Turkey warns Syrian regime as northern Syria crises deepens

The US has continually urged restraint and said Ankara’s operation is a distraction from the war on Islamic State.

A Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter in Afrin, Syria (photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
A Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter in Afrin, Syria
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned the Syrian regime on Monday against entering the Afrin province in northern Syria.
Also on Monday, a Syrian state media reported that Syrian “popular forces” would enter the province to support the “steadfastness of their people in the face of aggression carried out by the forces of the Turkish regime.”
Turkey"s operation in Syria"s Kurdish-controlled Afrin region has "de facto" begun with cross-border shelling. (Reuters)
The potential conflict between Turkey and Syria comes a month after Turkey launched a major offensive into northern Syria, aimed at removing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who it labels as terrorists, from its border. The US has continually urged restraint and said Ankara’s operation is a distraction from the war against Islamic State.
Afrin is located in a mountainous region of northwest Syria next to the border with Turkey. Since 2012, as a Kurdish canton controlled by the YPG, it has been mostly cut-off from the vicious civil war in Syria.
Since 2015, the YPG has partnered with the US-led coalition in eastern Syria, where it makes up part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF liberated Raqqa from ISIS and are key to helping stabilize eastern Syria, the US says.
However, Afrin has always been separate from the SDF-controlled areas in the east. Since 2016, Turkey has been quietly, and then more vocally, warning that it would invade Afrin to curtail the rise of, what it sees as, the YPG terrorist group aligned with the Kurdistan Workers Party.
In the fall of 2016, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield to remove ISIS from its border, shore up the Syrian rebels it supports and prevent the SDF and YPG in Afrin from creating a contiguous section of control along the Turkish border.
Tillerson: US recognizes Turkey"s right to secure borders, February 16, 2018 (Reuters)
In January 2018, Ankara accused the US of training a “terrorist army” in eastern Syria and launched its operation against Afrin using tanks, airplanes and more than 10,000 Syrian rebel allies.
THE SYRIAN REGIME in Damascus has looked on helplessly as Turkey moved into northern Syria. Although it officially opposed Turkey’s operations, there was little it could do. Damascus was busy fighting Syrian rebels in Idlib and dealing with areas it has liberated from ISIS. The regime is exhausted from seven years of war and relies heavily on Russian airpower and Iranian-backed militias.
It appears that in January, Russia acquiesced to Turkey’s moves in Afrin. Damascus had initially threatened to down Turkish warplanes, but it did nothing on January 20 when the air strikes began.
Damascus is also dealing with trouble on its border with Israel. After an Iranian drone flown from Syria entered Israeli airspace on February 12, Israel launched extensive air strikes in Syria and an Israeli F-16 was shot down. The regimes air defenses are greatly weakened.
However, on Sunday, rumors began to swirl that the YPG had made a deal with Damascus. According to informed sources, Damascus and Russia had initially considered a deal with the YPG in January, under which the regime would protect Afrin in exchange for oil fields held by the SDF near the Euphrates.
We now know that a pro-regime unit on February 7 tried to reach the Conoco gas field and was ripped apart by American air strikes, reportedly killing Russian contractors. The YPG has held up the Turkish offensive, destroying tanks and a helicopter and causing dozens of Turkish casualties. However, Turkish media claims that 1,600 YPG fighters have been neutralized.
With estimates of total YPG fighters in Afrin totaling less than 10,000, the struggling YPG appears to have agreed to some kind of Syrian regime deployment in the area.
Russia appears to support the Syrian regime’s moves. Over the weekend, Russia Today reported that Turkey had used gas against the Kurds. In response to this, Cavusoglu engaged in a Twitter feud with the news channel, telling them to “stop lying.”
Russia Today is considered to be close to the Kremlin and its critical comments on the Turkish operation indicate Moscow’s line.
Unsurprisingly then, Syrian state media SANA later reported that Syrian forces would enter Afrin to support the YPG fighting off the “aggression carried out by the forces of the Turkish regime.”
SANA accused Turkey of violating Syrian sovereignty and “thwarting the attempt of the regime of Erdogan and his mercenaries from the terrorist organizations to occupy the region.” It accused Turkey of using “internationally banned chlorine as well as systematic destruction of infrastructure, property and archeology.”
The accusation against Turkey working with terrorists refers to the allegations that Turkish forces in Idlib have been escorted by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an organization linked to al-Qaida, which Washington views as terrorists. Damascus’s concerns also relate to the announcement on Sunday that Ahrar al-Sham and Nureddin al-Zinki, Syrian rebel groups that are hardline Islamists, had merged.
Damascus doesn’t want a united Syrian opposition and more Turkish forces in Idlib, as well as in Afrin.
Turkish media has been mum on the Afrin developments. However, Cavusoglu, on a visit to Jordan, warned Damascus: “If the regime enters to clear out the YPG, then there is no problem. If they are entering to provide protection to the YPG, then no one can stop Turkey or Turkish soldiers.”