Members of the Syrian Democratic forces (SDF). AFP Photo.
The Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) are reportedly planning to go ahead in full defiance of Turkey’s “red-line” on the offensive against Islamic State (ISIS). Plans have, according to YPG sources cited by Reuters late last month, been drawn up and an offensive in this area could possibly transpire in the coming weeks.
While YPG members operating under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) crossed west of the Euphrates last December and clearly have their eyes on Manbij this latest alleged plan envisages an operation which will remove ISIS from the Jarablus to Azaz area. From those areas they have attacked and threatened the nearby Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Afrin respectively. Whether they simply attack those towns to remove ISIS or use such operations to join-up Kobani and Afrin through Jarablus-Azaz has yet to be seen.
Regardless of whether the Russians and/or the Syrian regime back them in such an effort it could prove to be a major boost to their own efforts. Russia’s four-month-old intervention has already helped the hitherto embattled Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad go on the offensive after struggling to retain hold over territory while largely on the defensive. Just last week military and militia forces under the regime’s command, with close Russian air support, managed to retake the last significant town its opponents held in the western Latakia province (see Rabia) and a strategically important town from other opponents in the south (see Sheikh Miskeen).
Either supporting or acquiescing to the Kurds closing off the remaining northwestern part of Syria’s border (the 60-mile Jarablus-Azaz line) would be of great strategic significance to them since it would further cut supply lines to ISIS and other jihadis into Syria. Russian jets have been bombing these areas for quite some time in a bid to cut them off and put further pressure on groups it is bombing elsewhere in Syria. Such as the Jaish al-Fatah Islamist coalition group occupying Idlib Province. Cutting off the northwestern Syrian border with Turkey from them would put further pressure on Idlib, potentially paving the way for a Syrian offensive to retake that strategically important northwestern province. Which would bring the regime and the Russians closer to Syria Kurdistan’s westernmost canton. The tiny aforementioned embattled enclave that is Afrin.
While Russian air power can deter the Turkish Air Force from bombing the YPG it cannot defend the YPG against Turkish artillery or tank fire, which could easily shell the YPG around, and in, either Azaz and/or Jarablus from the Turkish side of the border (Turkey recently retaliated to a rocket attack on a school in the border region of Kilis by firing artillery over its border into ISIS-occupied areas in the Azaz area). To prevent such shelling the Russians would have to fly their bombers over the Syrian-Turkish border and bomb Turkish ground forces. Something which, for obvious reasons, they are extremely unlikely to do.
Things could take a different turn: Turkey, a country which sees itself as a regional power who is being pushed back into a corner, could begin funneling anti-aircraft weapons to its Turkmen kinsmen in northwestern Syria. Which they could justify under the pretext that they are merely helping their kinsmen defend themselves and their homes against ferocious Russian bombing (civilian refugees are still streaming over the border from that area). The killer of the Russian pilot last November 24 was in Istanbul recently where he openly solicited such weapons off the Turks saying they are essential for their fight against Assad and his Russian backers.
That could see the Russians choose to carry out higher altitude bombings which (especially with the kind of unguided bombs Russia has been dropping throughout this campaign) will cause more widespread destruction and even more civilian deaths and potentially escalate things between Ankara and Moscow further. Just last Friday the Turks reported that Russian planes violated their air space in that area despite the ways they broadcast to them. Additionally the Russians have risked the potential of another clash by turning off the hot-line they had maintained before November 24 to avoid any misunderstanding or accidental shoot-down.
Which is of course a worst case scenario. The Russians will likely push Assad to reach a compromise or peace agreement with the SDF-YPG in the near future since that group also has an interest in combating the Islamist groups Russia opposes and sees as a potential threat to its own country. A Syria whereby the SDF and the Syrian Arab Army and its allied militias are the most powerful forces in the country would suit Russian interests in the long-term. Short-term an SDF-YPG offensive which severs supply lines to other groups Russia is bombing would also serve the Kremlin’s interests in Syria.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.