Turkey’s Advance in Syria Fraught with Danger

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

January 26, 2018

Turkey has begun military operations against Kurdish YPG militia fighters it accuses of supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The move comes after the U.S. government announced that it planned on arming the YPG in an effort to create a buffer zone for Syrians escaping the Assad regime. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has condemned the U.S. move and has vowed to defeat the YPG forces located in areas bordering Turkey.

Turkey’s advance against Kurdish positions in Syria has been roundly criticized, not least by Kurdish activists within Turkey, many of whom, according to the Kurdish daily Rudaw have warned that the “Kurds of Turkey will not accept a military intervention in Afrin, said veteran Kurdish politician Ahmet Turk in a recent interview, warning that the Kurdish population in Turkey and throughout the Middle East cannot be ignored…. Turkey’s leaders have repeatedly said they will not allow a ‘terror corridor’ along its borders where Kurds have established a self-autonomous enclave in northern Syria. Ahmet Turk said that while Turkey may have had some legitimate grounds for military operations against the PKK, an attack on Afrin is not justified.”

The Turkish military action has also been condemned by the Syrian government. In a statement published by Syrian News Agency SANA, the Assad regime declared that it was “calling on the international community to take steps to stop it immediately. An official source at the Foreign and Expatriates Ministry said on Saturday that the Syrian Arab Republic strongly condemns the flagrant Turkish aggression on the city of Afrin, which is an integral part of Syrian territory, stressing that this aggression is the most recent in a series of Turkish transgressions against Syrian sovereignty…. The source concluded by saying that Syria demands that the international community condemn this aggression and take the necessary steps to stop it immediately.”

Tehran Times quotes sources within the Iranian government, which was equally quick to condemn the breach of Syrian territorial sovereignty but also took aim at U.S. plans for Syria: “’Continuation of crisis in Afrin may strengthen Takfiri-terrorist groups in northern parts of Syria and refuel fire of war and destruction in the country’, [Quds Force commander-in-chief] Qassemi [Suleimani] warned. He added, ‘The Islamic Republic of Iran attaches importance to protecting Syria’s territorial integrity and respecting this country’s national sovereignty. Iran calls on all countries, especially Turkey, to remain committed to the Astana procedure and continue fulfilling its responsibility to settle the Syrian crisis politically’. Qassemi also said that ‘provocative acts’ and ‘illegal interferences’ of extra-regional countries, especially the U.S. and the Zionist regime, are the roots of the Syrian conflict.”

Within Turkey, the reactions have been quite varied. The pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah, for example, characterizes the military operation as an effort on the part of the Turkish government to free the Syrian Kurds from the PKK: “Turkey has the necessary experience to rebuild Afrin. The country has successfully rebuilt places like Jarabulus and Al-Bab, which had been liberated from Daesh terrorists as part of Operation Euphrates Shield. In the wake of the SDF’s secret agreement with Daesh, which resulted in the release of over 1,000 militants from Raqqa, the Free Syrian Army has successfully prevented Daesh terrorists from reaching Turkey’s borders. Following the liberation of Afrin, the Turkish military could answer calls from the local tribes in Manbij, which have been occupied by the PKK militants with U.S. support, to establish another ‘safe zone’ in the area.”

On the other hand, Nuray Mert argues in a recent op-ed for the Hurriyet Daily News for a more limited military involvement so as not to risk the wrath of the United States: “The operation is doomed to be limited, since Afrin is not under U.S. but Russian protection. Although Moscow is on good terms with Ankara for the time being, the two parties have different stakes in Syria…. Why would the Turkish government dare to make such a risky move then? It may be out of anger stemming from a feeling of betrayal by Western allies and especially the U.S. In that case, it is not only U.S. policy in Syria and the U.S. alliance with the Kurdish YPG forces that has angered [the] Turkish government, but also a host of other hot topics…. The best option is that the Turkish government will limit the scope of the Afrin military operation in order to be taken seriously about its concerns without escalating tensions. Let us hope this is the case.”

Gulf News’s Sami Moubayed warns that the Turkish president has placed himself in a lose-lose situation, considering that even a military victory may prove damaging for Turkey’s interests in the region: “An open war with the Kurds — one fanned secretly by the Russians and Iranians — might eventually weaken him or at a bare minimum, occupy him for years to come. Ultimately, however, Iran and Russia realise that the chances of his imminent demise are low, and that in the long run, he will succeed in crushing the Kurds. In the process, however, he will also destroy his relationship with Trump, and possibly affect his membership in Nato. A protracted war with the Kurds will serve nobody but Erdogan’s long list of enemies, who are all waiting to see his end.”

The Jordan Times editorial highlights the potential dangers of a prolonged Turkish military operation, urging the international community to intervene sooner rather than later: “In retrospect, Turkey’s hands would have been stronger in its bid to neutralize [the] YPG had this faction actually attacked a Turkish target within the country or constituted a real danger to the country. Till now [the] YPG has not made any such attack or even threatened to do so. Washington is on record as against any Turkish invasion of Afrin and its environs since it is the country that openly supports YPG in its fight against Daesh…. Damascus is also officially against the Turkish incursions and threatened to shoot down any Turkish military plane deployed in the Turkish operation against Afrin but Ankara insists that the Syrian government is privy to its military actions. Under the circumstances a UN Security Council meeting on the situation is certainly warranted for fear that the fighting may escalate into uncontrollable proportions.”

Meanwhile, the National’s editorial staff accuses the Turkish government of “deploying anti-terror rhetoric to settle old scores against the Kurds… But what he has initiated in Afrin could rapidly escalate into something much bigger – something beyond his control. The Kurdish question cannot be settled with airstrikes, as Turkey’s own history with Kurdish separatism amply demonstrates. Violence, if anything, is likely to beget more violence. The Turkish people [do] not deserve this, and the last thing Syria needs is more bloodshed. Afrin is a dangerous distraction from what ought to be the primary preoccupation of all parties with a stake in Syria: a stable country with a responsible government.”

Finally, in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Ghassan Charbel turns our attention to the plight of the Kurds, who once again find themselves betrayed by their allies: “The one dream that Erdogan was able to keep was destroying the gains achieved by Syria’s Kurds on his country’s borders. In recent months, diplomats have not hesitated in declaring that Erdogan could coexist with an Iranian-Russian Syria ruled by Assad, but he could not live with a Kurdish region in Syria bordering his country…. The Kurds always end up on the losing end of their bargains. Many factors change but their position in the losers’ circle does not. There are some strict geographic factors that cannot be altered with the toppling of a regime or the ouster of a ruler…. Months after disciplining the Kurds in Iraq, Turkey is now disciplining the Kurds in Syria in developments that recall that ‘the mountains are the Kurds’ only friends’.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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