Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters are seen near the city of Afrin, Syria.
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
The Kurds of Afrin in northwest Syria find themselves in the midst of an increasingly deadly and dangerous interchange of agendas.
Over the last month the province has been plunged into war by a Turkish operation whose stated aim is removing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, from the area. Turkey has spoken of a 30-km. buffer zone. There have also been statements about settling 500,000 or more Syrian refugees who fled Syria to Turkey, in Afrin.
On Monday, Syrian regime media announced that “popular forces” would enter Afrin to defend it against Turkish “aggression.” Turkey said that while it will not fight the Syrian regime, it would fight any forces that allow the YPG to remain.
This creates a combustible mess. Russia is allied with the Syrian regime, but it has also warmed relations with Ankara. Moscow acquiesced to the original Turkish incursion, but has changed its tone in recent days.
Turkey's operation in Syria's Kurdish-controlled Afrin region has "de facto" begun with cross-border shelling. (Reuters)
The Kurds are at the center, paying the price for big-power politics. Because the YPG is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria, it had been expected that the US would help ward off a Turkish operation. This is because Kurds have been fighting ISIS alongside the Americans and the 74-nation coalition for years, and the SDF is the key partner of Washington in that fight.
“The Kurds were expecting the US-led coalition would step in and prevent Turkish terror,” says a Kurdish source close to the YPG who is knowledgeable of the events now unfolding. He says the Kurds were surprised that the Americans didn’t restrain their NATO ally, and that Russia also abandoned the YPG, despite promises of cooperation. Moscow wanted to exploit the Turkey-US crisis and thought Afrin could be sacrificed to do so.
The YPG now says if the US does not stop the Turkish operation, the Kurds will turn to the regime. The reason for this appears to be that after a month of bloody battles, the death toll is mounting, and the YPG is concerned about a new Syrian rebel alliance between Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din Zinki, groups the YPG views as “jihadist.”
THEY ARE concerned that these groups – which have been accused of human-rights violations – will harm Kurdish civilians. They also cite video showing imams in Turkey preaching “jihad” against Afrin. The Kurds say the US officials who have paid lip service to understanding “Turkey’s legitimate security concerns,” have shown weakness. They can’t understand how US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went to Ankara and was not able to put a stop to the offensive.
It appears now that the Tillerson’s Ankara visit on February 16 was the last straw for the leadership in Afrin. What they thought was a channel to Washington that would protect Afrin eventually, has not materialized. Instead they see forces gathering and Turkey riding a wave of populism with no brakes on its aims.
The Syrian regime is preparing a massive offensive against Syrian rebels in eastern Ghouta. It is unclear how it would be able to suddenly assert control in Afrin. The regime has used the distraction of the rebels who are helping Turkey in Afrin, as its chance to plot attacks. For the regime, the prospect of plucking Afrin, like a plump fruit from the grasp of Turkey, is inviting. But Damascus needs Moscow’s backing to prevent the Turkish Air Force from continuing its raids on Afrin. Moscow has its agenda. It wants to weaken the US-YPG connection, and it wants an understanding with Turkey. The regime thinks it might have drawn Turkey into a trap and that by forcing the YPG’s hand it will win back a province without having to do anything.
For now the regime and the YPG want to send up this trial balloon to see how the US, Ankara and Moscow react. Rumors are floating lately that Iran is also unhappy about threats to some villages near Afrin, and that pro-regime elements are chomping at the bit to go to Afrin to confront the “jihadists.” But this is a dangerous game. Russia prizes itself on being good at chess. Rarely was there a more complex stratagem as that unfolding in Afrin. Unfortunately for many of those on the ground, they are being sacrificed as pawns to please Damascus, Ankara, Moscow and Washington.