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Will Ankara and Damascus clash or collaborate in Afrin?

By Paul Iddon 23/1/2018
Will Ankara and Damascus clash or collaborate in Afrin?
Turkish soldiers are seen around the area of Mount Bersaya, north of the Syrian town of Azaz near the border with Turkey, on January 22, 2018. Photo: Abo Ghaloun
While Syrian rhetoric against Turkey's aggression on the Syrian Kurdish Afrin Canton has been fierce the prospect of an all-out, face-to-face confrontation between the two may prove unlikely given prior consultations between Ankara and Moscow in the lead-up to the ongoing operation.

Since the launch of Turkey's perversely named Operation Olive Branch against the mostly-Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin Canton on January 20 northwest Syria is now where most of the fighting in the entire country is concentrated.

In neighbouring Idlib Province, Syrian regime forces, backed by Russian air strikes, are gradually seizing territory from the former al-Qaeda offshoot Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and displacing hundreds-of-thousands of Syrians, many of whom had already fled from elsewhere in the war-torn country into that province, in the process. The regime has denounced the Turkish incursion into Afrin and even threatened to shoot down Turkish warplanes violating Syrian airspace to bomb that Kurdish territory.

Russia, the Syrian regime's primary military backer, rapidly pulled out its small troop presence in Afrin, which had been deployed there in order to prevent clashes between the YPG and Turkish-backed proxy militiamen fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Furthermore, Russia controls Syrian airspace and made no effort to intercept Turkish warplanes over Afrin – a whopping 72 Turkish aircraft bombed the canton in the opening salvo of the operation according to Turkish press reports. 

A prior Syrian threat to shoot down Turkish warplanes briefly had an observable effect. During its Euphrates Shield operation against Islamic State (ISIS) and the YPG Turkish airstrikes killed scores of the latter's fighters, prompting Damascus to issue its threat to blast Turkish jets out of the sky. Ankara clearly took this threat seriously as it withdrew critical air support to its troops and FSA proxies on the ground in Syria for a week in mid-November 2016. Only by contacting the Russians, who got Damascus to stand down, was Turkey able to continue providing air support for its Syria campaign. 

In light of this informative precedent Damascus's current threats may not be so serious. Russia's withdrawal of its troops from Afrin reportedly followed an offer to the YPG there which, according to senior Kurdish official Aldar Xelil, was to hand Afrin over to the regime so that the Turks would not invade. The Kurds refused.

Furthermore, Ankara has allegedly said that it will handover Afrin to the regime upon concluding its operation against the YPG there – which is reportedly why the operation was given the name 'Olive Branch'. This is according to an anonymous Turkish Foreign Ministry source cited by Gulf News. 

This wouldn't at all be that surprising given that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a few weeks ago, refused to rule out the possibility of ad-hoc collaboration with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the YPG. 

Nevertheless, Professor Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma believes that a clash between the Syrian regime and the Turks is still possible. 

"If Afrin falls easily, Turkey may want to send the FSA into Idlib to replace HTS and try to stop Syria/Russia from driving them all into Turkey," he told Rudaw English. "It would also give Turkey much greater leverage in Syria and against the Americans." 

Landis foresees a Turkish occupation of Afrin in which "Erdogan will have his Arab allies and Turkmen-led troops rule it, I suspect, and broaden his purchase over the Syrian situation. He says he wants to turn Afrin over to its 'rightful owners', meaning Arabs and Turkmen." 

What appears clear at this early stage is that Moscow did give Ankara some kind of green-light to assault Afrin.

"Turkey shared details on the operation with Russia," Timur Akhmetov, an Ankara-based Middle East researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Rudaw English. "Most probably, there were discussions about the buffer zone and parameters of the offensive. Russia may have insisted that Turkey only enter border regions adjacent to the Turkey-controlled areas captured in the Euphrates Shield operation."

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim says Turkey's military objective is the establishment of a 19-mile "safe zone" in the area.

"Russia has been promoting talks between Kurds in Afrin and Damascus on the issue of power transfer," he added. "The issue of Kurdish self-rule came to the agenda after the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) intensified their cooperation with the US. Obviously when Russia was criticizing US plans to create the SDF border guard force, and thus challenge Syrian authority, it was actually sending a message of criticism to the PYD leadership."

Despite this, Akhmetov concluded, "Russia would still like to see Kurds as a part of any peace negotiations" aimed at bringing an end to the Syrian conflict.

Washington is also largely acquiescent to, although not supportive of, the Turkish military action in Afrin and is unlikely to do anything to halt it. On the eve of the operation this was indirectly hinted when the spokesman for the US-led coalition against ISIS, Ryan Dillon, told Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency that Afrin is not part of the US campaign against ISIS – which is correct since, throughout the ISIS war, the US-coalition never provided air support to YPG forces operating from that far-flung canton nor deployed any of its forces there, as it did in the other two Syrian Kurdish canton's of Kobani and Jazira.

That clarification essentially signaled to the Turks that the US would not substantially oppose any Turkish action against Afrin, as it previously did in Manbij (which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is vowing to attack next) by deploying US Army Rangers in armoured vehicles to prevent Turkey's FSA proxies from clashing with the SDF there last March.

Whether a Turkish assault on the SDF in Manbij following the Afrin operation will also be tolerated remains unclear. For now what appears clear is that the two kingmakers in Syria, Russia, and separately the United States, are essentially allowing Turkey to kill Afrin-based YPG forces and, in a truly unprecedented move, outright invade one of Syria's Kurdish regions.

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