The Turkish General Command explains this sluggish progress by weather conditions, including heavy rain, mud and fog. But since last Saturday, the whole of the week was dry with moderate temperatures, perfect conditions for an advancing army.

But stacked against the operation are more cards than weather. Every piece of terrain the Turks “liberate” leaves pockets of Kurdish fighters, who shell Turkish border villages with surface rockets, especially Kilis and Hatay. The Kurds are also gearing up to blast the Turkish army from behind as soon as it attacks Afrin town.

Foreign military experts, some of them American, who have been observing the Turkish military performance in Afrin, report that it has not improved since the 80-day battle the Turks fought against ISIS in the Syrian town of Al-Bab from November 2016 to February 2017. In some ways, its fighting capacity is seen in Afrin to have deteriorated.

Our military sources point to the Turkey military’s six weaknesses:

  1. The strike and support forces are operating out of synch. In particular, artillery and air support comes too late, and is often laid down after assault units on the ground have finished an engagement.
  2. The tank units and the armored and commando outfits are likewise out of step.
  3. The dissonance between the fiery rhetoric coming out of Ankara and the true situation on the battlefield spreads confusion and unease among the troops. This week, when Erdogan declared the battle for Afrin is approaching a successful conclusion, the soldiers on the spot knew it had barely begun.
  4. The local FSA, designated as the vanguard for the entire operation, proved it was not up to the task of fighting Kurdish militiamen.
  5. The lines of communications between the general command in Ankara and the regional and ground command centers in Afrin are dysfunctional. Responses from headquarters to queries from the local command center are dilatory and often arrive too late to be relevant when the action in question is over. Western observers note that the purges of the military which Erdogan conducted since the failed coup attempt against him in July 2016 have left a strong mark on the military high command. The dismissal of thousands of professional officers, who were replaced by Erdogan loyalists, has undermined the operational capabilities of an army, which was used to be hailed as one of the strongest military forces in NATO.
  6. The Turkish air force is only partly operational. Here, too the high command cites bad weather conditions. However, DEBKA Weekly’s western military sources point to two unmentioned inhibitors:
    (a) The distrust prevailing between the air force chiefs and the president, who accuses this force of housing the roots of the plot to unseat him.
    (b) The air crews fear that when they fly over Afrin, their planes will be exposed to Russian payback for the massive drone attack on Russia’s Khemeimim air base and Tartus naval facility on Jan. 10. Russian intelligence believes that the Turkish MIT intelligence service supplied the Syrian rebel Saryat Hayat al Tahrir with the technology for building the assault drones they used to attack the
    Russian bases.
    Then, on Feb. 3, a Russian Sukhoi 25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft was shot down over the town of Maasran in the northern Syrian province of Idlib by a ground-to-air man-portable missile. The Russians suspect that Turkey also supplied these missiles to the rebel group.

Three days later, on Feb. 6, the Russians spread their air defense systems into the Aleppo and Idlib regions. A Syrian military spokesman announced that all parts of northern Syria were now covered by a comprehensive anti-missile shield. Afrin air space was now an effective no-fly zone for Turkish air force operations.

On Thursday, Feb. 8 Erdogan was on the phone to President Vladimir Putin. He hoped to obtain Putin’s consent for Turkish-Russian coordination in Syria, that would open a gap in the shield to allow the Turkish air force to support the ground forces in Afrian safe from Russian anti-air missiles.

After their conversation, the Kremlin announced that the two leaders had discussed creating a Tension Reduction Zone in Idlib between the Russian and Turkish forces. However, according to DEBKA Weekly’s sources, Erdogan’s request was not only rebuffed but he faced the Russian leader’s demand to call off the Turkish Afrin operation forthwith, echoing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s demand on Wednesday that Erdogan stop attacking the Kurds. By sticking to his guns, the Turkish leader will defy not just Washington but his allies in Moscow and Tehran as well. By withdrawing his army from Afrin, he will lose face, but also cut his losses.

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