Turkish soldiers have entered the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria in a move which could mean that the seven-year-long Syrian crisis is entering a new phase. Turkey says that it plans to establish a 19-mile-deep safe zone under its control. According to the Turkish military, its jets and artillery have so far hit 153 targets there. The Kurdish paramilitary forces known as the YPG are fighting back and say that the Turkish military assault is being repelled.
The Turkish attack makes the complicated political and military chess game in Syria even more complicated than before. It will bring the US into direct confrontation with its Nato ally Turkey since the American partner in Syria is the YPG. It was YPG ground troops backed by US air strikes that led to the capture of Raqqa from Isis in October.
Turkey has long considered the rise of the Syrian Kurds, who have a population of about two million people and live mostly in north-east Syria, as a nightmare. It has watched in dismay since 2012 as the YPG, which is the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been fighting a guerrilla war against the Turkish state since 1984, gained control of a great swathe of territory east of the Euphrates River. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has described them as “terrorists” and has repeatedly promised to wipe them out.
The future of this semi-independent enclave known to the Syrian Kurds as Rojava is now hanging in the balance. The US first intervened militarily in Syria in 2014 to defend the Kurdish city of Kobani which was under attack by Isis. Regional leaders have wondered if the US would stick with its Kurdish allies once Isis was eliminated and risk enraging Turkey or would it pull its military advisers out of Syria and leave the YPG to its fate.
The US has said that it has never had forces in Afrin and what happens there is a Russian responsibility as there have been Russian military observers in the enclave. Nevertheless, the fall of Afrin will be taken as a sign that the US does not want or is not able to defend its Kurdish allies. In fact, it was an underestimate by the US of the fragility of the situation in northern Syria that provoked the present crisis.
Earlier this month, the US said it was supporting the establishment of a 30,000-strong border-force which in practice would be dominated by the YPG. The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed that his offer was misunderstood by Turkey, but the Turks were dismayed by what they regard as the pro-Kurdish direction of US policy.
But just as Mr Tillerson was trying to cool the confrontation in US relations with Turkey, he provoked a deeper crisis by saying in a speech last week that the US would keep its 2,000 military advisers and logistics troops in Syria for the foreseeable future. This was to prevent the resurgence of Isis, but was, above all, intended to weaken the position of President Bashar al-Assad and Iran. Whatever Mr Tillerson intended, the consequence of his words was to give a long-term military guarantee to the Syrian Kurdish enclave.
This pledge of a permanent US military presence in Syria infuriated Mr Erdogan and alienated Russia, Syria and Iran – countries that believed that the new US policy in Syria was a sign that Syrian Kurdish leaders had plumped wholeheartedly for an alliance with the US. Previously, the Kurds had tried to balance between Russia and the US and to avoid being seen as a permanent enemy of Mr Assad in his bid to reunify Syria under his rule.
Russia has been providing protection for Afrin, an isolated enclave with a population of 200,000 hard up against the Turkish border. It had stationed military observers there and ensured that Turkey could not use Syrian air space, where Russia has air superiority, for air strikes on the Kurds without Russian permission. But in retaliation for the Kurdish shift into the US camp, Moscow reportedly told the Turks that their attack on Afrin would not be opposed by Russian jets and air defence systems. This allowed Turkey to use its air power inside Afrin during its invasion. Even so, the YPG is a highly effective military force capable of inflicting heavy losses on the Turkish army and its local militia allies.
The more general problem for the Syrian Kurds is that they are over-extended, having advanced far outside Kurdish-majority areas. They have gone along with US policy priorities by taking economically important areas like the oilfields in eastern Deir Ezzor province which Mr Assad wants back. He will not like Turkish military units entering Syrian territory, but there are advantages for him if the Turkish offensive shows the Kurds that they cannot rely on the US to protect them.
The Kurds in Syria do not have much choice. They are surrounded by enemies and they are no longer needed against Isis because Isis is defeated. They have just seen the Iraqi Kurds, who had likewise used the war with Isis to build a semi-independent statelet, lose all their gains last October after overplaying their hand by staging an ill-advised referendum on independence.
The YPG units are much tougher than the Iraqi Peshmerga, but Afrin is detached from the rest of Rojava and difficult to defend. Its loss would not mean a final defeat for the Syrian Kurds, but might be the shape of things to come.
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