Syrian regime forces look out over Tal Rifaat this week. Photo: George Ourfalian/AFP
Following its takeover of the northwestern Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin from the People's Protection Units (YPG) on March 18, Turkey declared it would expand its operations against the YPG in the nearby Arab city of Tal Rifaat and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the Kurdistani territory of Shingal in neighbouring Iraq. Since then, however, the authorities in both Baghdad and Damascus have promptly deployed forces to these areas.
After Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his threat to attack the PKK in Shingal on March 21 the group reached a deal with Baghdad to withdraw, which they did. Iraq then deployed troops to the region amid Erdogan's declaration that Turkey had begun an operation there, which it had not.
While the PKK withdrew its forces, the PKK-trained Shingal Protection Units (YBS), a force made up of local Yezidis, has remained in place and become recognized. They will have their salaries paid by Baghdad.
Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, seriously doubts that there is now any likelihood that Turkey will launch a cross-border offensive into Shingal.
“They would have to travel a long distance from their bases within Iraq to even reach the area and go through federal forces in Nineveh, and now those now in Shingal too,” Wing told Rudaw English. “Not to mention they have already achieved their goal. The PKK said they have withdrawn from the district. Its Yezidi branches are still there, but I don't think Ankara will go after them.”
Consequently the PKK's withdrawal has left them with at least a proxy force in Shingal and averted the risk of a Turkish operation in the area. Baghdad also declared that there is no need for any Turkish cross-border operation in the country, saying in a statement that security “falls under the authority of the Iraqi forces, and there is no reason for troops to cross the Iraqi border into those areas.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has also stated that Iraq remains in full control of its border with Turkey. As Wing pointed out, the Iraqi prime minister seems to have only been referring to the Iraqi province of Nineveh's border with Turkey and not the Kurdistan Region's international borders given the salient fact that Turkey launched a ground incursion into Kurdistan against the PKK, on March 16, penetrating 15 kilometers into the autonomous region and capturing at least 28 villages.
After Afrin, Turkey also declared that an operation against the YPG in Tal Rifaat had begun. Tal Rifaat is a small city situated just eastward of Afrin, which YPG forces captured from an Islamist group, along with the former Syrian Menagh airbase, in a February 2016 offensive – which at the time was assisted by Russian air power.
Syrian regime forces, along with crates of rifles and some Syrian Arab Red Crescent workers, were deployed to Tal Rifaat on March 28. Also, Russian military police previously deployed to Afrin are reportedly still present in the city.
“The presence of the military police in Tal Rifaat, despite widespread news of their withdrawal after fall of Afrin, may indicate that Russia would like to include Tal Rifaat in discussions with Turkey, with whom Russian officials are set to meet in early April,” Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Rudaw English.
The deployment of Syrian regime forces alone is unlikely enough to deter any Turkish attack on Tal Rifaat. After all, pro-regime Popular Forces entered Afrin during the Turkish operation there but failed to either deter Ankara from seizing the region or repel any of its forces. The withdrawal of the Russian military police on the eve of that operation, on the other hand, signaled to Ankara that they had a green-light from Moscow to attack and accordingly resulted in Kurdish accusations of flagrant betrayal.
Akhmetov believes that Russia may withdraw these forces and let Ankara go ahead and seize Tal Rifaat, as they did in Afrin, in return for some agreement on Turkey's next move in Syria.
“Russia would like to trade Tal Rifaat, which now has a lower strategic significance after the Afrin operation, for some guarantees in return,” he suggested. “Most probably, Russian officials would like to get further assurances in Idlib from Turkey. I think Russia will cede Tal Rifaat to the Turks if they manage to assure Russia that their next target is Manbij.”
Moscow would likely welcome any opportunity to help drive a wedge between the Americans, whose presence it opposes in Syria, and Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, in Syria. The US has retained a troop presence in Manbij for over a year now to deter a Turkish attack on that city. France has also announced that it's ready to deploy troops to Manbij to assist the US forces there, meaning any Turkish attack in the near future could even run the lethal risk of harming troops from two NATO countries and fulfill Russia's desire to see the alliance weakened.
“In any scenario, Russia would like to trade Tal Rifaat but the problem is that there are Syrian forces there now, which makes any deal harder,” Akhmetov concluded. “It all really depends on what Turkey can offer Russia.”