A YPG fighter eyes a Turkish tank on the Syrian-Turkish border. AP file photo.
Less than two weeks have passed since the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured Manbij from Islamic State (ISIS). Since then, the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) have fought regime forces in Hasakah, where they have been bombed by Damascus for the first time last week. Ankara did not condemn this action, believing it proved that the Syrian regime was finally beginning to view the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) as a threat.
While the Turkish government has long stressed that it staunchly opposes both President Bashar al-Assad and the ruling PYD, Ankara may well see a return of military forces under Assad’s command to the Syrian border with Turkey as a more favorable outcome to continued PYD presence there.
During the ISIS siege of Kobani in late 2014 Turkey was criticized for massing its armor on the border and not intervening, seeming to believe that ISIS militants would defeat the PYD and not continue on to threaten Turkey itself. This week, the Turkish military played a key role in the Jarablus operation, which ousted the remaining ISIS militants on Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey. During the course of this operation it has hit both ISIS militants on the border and SDF forces further south with artillery.
Turkey may well view a war between Assad and the PYD positively if it sees results in the PYD being subdued and Syrian Kurdish autonomy dismantled.
Aaron Stein, an expert on US-Turkey relations at the Atlantic Council, told Rudaw English that Turkey, “has to live with the PYD’s dominant presence east of the Euphrates River” across Syria’s northeastern border.
“Ankara’s policy has always been to deny them territorial control west of the river and has, both at Tishreen and then Manbij, made exceptions after negotiations with the United States,” Stein pointed out.
Turkey acquiesced to the SDF crossing to the west bank of the Euphrates from the Tishreen Dam last December and agreed in May not to interfere with the Manbij operation after the US assured them that Arab members of the SDF would lead it, with the YPG playing a limited supporting role before retreating back to the east bank of the Euphrates upon the completion of that operation.
Stein pointed out that the Jarablus operation is helping push ISIS from the Turkish border, “while reinforcing its position that the YPG must move units back across the Euphrates. A win-win, if the scope remains narrow.”
Samuel Heller, a Beirut-based analyst on the Syria conflict, argues that Ankara sees a PYD presence on its border as a direct threat to its own security and territorial integrity, given the links between the PYD and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
“For a long while, Turkey has regarded the Assad regime as the fundamental reason for Syria’s war and its destabilizing impact on Syria’s neighbors, including the capture of large sections of northern Syria by the PKK-linked PYD and the unrest in Turkey’s southeast. But even if Assad is the root cause, it’s now the PKK that poses a grave and imminent threat to Turkey’s national security and its territorial integrity,” Heller told Rudaw English.
“I don’t think Turkey can tolerate a PKK safe haven running the length of its south border. If it comes down to it, I don’t think we can rule out the possibility Turkey will prefer that Assad control some sections of northern Syria now held by the PYD/YPG; for Turkey, that may be the lesser evil,” he added.
Professor Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, doesn’t rule out the possibility that Turkey might be looking into transforming Turkish relations with Iran and Russia in hopes they will move against the PYD.
“Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says that he will not accept normal relations with Damascus so long as Assad is at the helm. All the same, it is clear that Erdogan and his new Prime Minister are looking for ways to transform his relations with Iran and Russia in order to place greater pressure on the Kurds and stop their advance along Syria’s border with Turkey,” Landis told Rudaw English.
“We don’t yet know how much Erdogan will give Russia and Iran on the Syria question, in order to achieve greater pressure on the Kurds. But many are betting that Erdogan’s back peddling on the Syria question has not come to an end,” Landis added.
Aliza Marcus, an analyst on Kurdish issues and author of ‘Blood and Belief: The P.K.K. and the Kurdish Fight for Independence’ believes Turkey’s “view on Assad has softened.”
"Turkey's gone from demanding that any solution exclude Assad to now saying he could stay in a transition period. Given Ankara's hostility to Syrian Kurdish YPG forces, it's not impossible that it would prefer to see Syrian troops at its border instead of Kurdish ones. But for that to happen, Assad would end up battling YPG, which won't easily give up control of the border area,” she told Rudaw English.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.