Turkey’s attack on Syrian Kurds on 20 January 2018 has highlighted the lack of a coherent US policy in Syria. Rather than intervene on behalf of its allies in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), US officials have limited themselves to voicing calls for restraint and urging all parties not to be distracted from the war on terror, which – for Turkey, at least – was never the primary objective of its involvement in Syria.
Turkey, along with allied Syrian rebel forces, launched an air and ground offensive incongruously named Operation Olive Branch in the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin, targeting the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Turkey considers the group, and its presence in the area near the Turkish border, to be a threat because of its association with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has had a long-running conflict with the Turkish state and has been designated as a terrorist group by the US, Europe and Turkey itself. The YPG, however, has been an important partner in the US-led coalition’s fight against IS in Syria.
It appears that Turkey was alarmed by reports that the US planned to build a 30,000-strong ‘border security force’ in Afrin – a report that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later denied, saying, “Some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all.”
So far, the US response to the Turkish operation has been muted. President Donald Trump, in a conversation with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, acknowledged Turkey’s ‘legitimate security concerns’ but ‘urged Turkey to deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced persons and refugees’, according to a statement from the White House. ‘He urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and US forces. He reiterated that both nations must focus all parties on the shared goal of achieving the lasting defeat of IS.’
To date, Turkey has been arguably more concerned about removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on the one hand, and keeping Kurdish independence ambitions in check, on the other, than it has about fighting IS. But since the operation in Afrin began, Turkey has been quick to exploit the international concern about the Islamist group, asserting that it is fighting IS as well as the YPG in the area. Turkey’s state news agency, for instance, citing anonymous local sources, reported that ‘the PYD/PKK terror group has released all Daesh [IS] prisoners under the condition that they will fight against the Turkish army and Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Syria’s Afrin region’.
The Kurds denied these reports. As Syria analyst Aron Lund noted in a piece for IRIN News, ‘In reality, there are no [IS] forces anywhere to be found in the area, but saying so certainly makes for better headlines – and YPG commanders are now doing the same thing, accusing Turkey-backed rebels of belonging to [IS].’
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors civilian casualties in Syria, said that by 28 January 2018 at least 32 civilians had been killed in the fighting, including two killed in shelling by the SDF and 30 – including eight women and four children – killed by Turkish strikes. The observatory said at least 42 YPG and SDF fighters had been killed as well as two Turkish soldiers and 48 members of the Syrian rebel and Islamist forces fighting alongside the Turks.
While some experts see the Afrin operation as a sign of deteriorating Turkish-US relations, the role of Russia in allowing the operation to go ahead has been more significant than the US role – or non-role. Despite its alliance with the YPG, the US had no presence on the ground in Afrin whereas Russia did. These forces were relocated ahead of the Turkish offensive. Furthermore, Russia controlled the airspace over Afrin, and Turkish officials said that Russians gave the green light for the attack.
The YPG decried what it sees as a Russian betrayal, with the group’s General Command saying in a statement, ‘We know that the Turkish military would not have attacked [Afrin] without the approval of the international community, at the top of them Russia that deployed their forces in Afrin.’
Russia needs Turkey more than it needs the Kurds at this stage, as it pushes for a political resolution to the war in Syria. Turkey is the main international backer of the rebels fighting Russia’s protégé, Bashar al-Assad.
Galip Dalay, research director at Al-Sharq Forum, suggested that Russia’s aim in allowing the Afrin offensive was to embarrass the US while extracting concessions from Turkey in the Russian-convened peace talks in Sochi. Kurdish factions were invited to the talks over Turkish objections but have said they may not participate in the wake of the Afrin operation.
‘By allowing Turkey to hit the US’s primary partner in Syria, Russia wants to embarrass the United States,’ Dalay wrote in an article for the online news portal Middle East Eye. He added, ‘Russia seems to be extracting concessions both from the PYD and Turkey on behalf of the Syrian government. A weakened PYD in the north-western part of Syria will be more amenable to the Russian preference for allowing the government to take control of Afrin and its surrounding areas.’
Meanwhile, observers have painted the Afrin operation as just the latest iteration of a pattern of betrayal that dates back to at least the 1970s in Iraq, which has seen the US and others backing Kurdish fighters and then abandoning them once their own political goals are achieved.
‘The only constant in the Middle East is that external powers will betray their local allies in a flash,’ Lebanese political commentator Karl Sharro wrote on Twitter.