‘De facto’ start of Turkish intervention in Syria as US announces permanent presence
Washington - Turkey, angered by a fresh commitment by the United States to arm and support a Kurdish militia in Syria, attacked Kurdish positions across the border with artillery amid expectations of a ground incursion that is not without risks.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that “the Afrin operation has de facto been started on the ground.” “This will be followed by Manbij,” he added, referring to another Kurdish-controlled Syrian town to the east.
Turkish artillery fired on positions held by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) near Afrin in north-western Syria on January 19. Turkish media reported that tanks, troops and hundreds of pro-Turkish Syrian militiamen had been moved to the border.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called on Ankara not to attack Afrin but the government in Ankara appeared determined to stick to its plan. A senior US official warned the military build-up was “destabilising.”
The bombardment came days after the United States unveiled plans for a permanent military presence in Syria that would heavily rely on help by the YPG, which is considered a terrorist group and national security threat by Turkey. Ankara is wary of the emergence of a Kurdish autonomous entity as part of a future federalised Syria.
The US commitment to a continued deployment in Syria marks a dramatic shift in a policy that had been limited to destroying the Islamic State (ISIS). About 2,000 US soldiers and tens of thousands of US-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria form the military backbone of an approach that is partly motivated by a determination to block Iran’s widening influence in the Middle East.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a speech January 17, said the United States would “maintain a military presence in Syria focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge.” One of the reasons for the new approach was that a US withdrawal from Syria “would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria,” he said.
Washington’s new strategy immediately ran into problems with NATO partner Turkey, which sees the YPG as linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Tillerson stressed that the United States was willing to “address Turkey’s concern with PKK terrorists elsewhere” and said the United States “must have Turkey’s close cooperation” in Syria.
He did not say how he proposes to deal with the fact that the very existence of US-trained and -equipped Kurdish forces in northern Syria is considered a national security threat by Ankara.
Burak Kadercan, a Turkey expert and associate professor at the US Naval War College, said Ankara’s move against Afrin is “a very risky game of brinkmanship.”
Writing on Twitter, Kadercan pointed out that Ankara was trying to tell the United States to distance itself from the YPG. If Washington failed to do so, Turkey “is willing to take matters to its own hands in Syria.”
It is uncertain to what extent Moscow would be willing to get dragged into Ankara’s game plan. “Russia is not in Syria to solve the Kurdish issue,” Kerim Has, a Moscow University lecturer told the New York Times.
By targeting the Kurds in Afrin, Erdogan hopes to consolidate his nationalist constituency at home a year before elections. However, he risks fuelling a showdown with Kurds in Turkey and making the dire humanitarian situation in the Afrin area even worse.
The expected Turkish operation in Afrin would complicate Washington’s overall strategy in Syria. Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the United States wants to elbow into a situation that has long been dominated by Russia and Iran.
Landis said Washington sees the northern part of Syria under the control of its own soldiers and its Kurdish allies as a region that can be used to exert pressure on other players. The area contains much of Syria’s oil and gas resources, an important hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates and fertile agricultural land, Landis said: “The US believes it will deprive Russia and Iran of the fruits of victory.”