Fighters of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) carry their weapons at a military training camp in Ras al-Ain, Syria.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“Turkey, Russia May Cooperate in Afrin After YPG Driven Out,” read a headline in the Turkish Daily Sabah on July 1.
New conflicts threaten Syria after Islamic State defeat (credit: REUTERS)
It was part of a flurry of reports over the weekend that said Turkey and its allies among Syrian rebel groups were about to invade the Kurdish canton of Afrin in northwest Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly discussed Afrin with US President Donald Trump during a 30-minute phone call on Friday. On Sunday, Erdogan met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish media outlet Rudaw headlined, “Turkey, Kurds May be Headed Towards Full-Blown Conflict in Afrin.”
Not so fast.
Afrin Canton is a majority Kurdish district in Syria. It is hilly and agricultural and smaller than the US state of Rhode Island. Its largest city, from which the district takes its name, has only around 50,000 inhabitants. The whole area – even with displaced people who have fled there since 2011 – has an estimated half-million residents.
Since Bashar Assad’s regime withdrew its forces in 2012, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, have run the district.
Over the years Turkey has shelled the YPG, which it views as terrorist. Last year when I was in the Turkish border town of Kilis, Turkish artillery targeted the YPG there.
In August 2016, Turkey launched operation Euphrates Shield to clear ISIS from the border and shore up Syrian rebel groups between Kilis and Jarablus, east of Afrin. Turkey threatened to attack the YPG and its partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, in nearby Manbij. But the US made it clear it would resist any attack on its allies.
Any attack on the SDF or YPG in northeastern Syria is a red line for the Americans.
But what about northwestern Syria. Is that a red line for Russia? In March and May, Russian troops were reported to be in Afrin.
To raise awareness, Kurdish activists started a social media campaign hashtagged “Turkey hands off Afrin.” Kurdish commander Mehmud Berxwedan told Rudaw that Afrin would be a “swamp” for Turkish forces.
YPG commander Sipan Hemo told reporters that Turkey wants to unify the area it helped the rebels liberate near Jarablus with the rebel enclave in Idlib. He said that the YPG would not only defend against Turkey but would liberate the area to the east.
This would link up Afrin Canton with the Kurdish areas in Manbij and Kobane. Another Kurdish official, Nuri Mehmud, told Russian website Sputniknews.com that Turkey was planning to attack Tal Rifat, which is on the road from the Turkish border at Kilis to Aleppo.
If you add up all the stories being pushed by both sides and sources on the ground, you are left with two sides trying to see how the international community – and especially the US and Russia – will react if their allies go to war.
The statement from the office of the President of Russia’s about a Putin-Erdogan phone call on June 30, for instance, did not mention Afrin, but “key aspects of the Syrian settlement in light of the 5th international meeting on Syria in Astana,” which will happen this month.
Russia and the Syrian regime support “de-confliction” and “de-escalation” in areas of Syria, so Russian forces don’t come into contact with the US, Turkey, Israel or any other actors whose planes have flown over Syrian airspace.
The real story behind the Afrin war clouds may be an operation by Turkey-backed forces near Azaz, just a few kilometers from the border, to push into Tal Rifat, which the YPG holds. A combined pincer attack from Syrian rebel-held areas in Idlib pushing north would link Aleppo’s northern countryside around Azaz with Idlib and cut off Afrin from the Syrian regime-held areas of Aleppo. This would advance Turkey’s goal of isolating it, while aiding the rebel groups such as Faylaq Sham, or the Sham Legion, that Turkey has supported in Syria. A limited operation like this may be more likely.
Like all things in the Syrian conflict, whatever happens will take far longer than any kind of overnight attack that changes the situation in northwestern Syria.