Turkey and Iran differ on the Afrin operation
Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s deputy secretary general on foreign and security policy matters and spokesman İbrahim Kalın made two important remarks on April 5 about Turkey’s military operation into Syria.
The first one was made in reference to a row between the government and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) over a visit of celebrities to the troops at the border last week together with Erdoğan. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu had criticized Erdoğan and the celebrities who sang songs and had a good time during their visit while Turkish soldiers are being killed on Syrian soil. Kalın rejected the accusation yesterday and said the celebrities were there to boost soldiers’ morale, advising Kılıçdaroğlu to do the same.
At the same time, Kalın described “Operation Olive Branch” in the following way: “... From January 20 when it started to March 18 when it ended...”
March 18 was the day when the Turkish military and the Turkey-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) rebels entered the town of Afrin, which had been under the control of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia since 2012 after the break of the civil war in Syria. The YPG is the Syria extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been in conflict with Turkey for more than three decades.
Kalın also said Turkish officials have also been in contact with Russian officials, on whether to advance further east to take the town of Tel Rifat from the control of the YPG, but the remark has been the first on-the-record statement so far about the end of the military operation to clear Afrin of the YPG. The YPG has caused a major rift between Turkey and the U.S., its biggest NATO ally, since the U.S. picked the YPG as its ground units against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), despite Turkey’s objections.
During the press conference, a question was raised regarding a report in Iranian media, which claimed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had asked Erdoğan to leave Afrin during their tripartite meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 4 in Ankara. Kalın responded that such a request had been made, but Turkey had been firm about staying in Afrin until the YPG threat was completely eliminated and the town was ready to be handed over to its original residents.
This is not the first time Rouhani has asked Turkey to stop the Afrin operation, even before the YPG had been forced out of the town and the region. It seems Iran wants Turkey to give the town back to the Bashar al-Assad regime that Tehran supports as soon as possible. But Turkey wants to hand over the territories that it has established control over—with the indirect support of Russia—not to Assad but to the new Syria regime that will be established as a result of the Geneva peace process.
Russia also backs the Assad regime, but it supports Turkey’s operation for the time being, both because Erdoğan promised Putin that Turkey is fighting for Syria’s territorial integrity and will withdraw eventually and also because Russia sees the YPG as a “Kurdish proxy-U.S. militia,” the legionaries for its rival, the U.S.
It seems Turkey and Iran differ on the Afrin operation but it also seems that for now, this discrepency is not big enough to stop the three countries from cooperating on Syria’s future in the framework of the Astana process for the de-escalation of clashes, as a complementary effort to Geneva.