A Turkish attack on Kurds will further destabilise Syria's northwest
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is once again threatening to destroy the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) group in its isolated northwestern Afrin Canton as Damascus undertakes a major offensive in neighbouring Idlib province.
Ankara believes the YPG to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has fought a 34-year militant insurgency against Turkey.
A Turkish attack at this time, however, could easily cause more widespread instability in that corner of Syria, more civilian casualties and yet another refugee flow into Turkey itself.
Ankara has been bolstering its forces by sending at least five more tanks to the border. On Saturday, "Turkish artillery units based in Hatay and Syria's Idlib province hit YPG targets in Afrin's Bosoufane, Cindirese, Deir Bellout and Rajo districts," reported Hurriyet. On Sunday, the YPG fired rockets over the Turkish border, and the Turks returned fire with artillery.
Erdogan says a major assault will commence unless the YPG surrenders in both Afrin and the city of Manbij "in a matter of days". He has made such threats for almost a year now after the Turkish army successfully captured a 60-mile-wide swathe of territory from the Islamic State group between Afrin and Manbij during Operation Euphrates Shield.
|Euphrates Shield officially ended in late March 2017 with the Turks occupying most of this strategically important territory that the Kurds covet|
That operation successfully denied the Kurds the opportunity to link Kobane with Afrin through the Shahba region, established in captured territories that to date extends westward from Kobane to the city of Manbij (which they captured from IS in August 2016) and eastward from Afrin to the city of Tal Rifaat (which they captured in February 2016).
Euphrates Shield officially ended in late March 2017 with the Turks occupying most of this strategically important territory that the Kurds covet, following Turkey's defeat of IS in the lengthy battle for the city of al-Bab, with their army and allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) militia.
In October, the Turks sent forces into Idlib province, which is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as the al-Qaeda offshoot the Nusra Front. Unlike Euphrates Shield, however, they secured strategic areas along Idlib's frontiers with Afrin by brokering a deal with HTS rather than militarily uprooting the militants to secure these areas.
Erdogan illustrated that the Idlib incursion was fundamentally about putting as much pressure on Afrin as possible when he claimed that Turkey's forces "are destroying the western wing of this [Kurdish] corridor with the Idlib operation".
The Turkish president uses terms like "terror corridor" in reference to the prospect of YPG capturing the entire Syrian border with Turkey by linking Kobane and Afrin - which has long been a red-line for Turkey in northern Syria.
Afrin is, by far, the weakest and most vulnerable of Syria's Kurdish territories and it is where Turkey can afflict maximum damage on the YPG. Aside from having forces south of Afrin in Idlib, Turkish forces on Turkish territory already hem in Afrin to the north, and their FSA proxy fighters are present east of YPG-controlled Tel Rifaat.
Erdogan's claim that an assault on Afrin is imminent and these recent clashes are worrying developments, especially in light of the fact that they coincide with the Syrian regime's two-week-old offensive against HTS in Idlib.
|The ongoing Syrian offensive is likely to displace hundreds of thousands more in Idlib if HTS mounts a substantial fight from entrenched urban positions|
Already that offensive has displaced an estimated 100,000 Syrians. According to the United Nations, at least 2.5 million Syrians are presently based in Idlib - 1.1 million of whom are already displaced from elsewhere in the country. Afrin had roughly 172,095 residents according to the last Syrian census of 2004 and also hosts a number of displaced persons.
The ongoing Syrian offensive is likely to displace hundreds of thousands more in Idlib if HTS mounts a substantial fight from entrenched urban positions. It might well prove a much more serious battle than the recent regime offensive against IS in Deir az-Zour province and the most serious regime action since the infamous battle for Aleppo in late 2016.
Afrin, cut off and blockaded by Turkey and, according to some accounts, swollen with up to 300,000 displaced persons already, will unlikely prove able to accommodate a large influx of displaced people from Idlib - meaning that those displaced in Idlib now and in the future will likely end up in either regime-held territory in Syria or in Turkey.
If Ankara attacks Afrin in the near future then it will simply add to the already enormous population of displaced in that area since that is the predictable result and consequence of heavily bombarding such a tiny, densely populated enclave.
Turkey has already taken pride in its efforts in helping resettle and shelter Syrian refugees in Jarablus and the other areas captured from IS during Euphrates Shield in its bid to stem the flow of refugees over the border. It has sought for years to devise workable "safe zones" within Syria itself where Syrians can remain within their own borders. Jarablus is the only area they've had much success in this endeavour.
This success story could come undone if Turkey takes rash action against Afrin and Manbij since it could spark a larger confrontation between Turkey and the YPG, especially if Ankara uses ground forces, that could return the approximate quarter of Syria under Kurdish control into a warzone at a time when the Syrian conflict is actually showing some signs of dying down.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.