Conflicting interests: Iran confronts Turkey in Syria's Afrin region

The chances for a deepening crisis in Afrin are growing.

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters react as they hold their weapons near the city of Afrin, Syria February 19, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters react as they hold their weapons near the city of Afrin, Syria February 19, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Monday night, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan phoned Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. Sources fed local rosy statements to media about “cooperation in the fight against terrorist elements” and Rouhani said the two leaders discussed “plots to disintegrate regional states.”
But behind the scenes Iran is quietly opposing Turkey’s operation in the mostly Kurdish Afrin region in northwest Syria. Tehran is a key ally of Damascus but is reticent to confront Turkey, with which it enjoys amicable relations.
Just after 4 p.m. on Tuesday, pro-Syrian regime forces began moving from regime-controlled areas of Aleppo toward the area of Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) control in Afrin. Since January 20, Turkey has been engaged in a large military operation to drive the YPG, which Ankara accuses of being terrorists, out of Afrin.
The Kurds hoped their US partners in eastern Syria would restrain Ankara, which is also a US ally. Instead, a month of fighting ensued and the YPG became isolated in Afrin, as Turkish air strikes and artillery and thousands of Syrian rebels backed by Turkish tanks pushed into the villages on the border. Ankara vowed to surround Afrin city on Tuesday.
Afrin refers to the district as well as the city of that name in northern Syria
Iran has remained mostly mum on the developments. Officially Tehran is opposed to Turkey’s Afrin operation because it “believes it could fuel tensions in the already troubled Arab country [Syria],” Press TV claims. In Damascus, the Syrian regime has set its sights on attacking Syrian rebel-held eastern Ghouta. But the regime also wants Afrin back and doesn’t want Turkey putting down more roots inside Syrian territory.
In hopes of achieving those aims, Damascus began discussions with the YPG, which has controlled Afrin since 2013. The YPG initially wanted US support in Afrin. They have become disillusioned as Washington has only paid lip service, asking Ankara to show restraint while supporting Turkey’s desire for security.
“Iran is against Kurdish gains in general but they wouldn’t like to see Turkey taking over parts of Syria,” says a source close to the YPG. “Turkey is on the side of jihadist movements. A loss of territory in Syria to this movement will not make Iran happy.” If the US doesn’t act, the YPG has no other card to play except negotiations with Russia, and Iran’s deepening interest. “Afrin is the new Sudetenland,” says he source, comparing the situation to 1938 Europe.
A Syrian rebel source says that Russia has quietly acquiesced to Turkey taking Afrin. “Iran is challenging the Russians now.” If the pro-regime troops enter Afrin it will embarrass Moscow, he says, because Moscow has sought to cultivate Ankara in recent months. Iran has meanwhile prepared the ground for pro-regime militias to enter Afrin via Al-Mayadeen News, which supports Damascus. On Tuesday, Al-Mayadeen was the first to show images of pro-Syria regime units in a convoy of trucks driving toward Afrin, next to the villages of Nubl and Zahraa. They were met by the YPG, a sign that a major shift may be taking place.
The lightly-armed convoy of trucks with mounted machine guns driving into Afrin and waving Syrian flags was immediately tracked by a Turkish drone and artillery fire, according to video posted online. According to Al-Mayadeen, the forces consisted of pro-regime National Defense Forces and other units. Pro-Hezbollah media is also reporting closely on the events in Afrin.
As these forces inch closer to Turkish positions, the chances for a deepening crisis in Afrin grows. It also reveals that Iran and its friends in Damascus may have outplayed the Americans.