Turkey’s incursion and bombing campaign in Kurdish controlled area of Afrin is a worrying escalation in a prolonged stand-off on the Syrian border.
Erdogan’s hostility to the expanding territory now under the control of Kurdish forces has been held back by the support of both Russia and the US for the Kurdish forces. But as relations have thawed between Turkey and Russia, the dynamic has changed.
More than 25,000 pro-Turkish fighters have been drafted into the offensive operation “Olive Branch.” There have already been several villages captured despite Kurdish forces driving some of them back. A YPG shelling of a rebel housing area on the border killed two Syrian rebel fighters. There are almost 2million Syrian Kurds most of whom live in the North East Syria.
Turkish forces are being supported by Syrian rebels as they seek to push out Kurds from the Turkish border. The assault is happening at the same time that a new police and border force made up of SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) of which the Kurdish YPG are the largest part. Turkey claims to just be establishing a 19 mile “deep safe zone” between itself and the Kurdish controlled enclaves in Syria.
Through the SDF the YPG are not isolated and have had considerable backing from the USA to carry out operations primarily against Daesh, but increasingly in other areas that would nominally fall under Syrian Government control.
This closer collaboration has angered Turkey. Many Kurdish forces remain around Raqqa where Daesh has now been driven out. There is now growing tension to pull these forces back to help defend Afrin. Both Turkey and the USA should be bound by NATO and as “allies” they will not go into open conflict.
Plans for the operation baccelerated when US officials said earlier this month that it would help the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, which is dominated by the YPG, build a new "border security force" to prevent the return of IS. This is in addition to Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State, confirming that the US plans to keep 2000 military advisers and logistics troops in Syria with no date named for their withdrawal.
The US has reason to leave advisers there in order to undercut the influence of Assad and Iran particularly if there is any kind of resurgence of Daesh or other more hardline Islamist rebels.
Despite the alliance between the US and the SDF they have been remarkably relaxed about the attacks by Erdogan.
"They warned us before they launched the aircraft they were going to do it, in consultation with us. And we are working now on the way ahead," US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis told the press.
The Assad regime has condemned the assault as further proof of Turkey’s support for Islamist rebels and as another attempt by Turkey to destabilize the country.
The other major factor in the conflict is Russia. Their troops had given protection to Afrin, stopping Turkish planes using Syrian airspace, which they jointly control. The change of allegiance however from the YPG to the US, apparently largely uncritically, has meant that Russia has now moved its troops out of the area, and Turkish jets are able to bomb the area with impunity.
Patrick Cockburn who has long been a semi-apologist for the Assad regime in Syria argues in The Independent that the Kurds have over-stretched themselves, trying to take on more territory then they can either manage or strictly Kurdish. It is true that the the seizure of oilfields in Deir Ezzor was carried out in effect on behalf of the US. The Syrian regime will not tolerate continued incursions by the Kurds onto its territory but if Turkey is allowed to beat the Kurds back then Assad can hope to make the Kurds think that the US is unable to protect them, or so Cockburn sees it.
At least formally the The PYD is furious at Russia for allowing the Afrin offensive. In a statement published on its website on 20 January the PYD blamed Russia for the operation.
"We know that, without the permission of global forces and mainly Russia, whose troops are located in Afrin, Turkey cannot attack civilians using Afrin airspace,"
"Therefore, we hold Russia as responsible as Turkey and stress that Russia is the crime partner of Turkey in massacring the civilians in the region."
Following the defeat of Daesh, at least territorially, The YPG and their political wing the PYD are less useful to any side in the Syrian conflict. Assad who has turned a blind eye to much of the activity of the Kurds ever since they were able to repel various groups of Islamists, has not been a supporters of any degree of Kurdish autonomy in pre-2011 Syria.
The defeat of Daesh in Mosul, followed by the subsequent setbacks of the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan will also play on the minds of Kurdish leaders. It is true that unlike the Iraqi Peshmerga, who were warned off by Iran, that the The YPG are likely to put up more resistance, their own isolation in Afrin from the rest of Rojava puts them in a bad position.
Immediately, Turkey should withdraw from Afrin and stop attacks on Kurds in Syria and within Turkey. Turkey’s attitude and record to all attempts at Kurdish autonomy or even political representation should be enough to show that they will seek to crush the Kurds in Afrin. Erdogan has no care as to who is killed in this conflict and he currently has Russian compliance to carry it out.
However it is also clear that the US were warned of this plan and have chosen to allow their current allies of the PYD deal with Turkey. These increasingly fragile alliances that are using Syria as a proxy to fight out the much bigger global conflicts between the Gulf states, Iran, Russia and the US will not provide any respite to the Syrians and Kurds still locked in siege conditions. Within the UK it is absolutely right that Jeremy Corbyn and the The Labour Party should come out firmly against giving any military support to Turkey and condemn the authoritarian regime of Erdogan.