The United States’ Syrian Kurdish allies face further reversals by Turkish-led forces amid reports that they were being pushed out of the mainly Arab town of Tell Rifaat today.
The Turkish media reported that an offensive heralded on Sunday by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against Tell Rifaat had begun amid unconfirmed reports that the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) had withdrawn without a fight. Turkish military sources quoted by the mainstream NTV news channel, however, denied that Tell Rifaat had been captured.
A commander of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is the US-led coalition’s top ally against the Islamic State in Syria, confirmed in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor that Tell Rifaat had not yet fallen, though he revealed that Syrian regime forces had withdrawn from the town last night. The SDF official acknowledged, however, that the YPG would likely pull out of Tell Rifaat as well because “there are a lot of civilians, including thousands displaced from Afrin, and we do not want them to come to any harm.” The commander speculated that the Turkish-led forces would next target the Menagh air base near Tell Rifaat, saying, “The Turks and the Russians have struck a deal. They want to punish the Kurds for cooperating with the Americans.”
The Turkish advance came amid news that Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, had spoken over the telephone. The call was reportedly initiated by Erdogan to condole the Russian leader over the fire that killed at least 64 people in a mall in the Siberian town of Kemerovo. The pro-government Yeni Safak quoted unnamed Turkish presidential sources as saying the presidents were “in full agreement” on a wide range of bilateral issues and had discussed their forthcoming meeting in Turkey on April 4, at which they are due to be joined by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, to pursue the so-called Astana process to resolve the seven-year-old Syrian conflict.
Turkey’s latest foray into northern Syria, called Operation Olive Branch, comes with Moscow’s blessings. Russia controls the skies over Afrin and Tell Rifaat and Turkish air power has decisively tipped the balance against the Kurds. Ironically, it was with the help of Russian air power that the SDF captured Tell Rifaat in February 2016 from Arab opposition rebels. With Afrin gone and Tell Rifaat next on the block, the YPG’s ambitious plans for a Kurdish corridor connecting the areas it controls to the east of the Euphrates River with Afrin will be effectively quashed.
Russia’s alliance with Turkey goes beyond efforts to help the regime win back Aleppo, eastern Ghouta and the rebels' last remaining stronghold in Idlib. It is, in the view of administration officials speaking on condition of anonymity to Al-Monitor, increasingly about Moscow and Ankara wanting to roll back US influence, which rests on the Pentagon’s partnership with the Syrian Kurds.
Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who closely monitors the civil conflict in Syria. He told Al-Monitor, “Two years ago Russia supported the YPG’s offensive to end its war against [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad. They succeeded. Fast forward to 2018, Russia handed this territory back to Turkey.” Stein observed, “Ankara now is in control of much of northern Aleppo and presides over a band of opposition members who are told they can’t fight Assad, but can fight Kurds.”
But, the SDF commander asked, can the rebels be counted on not to resume attacks against the regime in Aleppo if they consolidate control over the Menagh air base? “At what point will Russia decide to rein in the Turks?"
In the meantime, Erdogan has repeatedly vowed to drive out the YPG from the broad swath of territory it controls along the Turkish border and inside Iraq, labeling the group terrorists who pose a threat to Turkey’s national security. Recent developments make it plain that he is not bluffing.
Turkish threats of an attack apparently prompted the Iraqi government to pressure the YPG’s affiliate, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), to announce their withdrawal from the Yazidi-majority area of Sinjar linking Iraq to Syria. The area is a critical logistical supply line between PKK militants in the Qandil Mountains bordering Iran and their allies in Syria. The Iraqis are widely believed to have acted to pre-empt a Turkish attack on Sinjar, contradicting earlier reports that Iraqi officials were planning a joint offensive with Turkey against the PKK in Sinjar in exchange for a Turkish withdrawal from Bashiqa.
Iran, which is increasingly wary of Turkey’s broadening military footprint in the region, will likely warn Baghdad against military cooperation with Ankara. Rouhani has urged Ankara to end its operations in Syria “at the earliest time” as protests against Operation Olive Branch erupted among Iran’s own restive Kurdish population.
Footage of alleged abuses by Turkey’s rebel allies inside Afrin circulated on social media, sharpening Kurdish fury. One of the videos uploaded to YouTube shows the rebels on an unabashed looting spree. Another shows children in a classroom, also reportedly in Afrin, being ordered to chant pro-Turkish slogans, wave Turkish flags and recite Quranic prayers.