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The Takeaway: Syrian-Kurdish fault line intensifies as Erdogan vows to crush ‘separatist terror’

Syrian, Russian, Turkish forces take positions as Kurdish leaders send plea for attention to incoming Biden administration.
A Turkish soldier stands near his armoured vehicle on a highway near the northern Syrian town of Ain Issa in the countryside of the Raqqa region, on November 26, 2019, as Turkey-backed forces deploy reinforcements around the key town. - Ankara and its Syrian proxies launched on October 9 a cross-border attack against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, which allowed Turkey, along with a subsequent Russian-Turkish accord, to control a strip of land on the Syrian side of the border. Ain Issa lies on the south

Syrian town of Ain Issa flashpoint for latest phase in conflict

Most of Ain Issa’s 7,000 people are fleeing escalating violence between the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army and the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The small town, less than 30 miles from Tell Abyad, which is on the border with Turkey, is also a node on the strategic M4 highway from Iraq via Aleppo to the Syrian coast. Northeast Syria has also been a mix of Arab, Kurdish and Druze communities, which until the war has mostly lived peacefully. No more.

Here are six takes on why Ain Issa matters in the latest phase of the Syria war, based on Al-Monitor’s reporting:

Erdogan vows to crush ‘the head of separatist terror.’ For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ain Issa can’t remain in control of the Syrian Kurdish autonomous governing authority and its gendarme, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which he considers the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). In October 2019, Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring to drive Syrian Kurds out of key towns along the border. While the United States and the European Union, like Turkey, consider the PKK a terrorist group, they do not extend the designation to the YPG, which makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the on-the-ground US partner in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. On Dec. 17, Erdogan again lumped the PKK/YPG with IS and said, “We will maintain our fight until the eradication of [this] herd of murderers.”

Only a matter of time.’ Its Syrian proxy forces have picked up the Turkish line that the YPG is a separatist arm of the PKK. Turkey has blocked efforts to include SDF-affiliated Syrian Kurdish parties from UN-mediated negotiations among the Syrian opposition. A commander of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is doing the bulk of the on-the-ground fighting for Turkey in Syria, told Sultan Al-Kanj, reporting from Idlib, that Ain Issa “is a Syrian land occupied by a non-Syrian terrorist organization,” referring to the YPG. The commander added that the FSA dislodging the SDF in areas it controls is “only a matter of time.”

Arab-Kurdish tensions on rise elsewhere too. Ain Issa is not the only Syrian town where ethnic tensions have risen. Shelly Kittleson recently traveled to Abu Khashab, where the SDF is in charge and political violence between Arabs and Kurds is escalating. Abu Khashab sits “along a dusty desert road south of Hasakah and north of the governorate’s major oil and gas fields. Deir ez-Zor, unlike Hasakah and other areas with a mixed Kurdish and Arab population further north, is almost entirely Arab and characterized by tribe-based networks.

Meanwhile, Akrin Ahmed reports that “Turkey and allied Syrian opposition factions led by the FSA have deliberately deprived of water more than 1 million civilians in Hasakah and its countryside, the towns of Tel Tamr, al-Hol and Abu Raseen, and the nearby villages and communities in an area that is already suffering from drought and water scarcity.”

Putin treads lightly. Russian President Vladimir Putin also has a stake in Ain Issa. Earlier this month Russia set up three police observation posts around the town, but those posts have done little more than observe the deteriorating situation. His goal is to broker a deal that would formalize some understanding between the SDF and Damascus, which in the end could be acceptable to Turkey. But that’s going nowhere, according to SDF sources interviewed by Khaled Al-Khateb in Syria. Putin wants to keep good ties with Erdogan, despite friction in Syria. While there had been talk of some trade-off — allowing a Syrian takeover in Idlib in exchange for a Turkish move against Ain Issa and nearby towns — that too isn’t happening. Kirill Semenov has the must read take here on Moscow’s position.

Shake downs by Syrian, Iranian forces. Meanwhile, as Syria’s economy deteriorates, the areas under control of either the Syrian government, Turkish or Turkish-backed Syrian forces, and the SDF all are doing business with each other — but at a high price. “The checkpoints deployed by the Syrian regime forces and pro-Iranian militias along the main road between the cities of Deir ez-Zor and al-Bukamal — which were liberated from the Islamic State (IS) in November 2017 — are among the main sources of huge sums of money for Syrian officers and Iranian officials in charge of these checkpoints,” writes Akhin Ahmed from Syria. “They do not allow civilians and traders to cross with their merchandise except after having paid significant royalties.”

SDF seeks political lifeline from Biden. In response to the pressure from Turkey, Sinam Mohamad, Washington envoy for the SDF, called on the Biden administration to recognize the Kurdish administration in parts of northeast Syria under the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political arm of the YPG, as Jared Szuba reports. In an exclusive interview with Amberin Zaman in November, SDF commander Mazloum Kobane called on Biden to increase US troop deployments in Syria.

Our take: Erdogan has vowed to upend SDF and YPG forces in its “security corridor” in Syria, and that includes SDF-controlled Ain Issa and surrounding areas. His moves are likely to be contained to these areas. He clearly thinks US President Donald Trump will do little to stop the advance in the remaining three weeks of his administration. The direction of US-Turkey relations under President-elect Joe Biden remains unclear. Biden’s team is likely to consider a request by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for US forces to help address the PKK along the Iraq-Turkey border, first reported here by Amberin Zaman. The KRG has good relations with Ankara, and the United States will likely continue to depend on the KRG’s guidance and support to seek to ease the YPG away from PKK influence.

Three other quick takes on Turkey: Erdogan sticks to its missiles; hand extended to Biden; debt piles up

Turkey defends S-400 purchase: Despite US sanctions and rebuke from NATO allies, Erdogan appears committed to his purchase of the S-400 Russian missile defense system, although there are ongoing efforts to mitigate the perceived threat from NATO’s perspective, while saving face for Turkey. “Extracting Turkey from a potential S-400 debacle would ultimately require a transformed Erdogan who is less impulsive and more in tune with Ankara’s NATO allies,” writes Semih Idiz

Erdogan extends hand to Biden: Commenting on Dec. 23 on his optimism for US-Turkey ties under a Biden administration, Erdogan said, “Together with all our friends who take the hand we extend, we will continue our efforts for peace, justice and prosperity, and particularly for the de-escalation of tensions in our region.” 

Debt on the rise: Erdogan is proud of how he has navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, but potential “havoc” lies ahead, given the debt used to prop up the economy, according to Mustafa Sonmez.  “The Turkish government’s monetary expansion policies, used as a quick fix to prevent major economic contractions, have resulted in an extraordinary consumer and corporate debt that poses further dilemmas for Ankara down the road,” Sonmez writes. “The government’s ability to act as a guide, especially to companies, could limit the damage as economic actors navigate the storm. Its failure to do so could result in extensive havoc.”

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