Turkey seeks to extend control to Syria’s Afrin

While Turkish officials have been stating publicly their intentions to attack the YPG in Afrin, such statements often do not lead to action.

2017/12/17 Issue: 136 Page: 2

The Arab Weekly
Abdulrahman al-Masri

Ottowa- Since a deal was reached with Iran and Russia to es­tablish a de-escalation zone in the Syrian governorate of Idlib, Turkey has been de­ploying its military forces in areas surrounding Afrin, a Syrian Kurd­ish-controlled pocket in the north-western corner of the country. For the Kurds, as their partnership with the US risks fracturing, America’s erstwhile Syrian proxy may be eye­ing an alliance with Moscow to shel­ter them from potential Turkish ag­gression.

In October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the op­eration in Idlib was almost com­plete and that Afrin was the next target. On November 17, he added: “We need to cleanse Afrin of the structure there called the YPG ter­rorist organisation,” referencing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish force backed by the United States.

Turkey considers the YPG an off­shoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Turkish-Kurdish sep­aratist group that Ankara regards a terrorist organisation and has fought since 1978.

Ankara has long voiced its in­tention to control Afrin, which borders Turkey’s Hatay and Kilis provinces. Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield began in August 2016 largely to prevent the YPG from connecting Afrin with its controlled territory in north-eastern Syria.

While Turkish officials have been stating publicly their intentions to attack the YPG in Afrin, such state­ments often do not lead to action, said Sam Heller, a Beirut-based ana­lyst and a fellow with the Century Foundation think-tank.

“It’s more a reflection that talks to that effect are ongoing,” noted Hel­ler, citing the stakeholders of the re­gion, who include the Russians and the Americans. “This is Turkey’s negotiating position rather than Turkey having already arrived at an agreement.”

As an ally of the United States, the YPG and by extension its po­litical arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have been utilising US arms and protection to increase control over territory in northern and eastern Syria. The Afrin region, which the YPG captured from Syr­ian regime forces in 2012, is the only major YPG-held area not physically connected by land to other areas under its control.

The United States has been work­ing with the Kurdish forces to coun­ter the Islamic State (ISIS). As the US-led international coalition’s counterterrorism operations against ISIS near an end, the YPG is perhaps questioning whether it is still use­ful as a partner for Washington and whether it can continue to count on American protection.

US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said on December 1 that the United States would stop arming the YPG.

Ibrahim al-Assil, a Syrian politi­cal analyst and a resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, a thank-tank in Washington, said the United States may stop arming the YPG but that does not mean it will withdraw its cover. Nonetheless, he said he doubted Ankara would soon try to invade Afrin.

“[Turkey] will try to surround it, isolate it and pressure the Kurds with all means,” said Assil. “Invad­ing [Afrin] would be costly for all sides.”

He said Kurdish forces should “work with other components in­side Syria, rather than totally de­pend on American assistance and protection.”

Russia, whose military interven­tion has been instrumental in keep­ing Syrian President Bashar Assad in power, recently engaged the YPG in its operations in the eastern Syr­ian governorate of Deir ez-Zor. The PYD welcomed the partnership with Russia, saying it opened the door to a new post-ISIS phase. A PYD official said that included the protection of Afrin as a Kurdish territory.

Russia has also included the YPG in its diplomatic efforts, most re­cently by inviting the Syrian Kurd­ish group to the Syrian National Dia­logue Congress in Sochi, a decision that drew fierce Turkish objections.

Seemingly because of the Rus­sian presence in Afrin, Turkey has shifted its military tactics to attack YPG-held positions in the eastern outskirts of the region. On Decem­ber 9, Free Syrian Army forces allied with the Turkish Army captured ter­ritory from the YPG in Tal al Jijan. Now, with its military deployment to northern Idlib, Ankara should be in position to capture portions of the southern edges of Afrin.

“Ankara could conduct an opera­tion and take a number of facilities in the south-east of Afrin,” despite the Russian military presence in the Kurdish canton, said Anton Mardasov, a non-resident military affairs researcher at the Moscow-based Russian International Affairs Council.

He questioned reports saying Russia would withdraw its forces from Afrin to allow Turkish inter­vention. On the contrary, he said, the Russian presence may enlarge “if the Kurds transfer a number of territories [to] the regime.”

However, he added that even if Afrin was declared a de-escalation zone, Ankara could conduct opera­tions, as in the case with the Assad regime forces operating in de-es­calation zones such as Eastern Gh­outa.

Turkish statements indicating im­minent invasion of Afrin seem far-fetched, given Russia’s influence. Ankara will likely continue to target positions in eastern Afrin, particu­larly in the Tal Rifat region, while challenging Moscow’s partnership with the YPG. Turkey’s strategy to combat the Kurds in northern Syria will seemingly focus on pressuring and weakening the YPG in Afrin for the long run.

“The conflict between Turkey and the Kurds in Afrin is still unfolding,” said Assil. “It will just get more com­plicated.”

Abdulrahman al-Masri covers politics and news in the Middle East and Syria in particular. He can be followed on Twitter: @AbdulrhmanMasri

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