This article was published in Arab News on August 14, 2017.
Turkey’s temptation for Afrin
On Aug. 5, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “By launching the military operation Euphrates Shield, we had thrust a dagger at the heart of the new terrorist formation in Syria. We are determined to enlarge it with new operations. Very soon, we will take new and important steps in this field… We prefer to pay the price of undoing their terrorist designs in Syria and Iraq rather than paying it in our country.”
It is not clear whether this emphatic language is aimed at dissuading the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from consolidating their grip on Afrin, or at using this threat as a bargaining chip with Russia. An important task for Moscow in Idlib is to get rid of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which recently gained the upper hand in the province against another group, Ahrar Al-Sham, which is supported by Turkey and Qatar.
Cooperation with Ankara may therefore be useful for Moscow in order to uproot HTS in Idlib by using Ahrar Al-Sham as a temporary ally. In exchange, Turkey may be expecting from Russia not to obstruct its operations in Afrin. If Turkey expands its military operation to Afrin, this will be a new chapter in the Syrian crisis. Conditions are now less auspicious for Ankara than they were in the past.
Both Russia and the US will have to choose between their traditional support for the Kurdish cause and their worry of antagonizing Turkey. Ankara will probably consider a military operation in Afrin as a last resort because of several risks.
Turkey will have to factor in that its relations with the US were further strained after its official news agency Anadolu published on July 18 an article and map that disclosed the locations of 10 American bases across northeast Syria, with specific breakdowns of each base, including troop numbers.
A military base cannot be easily hidden in a war-torn country such as Syria, especially when it is so close to the Turkish border in an area inhabited by various ethnic groups. As such, the disclosure probably did not divulge any secrets, but it still angered the US.
Both Russia and the US will have to choose between their traditional support for the Kurdish cause and their worry of antagonizing Turkey.
“The release of sensitive military information exposes the coalition forces to unnecessary risk, and has the potential to disrupt ongoing operations to defeat Daesh,” said US military spokesman Josh Jacques, adding: “Concerns about the map and accompanying report had been relayed through the State Department to Ankara.” On July 19, parts of the article were removed from Anadolu’s website.
Another reason for the inadvisability of a Turkish military operation in Afrin is the US is further equipping the YPG with anti-tank missiles. As such, it can now cause more casualties to the Turkish army in case of an invasion. On Aug. 5, the YPG claimed to have destroyed in Afrin a tank belonging to the Turkey-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Afrin was declared an autonomous canton in January 2014 by the YPG and its political branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The US is a strong supporter of the Kurdish cause. There seems to be a tacit deal between Washington and Moscow to divide northern Syria into two zones of influence: East of the Euphrates for the US and west of the river for Russia.
If there is such a division, Afrin will fall under Russian influence, so Kurds there will benefit from Russian protection as well as traditional US protection. A prolonged wrangle between Turkey and the YPG may suck in the US and Russia one way or another. This will further complicate Turkey’s already-difficult position in Syria.
A smoother way for Ankara to handle the situation would be to add Afrin to the four already-agreed de-escalation zones and avoid military confrontation. The trilateral cooperation forum created in Astana by Turkey, Russia and Iran may be a suitable venue to consider this. It will also help further consolidate trust between Ankara and Moscow.