The large difference in firepower, however, has tipped the balance in favor of the Turks and their allies. The YPG received large numbers of anti-tank guided missiles from the Syrian government, Iran and elsewhere in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria at the beginning of the conflict, but such arms were insufficient to match the weaponry wielded by the attackers. As a result, the YPG suffered unsustainable losses during the initial phases of the fighting. Aided by improving weather, the Turks and their rebel allies redoubled their efforts to wrest control over large swaths of the frontier, securing key border towns such as Bulbul, Rajo, Sheikh Hadid and, eventually, Sharran and Jinderes. After these major advances, Ankara has shifted its focus to pushing through the low-lying Afrin valley. Thanks to twin pincer movements from the northeast and the southwest, the attackers could surround the YPG in Afrin city center within a few days, depending on the course of the battle.
As Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch has proceeded, the country’s military has demonstrated its considerable strengths. Ankara has exerted considerable effort since the end of Operation Euphrates Shield in early 2017 to improve the combat capabilities of its Syrian rebel allies. Those fighters still possess glaring flaws in terms of their combat capability and discipline, but they now appear better trained, equipped and led. And in an effort to win support from the predominantly Kurdish locals for its campaign, Turkey has integrated significant numbers of ethnic Kurdish fighters into the rebel units, including the relatively elite — by Syrian rebel standards — Kurdish Falcons Brigade of the Hamza Division.
The Turkish Air Force has also played a critical role in the operation thus far. Although authorities purged a number of pilots after the failed 2016 coup d’etat, the country’s air force retains enough jet operators to provide the air support required for the incursion into Afrin. Turkey’s military planners have also augmented their airstrikes with heavy artillery and rocket fire from artillery units. The YPG, a predominantly light infantry force with little in the way of heavy weaponry, is at a serious disadvantage against this firepower and has suffered accordingly.
Turkey has also deployed some of its most elite units for the operation, including large numbers of special operations forces, which have gained experience against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in battles in Southeast Anatolia since 2015. The special forces have joined the Syrian rebel units to enhance their effectiveness and call in airstrikes, while commanders have also deployed special commando and mountain warfare units to spearhead some of the most difficult attacks in the mountainous region of Afrin.
In spite of Turkey’s advantage over its adversaries, it is too early for it to declare victory in Operation Olive Branch. There remains much difficult fighting ahead, particularly against YPG defenders in the mountains, as well as units that are preparing for urban warfare against the attackers. Nevertheless, Ankara is already looking forward to new battles against the YPG and its allies in the area. Despite rumblings from Ankara that it intends to dislodge the YPG from Manbij, it is highly unlikely that Turkey would launch a direct assault on the predominantly Arab town due to the presence of U.S. forces in the vicinity. Instead, Ankara and Washington could reach a compromise in which the YPG is obliged to vacate the area. In the wake of Operation Olive Branch, Turkey is likely to enhance its presence in Idlib province and bolster its Syrian rebel allies there against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — a successor to Jabhat al-Nusra — as well as move toward a potential operation targeting the PKK and the Yazidi fighters it supports (both groups have sent reinforcements to Afrin to resist the Turks) in the Sinjar area of Iraq.