Turkey has reached a key milestone in its operation against Kurdish militia inside Syria by taking the town of Jandairis, boosting its chances of successfully completing a tough campaign that has claimed the lives of dozens of Turkish troops.
Ankara launched operation "Olive Branch" against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) on January 20, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowing it would be "finished in a very short time."
The operation in the northern Afrin region has been a watershed in Turkey's modern relations with the West, pitting the Turkish army against a militia force allied with fellow NATO member the United States in the battle against Islamic State (IS) jihadists.
But Turkey initially made slow progress, with the battle hardened YPG putting up fierce resistance and the army making only the most gradual of indents inside the border towards Afrin town, the main target of the campaign.
Forty-two Turkish soldiers have been killed, each one hailed as a martyr and buried with full honors in a campaign where the support of the Turkish public is crucial.
But the capture of Jandairis, the key town in the district after Afrin itself, is a major success for Turkey and gives the army and allied Syrian rebels a clear shot at Afrin town to the east.
"The Turkish-led operations seem to be progressing slowly but fairly steadily," said Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation.
"Turkey and its rebel allies spent the first few weeks banging their heads against the Kurdish perimeter but since then they are eating their way through YPG defenses," he told AFP.
- 'One direction battle' -
Elizabeth Teoman, Turkey analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), described the seizure as a "key milestone in Turkey's line of advance towards Afrin city".
"Operation Olive Branch appears to be progressing as the Turks hoped," she commented.
Lund described Jandairis as an "important step along the way" for Turkey.
“Maybe it's slower and more painful than they would have liked, but so far the battle only flows in one direction, which is towards Kurdish defeat.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the Turkish army and allied forces took control of Jandairis on Thursday after heavy bombardment. Turkey's Anadolu news agency also said they were in control of the town while sporadic fighting continued.
An AFP reporter in Jandairis saw bodies of male and female YPG fighters in the streets as Faylaq al-Sham, one of the main pro-Ankara groups, raised its flag above the building the YPG had used as headquarters.
The town was empty of civilians with most shops shuttered down after civilians apparently left in a hurry.
Turkish security expert Abdullah Agar told AFP the capture had given Turkey a bridgehead on one of the three key routes heading to Afin.
"It means that whatever they do, the YPG will not be able to stop the advance of the Turkish army, even if they said they were sending reinforcements to Afrin," he added.
- 'More costly fight' -
What happens next is less clear and dependent partly on a complex web of diplomatic intrigue that includes all the players in the Syrian conflict such as the United States, Russia, Iran and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The YPG had been counting on a degree of support from Russia and Moscow's allies in Damascus, but this has yet to materialize in any meaningful form.
Turkey despises the YPG, seeing it as the Syrian branch of its own Kurdish militants, and fears the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region in postwar Syria risks inciting separatism at home.
Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said that Turkey's ultimate aim was now clear -- to take control of the the entire area including Afrin itself. He said Turkey could besiege Afrin, as has been threatened by Erdogan.
But he added the YPG was looking to block civilians in Afrin as human shields and send in more troops. "Turkey, as a NATO member, will not be able to allow the deaths of thousands of civilians in Afrin," Balanche said, adding Ankara would also not want its military losses to rise above 200.
"We may see a more costly fight for Turkish forces in the weeks ahead despite gains thus far," said Teoman of the ISW.
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