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Anakara Throws the Dice in Afrin

By DAVİD ROMANO 22/1/2018

With the conventional war against the so-called Islamic State over, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before an attack on the Kurdish-controlled parts of Syria. This weekend the new war finally came with an offensive from Turkey, after several days of warnings and build-up. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s Protection Units (the YPG and the women’s YPJ army) announced that they have no choice but to defend their lands, vowing to exact a heavy price on Turkey.


Turkish President Erdogan is taking on a number of risks by throwing the military dice in Afrin at this time. When Ankara’s Free Syrian Army mercenaries turn out ill-suited to conquer Afrin, Turkish soldiers will have to go in and die for the offensive. Should the campaign bog down and suffer heavy Turkish casualties, the heretofore domestically unassailable president could suffer a fatal blow to his political standing. Decision makers in Washington, Tel Aviv and Damascus especially, but also Moscow, Baghdad, Tehran, Cairo, Tel Aviv, Brussels and a host of other places, would likely enjoy such an outcome.


Although the Turkish armed forces greatly outmatch the SDF and YPG defenders in Kobane, they and their Free Syrian Army proxies will be operating in unfriendly territory against a battle-hardened and very motivated foe. The SDF/YPG is also hegemonic in northern Syria, with no internal divisions that Turkey can exploit. Crucially, Ankara has left the SDF and their political parent (the Democratic Union Party, or PYD) no political way out of this conflict.


While some Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party leaders in Iraq might have been cajoled and threatened out of a united front by a crafty Iranian general last October, convinced to stand down with a combination of threats and promises of political accommodation, no such strategy seems to exist for Turkey in Syria. Not for the first time, Ankara offers only a stick and no carrots to its Kurdish enemies. The result, just like the thirty-plus years of war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), risks turning out to be the kind of costly, indecisive campaign that Mr. Erdogan can ill afford at this time. In fact, Ankara attacked Afrin this weekend precisely because it has not managed to end the PKK’s insurgency since 1984 (a result of its usual “sticks and no carrots” mentality), and the PYD-SDF-YPG in Syria has an organic relationship with the PKK.


Under such circumstances and with the considerable risks a military invasion entails, Turkey would not undertake a ground offensive in Syria without air support for its forces. The canton of Afrin lies within Russian-controlled air space, however, meaning that Ankara could not fly its jets over the area without Moscow’s consent. That consent appears to have been given this weekend, as Moscow reacted angrily to the United States’ announcement that its forces will remain in northern Syria indefinitely and train a 30,000-strong SDF border protection force. While the Americans control the air space over the northern Syrian Kurdish cantons of Kobane and Jazira, Afrin remains isolated and within the Russian sphere of operations. Afrin thus becomes the hapless victim of Russian signals of displeasure to Washington, with all the risks borne by Turkey and the people of Afrin.


The best-case scenario for Turkey thus depends on Russia’s continuing consent for the offensive on Afrin.  Even if Afrin somehow gets speedily conquered by the Turks, SDF/PYD/YPG controlled Kobane and Jazira will likely remain under American de facto protection and hence out of Turkish reach. That best case scenario seems unlikely even if the Turkish military campaign goes exceedingly well, however: If the defenders of Afrin suffer too many losses, they would likely simply agree to the Assad regime’s demands that Damascus resume its control of the area – which would be the precise moment that Russia informs Turkey it cannot fly over Afrin anymore. Turkey and the “Free Syrian Army” will have expended their blood and treasure to do the Assad regime’s work.


The whole Turkish invasion of Afrin will have come at a considerable political cost as well.  Although the usual pro-Palestinian international leftists cannot be expected to take to the world’s streets in defense of Afrin, Turkey appears to have no diplomatic support or friends for this undertaking. Even Moscow condemns the Turkish invasion, despite its simultaneous (and likely temporary) behind-closed-doors consent.  From Washington and Brussels to the corridors of the Arab League and elsewhere, we only hear protests and warnings about Turkey’s actions. Commentators in Western media have begun new calls for Turkey to leave NATO, as they also again draw attention to the increasingly dictatorial regime in Ankara.


Many observers also point out that despite the Syrian Kurdish parties’ affinity for the PKK, none of these Syrian Kurdish allies against ISIS ever even threatened to attack Turkey. Ankara thus increasingly looks like it tramples on international law as it launches an invasion of a peaceful, non-threatening part of Syria — against the objections of the Syrian government. Every civilian casualty in Afrin will thus make Turkey look like the terrorists it claims to be fighting.


David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.


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Jamaal | 22/1/2018
PKK relying on West powers broke the historical peace prosses that quite well in favor of Kurds and decalered a brutal war by using all means of terrorism like ISIS againist Turkey when They have 85 deputies in Turkish assembly and was running over than 100 municipalities......Not only Turkey, also Kurds of TurkeY have been betrayed by PKK as well.. PKK just is a hit man of imperialist powers not a politic group struggle for righst of Kurds....Before, PKK had declared that there is no a geographic limit of place for us in fighting againist Turkey...We will spread terror attacks to all cities of Turkey and they did so........ Despite a failed West backed military coup and a tramendous support of West behind PKK, Turkey have collected herself and just Within 2 years Turkey eliminate 80% of PKK elements inside his border...., Now it is turn of Turkey to get pay PKK the penalty of treachery that they commited along withe West powers.....
The Invasion was agreed by the U.S. | 22/1/2018
The U.S. has in first place provoked this Turkish war on Kurds by arming them , annonocing the creation of an army and then giving Turkey green treacherous light to kill Kurds. The same pattern of betraying the trustfull Kurds last October : leaving the Kurds at the mercy of the anti-american Arabs and Turks. Shame on the USA.
Diako | 22/1/2018
Ergoooz is the number one terrorist in the entire world
Diako | 22/1/2018
Errrrrrrdo will fall like Sadistic sadam very very soon
Free Kudistan | 22/1/2018
I am confudent that the Kurds of Afrin will defeat Turkey in the sane way they defeated the I.S. in Kobani .

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