People hold flags of Women's Protection Unit (YPJ) as they walk during a protest against Turkish attacks on Afrin, in Hasaka, Syria, January 18, 2018..
(photo credit: RODI SAID / REUTERS)
On Friday, Turkey increased its shelling of the Kurdish-held Afrin enclave in northern Syria. According to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), up to 70 artillery shells were fired during the night.
While Ankara has threatened to invade the Kurdish area it says is controlled by terrorists aligned with the Kurdistan Workers Party, Damascus has threatened to shoot down Turkish warplanes in case of any attack on Syrian territory.
The war of words in northern Syria puts the US and Russia in a bind because the US is allied with the Kurds in eastern Syria, while Russia has been a close ally of the Assad regime.
Since mid-January there have been rumors and threats of a Turkish invasion of Afrin. The area has been controlled by the YPG since the early years of the Syrian civil war. In eastern Syria, the YPG and its affiliated Syrian Democratic Forces have been successful at defeating Islamic State. However in northern Syria, the Kurds have only come to control the thinly populated mountainous area of Afrin.
The autonomous canton is home to around one million people. The area is surrounded by Turkey on two sides and in Syria it borders areas controlled by rebel groups. The Kurds in this area have remained mostly outside the Syrian conflict, because the rebel groups represent a buffer from most of the heavy fighting. However, the Kurds here also have a complex relationship with the Assad regime. They have not opposed Russian military personnel, for instance, who have been spotted in the Afrin area, and the YPG maintains amicable contact with the Russians, the regime’s closet ally.
Since the fall of 2016, when Turkey began to intervene in Syria, the YPG has been targeted by the Turks and their Syrian rebel allies. When Turkey and those allies moved into the area between Jarabulus and Kilis in 2016, it was widely seen as an offensive not only against ISIS but also to make sure the Kurdish forces did not get any closer to the Turkish border to link up Afrin with the areas they control in eastern Syria.
In March 2017, the US, which has been working closely with the Syrian Democratic Forces and YPG against ISIS, sent vehicles to Manbij to ward off any Turkish attack on its Kurdish partners. This was an important symbol because it showed the US had drawn a clear line around its partner forces and would warn off any attack. The US shot down a Syrian plane in June 2017 that was operating close to the SDF as well.
However, the US-led coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon put out a statement on January 16 saying it is not operating in Afrin, and the Pentagon told the Anadolu Turkish news agency that it was not involved with the YPG in Afrin. “We don’t consider them as part of our defeat ISIS operations,” a Pentagon spokesman said.
This is a clear message to Turkey that the US would not be involved in any sort of operations if they happened in Afrin. However, the US has indicated it will be remaining in eastern Syria for the foreseeable future. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated this pledge on Wednesday.
The US has often urged Turkey to keep its focus on fighting ISIS, rather than allow mission creep that would lead to conflict with the Kurds. Any conflict with the Kurds would inevitably complicate the US mission in eastern Syria, because it would cause the Kurds in the east to want to aid their comrades in Afrin.
Ankara has posited that any operation into Afrin would be with rebel groups, and that the operation is carried out “for them,” and Turkey is “helping our brothers,” according to statements from the Turkish Presidency. However, this poses problems because the Syrian rebels that Turkey wants to work with against Afrin are busy fighting the Assad regime in Idlib, where they are hard pressed suffering civilian and military loses.
Nevertheless Turkey’s Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli vowed on Friday that Ankara would carry out the operation, according to Turkish media. “The threat level against Turkey is increasing by the day. This operation will be carried out and we will combat terrorism.”
At the same time the Assad regime warns that any incursion could bring Syrian air defense into the picture. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad warned on Friday that any attack on Afrin would be an act of “aggression” against Syria.
According to Al Jazeera, Russia has moved military observers in Afrin “away” from the area, closer to Assad regime-held territory. Any attack would therefore not harm the Russians who have become a key arbiter of issues in Syria. Russia has hosted the Astana and Sochi talks about the future of Syria, meeting with Turkey, Iran and Syria’s government. In Afrin, Russia is the key player because it has relations with all sides and it has warmed relations with Turkey over the last six months.
However, Russia has remained mum on any potential Turkish operation. It must balance its interests in cultivating relations with Ankara, with its support of Damascus and its relations with the Kurds. Wishing to see itself as the broker of peace, Russia would hope that there is not a major Turkish incursion. That means any Turkish action might be limited, as it has been before, and the war of words is intended more to test the waters with the US, Russia and Syria, than lead to a major attack jeopardizing the lives of thousands.
What does this mean for Israel? A similar scenario will eventually play out near the Golan, without Turkey but with the regime seeking to test the US’s, Jordan’s and Israel’s resolve, with Russia in the background. Afrin therefore matters greatly to the region, and what happens there will tell us much about the future of Syria.