This article was published in Arab News on February 26, 2018.
Could Afrin lead to a breakthrough in Turkey-Syria relations?
Turkey’s military operation in the northern Syrian province of Afrin is unfolding almost entirely as predicted. Resistance and difficulties were expected, as they are in any military confrontation.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said during a visit to Jordan last week: “There is no problem if the Syrian regime enters Afrin to clear the area of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a terror organization Turkey has been fighting for more than three decades) and YPG (People’s Protection Units, the military branch of the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria) but if it enters to protect the YPG, nobody will be able to stop the Turkish army.”
Despite its negative connotations, there is a constructive ambiguity in this statement. It may give Turkey some flexibility if it decides, at a later stage of the operation, to negotiate an arrangement with Damascus.
Another constructive element in the statement is that Turkey is aware that the regime’s forces are not entering Afrin to protect the YPG. They enter the province first to counter the Turkish army and regain control of its territory; and second to prevent the YPG from transforming the region into an autonomous canton. In reality, the local authorities of Afrin invited the regime’s forces “to assume their duty to protect the Syrian territory from the Turkish invasion.”
So, if the constructive ambiguity in Cavusoglu’s statement was a considered opinion of the Turkish government, and especially of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it may give up the operation because the task of checking the YPG will be carried out by the Syrian government. Despite a common interest between the Syrian government and the YPG in countering the Turkish military operation, there is a difference between the expectations of the regime and those of the Kurds.
What is important for Turkey is the attitude of the other major players in Syria, as there are both differences and overlapping interests in their positions. The US would prefer to see the YPG maintain its presence in Afrin one way or another, rather than being eliminated entirely. Russia would like the regime to regain control of the province without necessarily ousting the Kurds. Iran, meanwhile, is opposed to the Turkish military operation but it may prefer a crippled Kurdish presence that it would be able to control in the future.
YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud said the group “called on the Syrian government to assume its responsibility and the government sent its troops to be deployed on the border with Turkey.” This statement implies that the Kurds expect the regime’s forces to protect the international border between Turkey and Syria, but not interfere with the internal affairs of the self-declared Afrin canton.
Ankara’s refusal to condemn Assad regime for sending its forces to Kurds’ aid leaves door open for a potential deal between rival nations — provided Damascus approves.
Turkey is not happy with the arrival of the regime’s forces, but it may prefer that pro-Syrian government forces, rather than its own army, deal with the YPG fighters.
The deal negotiated between Damascus and the YPG, with the mediation of Russia, included the transfer of power by the YPG to the central authorities in Damascus. The major sticking point was whether weapons in the hands of non-fighter individuals would also be handed over to the Syrian authorities. In a crisis-stricken area, individuals need weapons to protect themselves, so there was a reaction from the people to this precondition of Damascus. But the deal was eventually struck and so far three pro-regime military units have arrived in Afrin.
Afrin had a population of around 200,000 according to the 2004 census. After the Syrian crisis broke out in 2011, the province reportedly received more than 110,000 internally displaced persons. The present breakdown of the population is very much disputed. The Kurds claim the province’s population is composed mainly of Kurds, Arabized Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Arabized Turkmen. Other ethnicities present include Armenians, Chechens, Circassians and Yazidis. In case of a clash that involves the civilian population, Turkey can count only on the Turkmen and some Arabs; the allegiances of the others are uncertain to say the least.
Apart from the YPG fighters already in Afrin, media reports indicate that some of its soldiers from Raqqa are also finding their way there to fight the Turkish army. Others joining the fight against Turkey include individuals, mercenaries or volunteers from Europe and all over the world, but their contribution to the Kurdish fighting force will remain symbolic because of their lack of military training, language skills and dedication to the cause.
In view of this complicated landscape, Turkey may choose to strike a deal with Damascus. This will ease its relations not only with Russia and Iran, but also with the US. How Damascus will react to Turkey’s potential overtures after so many mutual recriminations is another matter.