Turkey Pulse

Will Erdogan defy Russia, US over Afrin?

Article Summary
Turkey’s plan to launch an operation to take Syria's Afrin faces major difficulties, yet if Erdogan succeeds even partially it will boost his image at home.

Concerned that time is running against Turkey’s interests in the region, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ordered a military operation into Syria aimed at taking the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin, only a stone’s throw from the Turkish border.

Turkish press reports say the army has already started shelling the enclave from across the border. Whether the main operation will go ahead is not certain, though. If it does, it will be a high-stakes move whose outcome, analysts say, remains uncertain.

Many believe this development reflects Ankara’s anger with the United States and Russia. Both powers are supporting Syrian Kurdish groups that Turkey considers to be its enemies.

Turkey’s failure to convince the United States to end its support for the Kurds and Moscow’s refusal to accept Ankara’s demand to prevent the same Kurds from participating in efforts to reach a Syrian settlement have left Ankara deeply frustrated.

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Addressing supporters in the Black Sea city of Tokat over the weekend, Erdogan said Turkey’s operation would begin over the next few days. He said this would be a follow-up to Operation Euphrates Shield, the operation Turkey launched in August 2016 in northern Syria, with its Free Syrian Army allies, against the Islamic State (IS).

Ankara said at the time that the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish group it considers a terrorist organization linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, would also be targeted. Washington and Moscow prevented it from carrying out this threat.

The disclosure by US military that the US-led coalition in Syria was establishing a Border Security Force (BSF) to patrol the Turkish and Iraqi borders poured more fuel on Erdogan’s anger with the United States.

News about this force broke immediately after Erdogan said the operation against Afrin was imminent. Ankara interpreted this as a veiled warning that any Turkish incursion into Syria would be challenged.

Erdogan blasted the United States in a speech he delivered in Ankara on Jan. 15, saying, “America has announced that it has established a terrorist army on our borders. Our duty is to strangle this terrorist army before it is even born.”

In the meantime, Ankara is reportedly reinforcing its proxies in Syria under the name the National Army (Al-Jaysh Al-Watani) to fight IS and the YPG. This 22,000 force is said to comprise elements considered unsavory by Russia and the United States.

Operation Euphrates Shield, which was assisted by these elements, was supported at the time by the United States — albeit reluctantly — because it targeted IS. The operation succeeded eventually in clearing the lands between the towns of Jarablus in the east, Azaz in the west and al-Bab in the south from IS.

Operation Euphrates Shield also fulfilled Turkey’s desire to gain a strip of land in Syria for its forces. It also drove a wedge between YPG-held territories east and west of the Euphrates River, preventing the Kurds from gaining a “corridor” along the Turkish border, which would have an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea.

Afrin was left as an isolated YPG enclave, and it has remained a thorn in the side of Turkey ever since. Turkey’s efforts in 2017 to take the city were, to Ankara’s surprise and annoyance, thwarted by Russia, which deployed forces there between the Turkish army and the YPG.

For the past three years, Erdogan has been saying that Turkey will take Afrin and Manbij, another YPG-held town immediately west of the Euphrates, but this has not happened. He seems more determined this time despite the criticism likely to come from Washington and Moscow.

Some analysts believe Turkey can’t carry out this operation in defiance of the United States or Russia. Retired Brig. Gen. Haldun Solmazturk, who is a senior fellow in the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute, told the Xinhua News Agency that “it was unthinkable” that the United States and Russia would allow such an operation.

Solmazturk listed Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Syrian regime and the continuing prioritizing by the United States and Russia of the fight against IS as reasons why Ankara would meet resistance from Washington and Moscow.

Ankara has continually downplayed the political support the YPG and its parent organization, the Democratic Union Party, get from Russia in order not to cloud the ties it is trying to develop with Moscow as a counterbalance to its deteriorating ties with the United States.

This has not prevented suspicions about Russia’s ultimate aims in Syria, though, despite the fact that Turkey, Russia and Iran are spearheading efforts for a settlement to the Syrian crisis under the so-called Astana process.

Ankara’s misgivings about Russia increased after Moscow said Kurds from regions held by the YPG would be invited to the Syrian National Dialogue Congress planned for later this month.

These misgivings spilled over recently after attacks by Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian forces on the city of Idlib. The Russian and Iranian ambassadors were summoned by Ankara last week to receive a protest over what Turkey said was “the targeting of moderate opposition elements under the guise of fighting Islamic terrorist groups.”

Turkey has troops in Idlib, which were deployed to monitor cease-fire violations in the “de-escalation zone” set up there under an accord with Russia and Iran. This presence also provides another military foothold for Turkey in northern Syria, which Ankara warns will be used against the YPG.

Moscow rejected Turkey’s protest, saying only Islamic terrorist groups, particularly Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), were being targeted in Idlib. This episode, which immediately preceded the crisis with the United States over the BSF, also highlighted the potential for discord between Ankara and Moscow over Syria.

Moscow also rejected Erdogan’s recent labeling of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as “a terrorist,” saying this was a “baseless claim.”

A statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Jan 15, in which he said the BSF threatened Syria’s territorial integrity and added that this force would not help resolve the crisis surrounding Afrin either, heartened some in Ankara.

Lavrov, however, also underlined that "the Kurds are definitely part of the Syrian nation," and he went on to emphasize the need “to respect the Kurds’ interests” as preparations for the Syrian National Dialogue Congress continued.

Erdogan’s former press secretary, Akif Beki, who currently writes for daily Karar, is among those who believe that an operation against Afrin would not get Russian support. Beki also warned that the YPG could use this operation to undermine Turkey’s position in the Astana process.

He added that this operation would also destroy any possibility of Turkish-US cooperation in Syria and said Russia is unlikely to help carry out Erdogan’s threat to “strangle the BSF.”

After Erdogan’s angry remarks, Turks are wondering whether Turkey is on the brink of a military confrontation with the United States in Syria. In an effort to dispel this notion, US Army spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon told Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu Agency that the US-led coalition’s mission in Syria did not include Afrin.

Dillon said their operations against IS were concentrated along the Middle Euphrates River Valley and east of the Euphrates River. He appeared to be throwing the ball in Moscow’s court, given that the Russian military has a presence in Afrin.

Dillon’s remarks, however, show that the United States will continue to act with the YPG east of the Euphrates in an area along Turkey’s border larger than Lebanon. The US military is also reportedly entrenching itself in the region with a view to remain there.

If Erdogan decides to give the final order for an operation against Afrin over Russian and US objections, and manages to achieve his aims partially, if not wholly, this will still boost his image at home. That may be all that he is aiming for at the end of the day, given that Turkey has already started debating the presidential elections in 2019.

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Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His articles have been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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