By Panayiotis Alimisis∗
The Turkish army launched an attack on the Kurds of Syria last Saturday, aiming to stop the successful campaign which the Kurdish guerrillas launched a few months ago with assistance from the US. Thousands of armed personnel and tanks, having taken the green light from the turkish parliament, crossed the border and they received a warm welcome by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters (!), as part of the so-called Operation Olive Branch in Afrin. Ankara doesn’t seem to care for the consequences, maybe because of its strong relationship with the other key player in Syria, Russia, which has been developed rapidly the last two years. So far the Americans called for restrain but they don’t seem to care so much for the operation, or have any kind of involvement. Perhaps, the Turks who worry for the growing political and military influence of the Kurdish element in the Middle East, are about to risk everything in order to achieve their goal.
Turkey’s President Tayip Erdogan had said that the operation would be followed by a push into the northern Syrian town of Manbij. This is the place where the US-backed Kurdish forces captured from ISIS back in 2016.
The Turkish forces have been battling the Kurds since the 80’s in the southeastern part of the country. Among those groups it fights the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as PKK, which had separatist roots and demands more autonomy from the central government.
Turkey considers them a “terrorist organization”, and sees the armed Syrian Kurdish groups as an extension of the PKK. In reality, Turkey fears the future establishment of a Kurdish corridor or even a state along its southern border. By going into Syrian territory, the Turkish government claims that it wants to establish a 30km “safe zone” in Afrin to prevent such a Kurdish corridor from being established. However, this might have a sort term cost. By defeating the Kurds -unlikely at this point- it will give the opportunity to the Islamic State to reclaim its lost territories. Although the Turks insist that they also fight the -already weakened- ISIS, there is much concern from the Kurdish side that behind the operation in Syria there is a hidden agenda. There were many accusations in the past that Turkey supports ISIS in Syria and Iraq, for two main reasons:
Firstly, is believed that Erdogan’s oppressive government is ideologically close to Islamic State and helps islamist’s enter Europe, in order to put pressure on EU to accept Turkey into the Union. In addition, both sides constitute unofficially an allied force against the Kurds who seek to create a state for their own. Nobody can suspend entirely the accusation that Ankara shows some sympathy for the ISIS. Besides, it was the Russian’s who gave details two years ago for the close ties between Turkey and ISIS, following the interception of a Russian airplane by a Turkish f-16.
The US position
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis he US allied with Ankara against Assad’s regime. But at the same time it has also develop good relations with the Kurds, simply because they are the most effective and innovative force against the ISIS. Recently, it was revealed that Washington was working to create a border security force in northern Syria consisting of 30,000 Kurdish guerrillas. However, quickly American diplomacy rolled back that plan because they didn’t wish to cause more anger in Turkey. If they did so, Erdogan an ally in NATO, could have strengthened his ties with Russia further, causing serious implications for the US interest in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. At this point USA doesn’t want to involve directly to the conflict but allow Turkey to play its own part. Many believe that the American President Donald Trump cannot cope with a strong turko-russian alliance anyway. Temporarily he will turn the ‘blind eye’ on the Turkish war games even if this tactic causes outrage to the Kurdish side.
Russia got into the Syrian conflict in September 2015 to support President Assad. The Syrian regime was the best costumer of the Russian military industry, and to some extend, still remains. With Russian air support, Damascus has regained most of the territory lost to the opposition and the ISIS. Until recently, the Russian air force controlled the airspace over the disputed Afrin, but ahead of the Turkish operation, it withdrew its armed forces deployed largely to the outskirts of the city.
It was last December when President Putin announced that most of the Russian troops in Syria will return home. Moscow only kept its airbase in Syria’s Latakia and a naval facility in the Mediterranean port of Tartus in order to establish permanently its presence. However, the question is why the Russians ‘abandoned’ so quickly Afrin allowing the Turks to advance. The answer is simple. The last few months Moscow and Ankara came closer than ever developing a new partnership. Turkey becomes increasingly a good costumer of Russian weapons and natural gas, establishing a strategic alliance with Russia on energy and technology. This is why Putin wants to give some space in Syria in return for the Turkish services to his economy. Recently Russia complained that the US was trying to split Syria by establishing a Kurdish-controlled entity close to the borders with Turkey. This accusation resembles a lot the Turkish claims… It’s evident that Russia want’s to keep its presence in the Middle East at any cost, even if it risks a showdown with the old ally Assad.
*Panayiotis Alimisis is a journalist. He studied Modern History and International Relations at London Metropolitan University