Turkey prepares to ramp up fight against Syrian Kurds

Turkey prepares to ramp up fight against Syrian Kurds
4 min read
29 June, 2017
Analysis: Ankara wants to oust the YPG from Tel Rifaat, according to Turkish newspaper reports.
A YPG fighter surveys the Afrin landscape [AFP]

As Turkey gets ready to expand its troop presence in northwest Syria, as part of a plan with the Russians to secure the "de-escalation zone" in the Idlib region, it is reportedly preparing heavy attacks against Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) operating from the tiny, isolated northwestern Kurdish Afrin Canton. 

The conservative Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak outlined the Turkish plan to attack Afrin from bases already established in the 90-kilometre Jarablus-Marea strip of border territory currently occupied by Turkey and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxy militiamen. The newspaper reports that a joint force plans to force the YPG from the small city of Tel Rifaat and the Syrian regime's former Menagh Airbase.

These two areas were captured by Kurdish fighters in clashes with other groups in northwest Syria, several of whom were backed by Ankara before it intervened directly with Operation Euphrates Shield. When the YPG seized Menagh Airbase, with Russian air support, from the Levant Front group in February 2016 Turkey stopped them from advancing any further by launching cross-border artillery bombardments.

Ankara seems to have been waiting for an opportunity to push forces back into Afrin.

A larger confrontation looks more likely, if not outright inevitable

The YPG and Turkish-FSA forces are currently engaged in daily clashes around Afrin. The YPG fired heavy machine guns at Turkish-backed groups south of Azaz. Turkey in turn launched artillery strikes into Afrin. Local Kurdish media also reported that Turkish reconnaissance planes have also been flying over the area, likely gathering intelligence on YPG defences and positions there. 

Given the intensity of these latest clashes, coupled with Turkey's reported plan to dispatch troops, officially in a peacekeeping capacity, into nearby Idlib province, a larger confrontation looks more likely, if not outright inevitable.

In July 2003 Turkish special forces attempted to create chaos in Iraqi Kurdistan to give itself a pretext to send in its own troops in as peacekeepers, which could then have been used to forcibly subdue that autonomous region. Those efforts were foiled by the Americans. 

Turkey is similarly using its Idlib deployment to put more pressure on Afrin. It has seized similar opportunities to either contain or attack the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), with which it has been at war for four decades. Numerous attacks killing Turkish civilians have been claimed by or attributed to the PKK over these years.

Ankara began military operations against IS in July 2015 and used its role in the US-led anti-IS coalition to focus on attacking the PKK in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast and, with airstrikes, in the mountains of neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey's Euphrates Shield operation against IS in the Jarablus-Marea region also enabled Ankara to forcibly prevent the YPG from linking its primary northeast territories of Kobane and Jazira - which dominate all of Syria's northeast frontier east of the Euphrates River - with Afrin.

Now, by deploying its troops into the northwest "de-escalation zone", Turkey will be in a stronger position to strike the YPG in Afrin, since it will have forces arrayed against the tiny canton - from Idlib to its south and the Turkish border provinces of Kilis and Hatay to its north and west - along with its proxy forces in Marea approximately 20km from Afrin's east.

It's unclear if Russia would, at least tacitly, acquiesce to any major Turkish operation against the Kurds in that region. When the Americans dispatched troops to prevent the Turks from attacking the SDF in the city of Manbij in early March, the Russians also sent a small force to Afrin later the same month.

I think most probably Russia will permit Turkey to harass the Kurds there

Timur Akhmetov, a Turkey expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, told The New Arab that he didn't see any major Turkish operation against Afrin taking place "without Russian consent".

"But a further problem is that this operation may reduce Russian leverage over Turkey and harm ties with the Kurds," Akhmetov added. "I think most probably Russia will permit Turkey to harass the Kurds there."

There has been speculation that, after the United States shot down the Syrian Su-22 jet-fighter on June 18 in defence of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Arab-Kurdish coalition - largely formed and led by the YPG - that Russia may acquiesce to a major Turkish attack on Afrin as a way to indirectly poke the Americans in the eye.

After all, any major Turkish attack on Afrin could affect the concurrent US-backed SDF Raqqa operation against IS, since the YPG are unlikely to sit idly by while their compatriots are being pummelled by Turkish forces in Afrin.

But Akhmetov doesn't believe that Turkey "will be able to advance into Afrin canton without suffering heavy losses".

Instead he sees Turkey upping its attack against these forces, after US Defense Secretary James Mattis said the US may well continue to arm and support the SDF/YPG following IS' eventual defeat in Raqqa.

Such "harassment will be shown as a sign that Turkey will be ready to go further if cooperation between the SDF and the US continues after Raqqa," Akhmetov elaborated.

Will Russia look the other way if Turkey begins bombing the YPG in Afrin? "Most probably - Russia perfectly understands that the Turks need to let off some steam."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon