Turkey’s Afrin military operation
What began as a war of words between Turkey and the U.S. has become a military operation into the Afrin Kurdish enclave. The operation is doomed to be limited, since Afrin is not under U.S. but Russian protection.
Although Moscow is on good terms with Ankara for the time being, the two parties have different stakes in Syria. Firstly, while Turkey targets People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces as a terrorist organization, Russia does not acknowledge the YPG nor even the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terror organization and would not want to leave Syrian Kurds to U.S. protection as a bargaining chip for any settlement on Syria’s future.
Secondly, Russia is an official ally of Assad’s rule and defends the unity of Syria. Finally, Russia has demanded Turkey’s help to pacify opposition Islamic groups, not play a greater role in the future of Syria.
Although the Turkish government aspires to legitimize its security concerns regarding Kurdish forces in Northern Syria, so far no international actor has either acknowledged those concerns or seems willing to stand by Turkey. Under the circumstances, the Turkish government may have needed to launch an operation in order to underline its determination.
I am not sure if this would work. Moreover, the Turkish government has announced plans to extend the operation to the Munbic area, which risks more confrontation with the U.S., since the area is under U.S. protection and the U.S. has already warned Turkey to step back. Although the U.S. sends mixed messages regarding its relation with the YPG, and has been vague about plans to form a border force in the North-eastern Kurdish enclaves, it is quite clear that the U.S. disregards Turkey’s concerns.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently said: “[We] are not interested in what the U.S. says.” Such a remark must have been made out of disappointment and anger. Yet Turkey may find itself in direct military confrontation with U.S. forces in Northern Syria. It may make Russians happy to see a tragic end to the Turkey-U.S. alliance and a serious crack appear in NATO, but I do not think even Russian President Putin would want to side with Turkey in such an event.
If we remember how cautious he has been about not directly confronting the U.S. in Syria, and how he has agreed with the U.S. about prioritizing the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and The Levant (ISIL), we cannot expect Russia to engage in Turkey’s Syrian affairs. If the Turkish government considers its cooperation with Russia and Iran on Syria as a solid alliance, this would be tragically misleading. There is no need to remember that Iranian policies vis-a-vis Syria and the Kurds differ from Turkey’s.
Why would the Turkish government dare to make such a risky move then? It may be out of anger stemming from a feeling of betrayal by
Western allies and especially the U.S. In that case, it is not only U.S. policy in Syria and the U.S. alliance with the Kurdish YPG forces that has angered Turkish government, but also a host of other hot topics.
First of all, the U.S.’s refusal to extradite Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is widely believed to have been behind the 2016 coup attempt, has given the Turkish government cause to think that the U.S. protects “Turkey’s enemies.”
There is the trial of Iranian-Turkish citizen and businessman Reza Zarrab and Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla in the U.S. over allegations of financial crimes. Turkey’s government seems to have made enormous efforts to change the course of these events but so far has failed to reach any agreement with the U.S. As a result, Ankara may already consider Washington a lost friend and does not need to refrain from challenging this old friend turned “enemy.”
Furthermore, Turkey’s rulers may hope to bring the U.S. to its senses through the act of a challenge. They may well have calculated that the U.S. will not risk losing Turkey altogether as an ally and will try to soften its stance on the aforementioned issues.
The best option is that the Turkish government will limit the scope of the Afrin military operation in order to be taken seriously about its concerns without escalating tensions. Let us hope this is the case.