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
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.”