This dust-up started last weekend when the US announced the creation of a new Kurdish-led Border Security Force to manage the areas of northern Syria occupied by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Both Syria and Turkey have declared this unacceptable, the former because it violates their sovereignty and the latter due to their claims that elements of the SDF work with the internationally recognized terrorist group: the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Turkey has prepared for the assault in recent days by moving massive amounts of troops into the region as well as armored vehicles and possibly Tomahawk missiles. While these heavier weapons have yet to be used, Turkey has been shelling Kurdish positions across the border for several days.
According to Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli, despite the fact that Turkish troops have yet to cross the border near Afrin, “The operation has actually de facto started” with the shelling. The Turkish troops at the border with Syria may not have crossed yet, but the Turks do already have troops in Idlib, south of Afrin, where they are embedded with Syrian rebel groups and were supposed to be upholding agreements on “deconfliction zones.”
The Turkish backed elements of the Free Syrian Army are also moving north from Aleppo towards Kurdish held territory to assist the offensive. Erdogan has justified the rebel participation in the Afrin offensive by claiming “This struggle is being conducted for them. Not for us.”
Turkey has been lobbying the Russian government both on behalf of these rebels in Idlib and now for support in their campaign to wipe out YPG elements. However, both of these efforts seemed to fail until today when Turkish MP Ahmet Berat Conkar claimed that “Russia is taking steps to move its forces in Afrin away from the areas where there might be clashes.”
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s last comments on the potential Afrin operation confirmed that he opposed any Turkish incursion into Syria, saying he would shoot down Turkish aircraft in Syrian airspace. However, if the Russians genuinely negotiated a deal to allow the Turkish operation then perhaps this has changed.
Turkey and Syria both stand to gain from any operation that could potentially stop the creation of this new Kurdish force that seems an intentional standing US proxy army. It is likely that if the Kurds in this area go unchecked, they will try to claim independence, both stealing territory from Syria as well as creating a base of operations for Kurdish terrorists in operating in Turkey.
Erdogan and Assad both consider the Kurds terrorists, and Assad has called the new 30,000 man “border force” a terror army that violates Syrian sovereignty. Some observers believe that due to irreconcilable differences, Assad would block Turkish operations but now if the Russians really are negotiating with Turkey, any US designs to fracture the Astana triumvirate seem to have failed, and Russian pragmatism has predictably won again.
Moscow also opposes the creation of the border force, claiming it only exposes US plans to split Syrian territory. Erdogan agreed with this sentiment and argued that taking out the border force is justified since Daesh is defeated in the area and the Kurds have aspired for their own state long before the Syrian war.
That said, it’s not safe for Damascus or Moscow to place too much trust in Turkey’s rebels, who also have a long-term goal that isn’t just defeating Daesh but toppling Assad. If instead of withdrawing, Erdogan decided to use a victory in Afrin to open a route for Turkey to Idlib, you could hypothetically have a confrontation between Syrian and Russian forces on one side and Turkey and their rebels on the other. Yet, as turkey moves closer to Russia it is likely that this scenario could possibly be avoided as well.
While some may think the Kurdish threat is some genius US plot to bait turkey into destroying their renewed relations with Russia and Iran, all parties still agree the border force is unacceptable. Instead of expecting the worst from this scenario we should be confident in the forces that have helped bring the Syrian war closer to an end to continue their good work for the common good and place their short-term differences aside to stop US imperialism.
If Erdogan sincerely only wishes to stop the Kurds then it should be easy to come to an agreement with Turkey’s newer allies on how to do this, and if he wishes to move to support his rebels in Idlib it is likely he will reconsider should Russia oppose an extended Turkish presence.
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