Turkey has announced that its armed forces are set to start a military offensive against the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwest Syria. Afrin is part of the Kurdish autonomous region known as Rojava controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG). The PYD dominates the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance that has played a significant role in fight against the Islamic State (IS) in northern Syria and continues to be the strongest vanguard against the IS terrorists.
The Turkish announcement, which had been expected for some time, came after a parliamentary group meeting of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara on January 16. Addressing a press conference after the meeting, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that the offensive is part of Turkey’s war on terror to secure its borders against “Kurdish terrorists.” Arguing that the military operation is necessary to stop the banned Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) from using northern Syria as a safe haven from which to mount attacks inside Turkey, Erdoğan said that Turkish armed forces are ready to conduct anti-terror operations in Afrin and Manbij to “root out all terror nests in Syria.” While official sources said that the Turkish armed forces is holding joint drills with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) near Syrian border in preparation of the planned offensive, media reports have suggested that security forces stationed in Turkey’s southern Hatay province are already hitting YPG targets in Afrin.
The Turkish announcement acquires significance in the backdrop of two recent developments. First, the Russian decision to include the Kurds in the Syrian peace process and, second, the US announcement to help the PYD form a 30,000-strong Kurdish Border Security Forces to guard its borders. Russia, which has emerged as the most important player in the Syrian civil war, has been trying to mediate among government and rebel groups to resolve the conflict through the Astana peace process The process, which had begun in January 2017, following lack of headway in the UN-mediated Geneva talks., After several rounds of talks, the peace process has made some progress, especially with all the local conflicting parties agreeing to the establishment of “safe zones” ,in May 2017 with Russia, Iran and Turkey agreeing to guarantee its implementation.
However, Ankara and Moscow have had serious differences over the participation of the Syrian Kurds in the Astana process. This had prevented direct Kurdish participation in the earlier rounds of the Astana talks but in December 2017, Moscow made clear its intentions to involve the Syrian Kurds and invited them to participate in the proposed Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi scheduled for January 29-30. Russia sees PYD and other Kurdish groups as part of the solution in Syria and as per the draft constitution prepared by Moscow in early 2017, Kurds will have an autonomous status in post-conflict Syria, similar to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. This is, however, not acceptable to Ankara which sees it as detrimental to its national security because of its restive Kurdish population and the alleged links between the PKK and YPG. Despite suggestions that Moscow and Ankara have come to an agreement for the participation of Kurds in the Sochi congress, no official confirmation has come from either Turkey or Russia.
The US, which has been sidelined by Russia and Iran as far as the peace process is concerned, continues to remain a major player in the Syrian crisis. The US military has been instrumental in the defeat of the IS in Syria, both through direct military operations and by providing arms and training to the SDF. In fact, the US has also supported the PYD and has supplied weapons to, and trained its armed wing, the YPG. Turkey, on the contrary, sees the YPG as a branch of the PKK and disapproves of its growing presence in the areas along the 822 km-long Turkey-Syria border. This has led to serious differences between Washington and Ankara threatening to irreversibly harm relations between the two NATO members. The, announcement on January 14 by the US coalition spokesperson in Syria, Ryan Dillon, that Washington plans to help the YPG establish a 30,000 strong Border Security Force to guard areas under its control has further enraged Ankara which has perceived it as a direct warning by the US against the planned military operation in Afrin. Turkey which has been planning the military operation for weeks was not convinced despite clarifications from the Pentagon that the proposed force is a) not a Border Security Force and, b) is not targeted against Turkey, rather, is a regular force created to fight the IS. President Erdoğan was reportedly furious with the announcement and denounced the US plan as akin to raising an “army of terror.” Addressing a group of his supporters in Ankara on January 15, Erdoğan remarked that Turkey is ready to begin its military offensive in Afrin despite the US opposition and will secure its borders from PKK-YPG terrorists, who, with US support, have raised “terrorist army on our borders.” He further said that it is “Our duty is to strangle this terrorist army before it is even born.”
For Turkey, Afrin has been a major bone of contention since it was taken over by the PYD in the early stages of the Syrian conflict. It wanted to target the Kurdish enclave in August 2016 when it had launched Operation Euphrates Shield against the IS but at that time, Washington and Moscow had prevented Ankara from marching on the Kurds. While the operation helped Turkey secure a military zone for its forces in northern Syria, the continued expansion of the Kurdish autonomous region had Ankara seriously worried. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu had remarked in one of his media interactions that “Turkey’s precautions against YPG/PKK cannot be limited to only Afrin,” indicating that Turkey plans to gradually expand the Afrin offensive. Meanwhile, the Turkish Chief of General Staff, Hulusi Akar, and National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan flew to Moscow to hold talks with Russian counterparts on the planned offensive. This means that Ankara wished to bring Moscow on board before undertaking any military operation in Syria. President Erdoğan too has said that talks are going in with Russia on the planned military operation in Afrin. But at the same time, he stated that Turkey does not plan to consult the US on the issue.
Analysts however argue that it would be impossible for Turkey to get a go ahead from Washington and Moscow, both of whom see the Syrian Kurds, especially the PYD and YPG, as significant actors in the Syrian crisis. The US has already issued a statement urging Turkey to refrain from any military operation in Afrin. The State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert during a media briefing on January 19 said “We would call … on the Turks to not take any actions of that sort. … We don’t want them to engage in violence but we want them to keep focused on Daesh.” While Moscow has remained silent so far, it too, would not be inclined to allow Turkey to undertake a full-fledged military operation against the PYD-YPG, which is in talks with Moscow to participate in the Sochi dialogue.
Nevertheless, Turkey has continued to build up forces on its borders close to Afrin. According to some Turkish analysts, the planned offensive is linked to domestic politics as the AKP is approaching a crucial election year. Many feel that Erdoğan is preparing to call for early presidential elections due in 2019. While economic problems and concerns about growing authoritarianism might harm AKP’s prospects, a perceived “military success” abroad can be presented as an achievement. In Erdoğan’s calculation, even a limited Afrin offensive would boost support for him among his core constituencies of Turkish nationalists and conservative Islamists. However, with both Moscow and Washington opposed to the military operation, it would seriously antagonize both and further isolate Turkey in global and regional politics, if Ankara goes ahead with its plans.