Although US President Donald Trump urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Jan. 24 to “exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces,” Turkey appears committed to extending its military operations beyond the current assault on Afrin.
Two days after Trump and Erdogan spoke, the Turkish presidency announced that, following a call between Erdogan adviser and spokesman Ibrahim Kalin and US national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, “no weapons would be given” to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which would amount to a major American concession and potential turning point in the conflict.
The next day, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called on US forces to leave Manbij.
Turkey considers the YPG — the armed group linked to the Syrian Kurdish PYD — terrorists with ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the United States has also labeled a terrorist organization. The United States has supported the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as its on-the-ground partner in Syria. The SDF includes primarily YPG fighters.
Erdogan is now claiming that Afrin and surrounding towns are majority Arab, although reliable local sources indicate a significant Kurdish majority, with a sizable number of Arabs, as well as some Yazidis, Turkmens, Armenians and Circassians. The endgame for the Turkish president may be a cordon sanitaire to which to return the 3.5 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkey. On Jan. 24, the same day Erdogan spoke with Trump, the Turkish president separately said, "First, we will wipe out the terrorists and then make the place livable. For whom? For 3.5 million Syrians who are our guests. We cannot forever house them in tents."
In their call, Trump and Erdogan “welcomed the return of more than 100,000 Syrian refugees back to their country in the wake of the ongoing defeat of [the Islamic State] and pledged to continue to cooperate to help people return home.”
Fehim Tastekin writes that “Erdogan’s blatant misinformation [about Afrin’s demography] and desire to settle refugees there raises the disturbing question of whether this is a plan to modify the demographic structure of this heavily Kurdish-populated area. Such schemes have often been used as a means to eliminate social restlessness against the government since the Ottoman days.”
Turkey’s local partners in the Afrin campaign include jihadis, Salafists and those looking to settle scores with the YPG. Tastekin explains, “It worries many people that even as Erdogan claims to be ridding Afrin of ‘terrorists,’ that's how Syria describes some of the groups he wants to move into the area. Many have backgrounds, ideologies and attitudes that are unfavorable to Kurds. Those groups include former al-Qaeda members, Salafi jihadis, a variety of Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, mercenaries and some volunteers controlled by Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT).
"Among the groups besieging Afrin and participating in the operations under [Turkish Armed Forces] and MIT guidance are Faylaq al-Sham, Jaish al-Nasr, Jabhat al-Shamiya, Ahrar al-Sham, Nureddin Zengi Brigades, Suqour al-Jaber, Sultan Murad Brigade, Samarkand Brigade, Muntasir Billah Brigade, Sultan Mourad Division, Fatih Sultan Mehmet Brigade, Hamza Company, Northern Storm, Turkistan Islamic Party and Salahaddin Brigade.”
Metin Gurcan writes, “It appears Turkey had Moscow's go-ahead for the offensive, given that Russia controls all Syrian airspace west of the Euphrates River. Russia no doubt sees that the operation will drive a deeper wedge between the NATO allies Turkey and the United States in light of the latter’s support for the YPG. Moreover, Russia probably calculates that, faced with the threat of being overrun by Turkey and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies, the YPG will now be more open to Moscow's earlier suggestion of handing Afrin back to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”
Gurcan adds that Turkey “has gone back and forth on the issue of whether Assad should remain in power, [and] has been negotiating with Assad about possibly working together against the YPG and the Kurdish nationalist [PYD]. But the Syrian president knows Erdogan's preference is an Assad-free Syria, so the Syrian army may end up assisting the Kurdish forces to an extent. Assad may decide to help evacuate the YPG units that appear to be squeezed in at Afrin, or help them receive reinforcements from east of the Euphrates. Still, another Assad policy could be to ‘wait and see,’ thinking that at the end of the day Afrin will be handed over to the government.”
This column has been covering this trend since at least August, when we wrote that “Turkey’s preoccupation with beating back Syrian Kurdish control in northern Syria could open the door to some type of accommodation with Damascus.”
Inside Turkey, the Afrin operation is a winner for Erdogan. Gurcan reports that sources in Ankara told Al-Monitor that “political and security bureaucrats agree and are fully determined to expand the operation first to Manbij and then east of the Euphrates River to undermine US cooperation with the Kurdish YPG on the ground.”
Ayla Jean Yackley writes, “Parliament’s second- and third-biggest parties, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), both threw their weight behind the military’s cause, with CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu, normally a bitter Erdogan critic, saying Turkey’s border security is a ‘national issue.’
"A large majority of Turks believe the government is right to enter Syria to pursue Kurdish militants, said pollster Adil Gur, whose research firm A&G conducted a survey of public opinion that has not yet been published. He therefore would not give exact figures, but said support from Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and MHP voters verged on 100%.”
As for Russia, Anton Mardasov writes, “given the possible risk to its reputation, Russia resorted to the surefire strategy of shifting the blame for the Turkish operation onto the United States. The Russian Defense Ministry reported that the operation in northern Syria was triggered by 'the Pentagon’s uncontrolled supply of modern weapons,' including shoulder-launched missiles, to the [SDF].”
Mardasov said, “First, with its military police operating in the Tell Rifaat deconfliction zone, Moscow still stands a chance of establishing itself as a peacemaker in the conflict over Afrin. Second, the canton’s defense lines are well-fortified. Despite all the forces involved in the operation and the Syrian opposition’s contribution of almost 25,000 fighters to Turkey’s troops, the outcome of the military campaign remains unclear. Third, by distancing itself, Moscow may be sending signals to the Kurds in other Syrian enclaves, giving them a hint as to the price tag for taking actions inconsistent with the country’s territorial integrity.”