Turkey’s Afrin Gambit

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A member of the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria. Image Credit: Kurdishstruggle via Flickr CC 2.0

The Turkish army and its allies from the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army (FSA) have captured territory in Syria’s Afrin enclave on Monday, according to the BBC.

The Afrin villages of ‘Shankal, Qorne, Bali and Adah Manli were reportedly captured, along with rural areas including Kita, Kordo and Bibno,’ the BBC reported, citing Turkey’s state-run news agency.

On Sunday the Turks launched what they’re calling Operation Olive Branch to oust the US-backed YPG Kurdish militia from the area. The ground offensive was preceded by airstrikes and an artillery bombardment of Afrin.

Turkey brands the YPG a terror outfit, since it is believed to be linked to the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group within Turkey.

Though the US also considered the PKK a terrorist organisation, it backed a YPG-dominated coalition called Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against ISIS. Earlier this month, Turkey condemned US plans to raise a 30,000-strong ‘Border Security Force’ in SDF- controlled areas. About half the proposed force was to be SDF fighters, both Kurdish and Arab. The rest were to be recruited from the region.

Turkey reacted with anger. On January 15, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the US was ‘in the process of creating a terror army on our border’ and warned they would have to attack Afrin.

While news of the planned US-backed force may have sparked Turkey’s offensive, its reasons go deeper. For more than two years, America’s priority in the Syrian civil war has been, above all else, to defeat ISIS. To that end, it has propped up the Kurds in Iraq as well as the YPG Kurdish militia in Syria through its support to the SDF coalition. The virtue of this approach is that it has been effective in combating ISIS. Its vice is that it is blind to the realities of power in the Middle East.

Last September, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani claimed to win a referendum for independence. The news provoked threats from Baghdad and Ankara. Less than three weeks later, the Iraqi Army took back the oil-rich town of Kikuk from Barzani’s forces, effectively ending the dream of Kurdish independence for the near future. The US had armed both the factions in this contest- the Iraqi army and the Kurds.

The YPG, which is much closer to home for the Turks, posed a similar worry. In November, President Donald Trump reportedly made it clear to Erdogan that the US would stop arming Syrian Kurds. Now YPG fighters, who by all accounts fought bravely against ISIS, naturally feel abandoned by Washington, even as those fighters in Afrin face the military onslaught of America’s NATO ally, Turkey.

Of course, US-Turkey relations have been deteriorating ever since the US got involved in the Syrian war. There have been other reasons for tensions as well. Ever since a dramatic failed coup attempt by a faction of the Turkish army in July 2016, Ankara has been demanding the extradition of the man it holds responsible: Fethullah Gulen a cleric and former ally of Erdogan, who currently lives in Pennsylvania.

Turkey is also seeking support elsewhere. Since August 2016, it has been gradually drawing closer to Russia, its rival and enemy for centuries. There have been problems for sure: Most notably, Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian warplane on the border with Syria, and the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey by a police officer in December 2016. But at the same time, Russia has agreed to sell Turkey- a NATO country- two batteries of its top-of-the-drawer S-400 air defence system for $2.5 billion. The two countries have also joined a three-way deal with Iran to drill for oil and gas in that country.

Erdogan is probably using closer ties to Moscow to gain leverage over Washington. But unless he has a clear endgame to his new ground offensive into Syria, he’s in danger of losing some of it.

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