By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, NB] Telegraph-Journal
Turkey’s recent incursion into Kurdish-held areas along its border with Syria puts it further at odds with the other players in the Syrian civil war.
On Jan. 20, Ankara announced that a campaign, “Operation Olive Branch,” had been launched, targeting the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which make up the bulk of the American-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The Turks want to prevent the Kurds from gaining control over a contiguous sliver of land in Syria they call Rojava, including the towns of Afrin in the northwest, Kobani in the centre, and Qamishli in the northeast.
The current operation is concentrating on an area of northwestern Syria under YPG control that includes the cities of Afrin and Manbij. It is intended to create a security zone about 29kilometres deep inside Syria.
Turkey believes the YPG has links to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that operates inside Turkey, and which it considers a terrorist group.
The PKK has waged an insurgency against the Turkish government for decades. Abdullah Ocalan, the KPP leader imprisoned since 1999, was based in Kurdish Syria for nearly two decades.
The current offensive into Syria has been prompted by Washington’s plan to help the SDF alliance create a 30,000-strong border security force along Syria’s borders with Iraq and Turkey and prevent the return of the Islamic State (IS).
The move is opposed by Iran, Russia, Syria, and especially Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has called the force a “terror army.”
The Turkish invasion has left Washington with a dilemma. It will have to scale back its support of the Kurds, one of the few groups that have consistently helped America in Syria and Iraq, or else risk a quarrel with a fellow NATO member.
The attack has also placed Russia in a difficult position. Moscow is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- but also wants to remain on good terms with Turkey. Perhaps for that reason, Russia has moved its ground forces and vacated the airspace to accommodate the Turkish operation.
All this comes against the backdrop of political jockeying by the countries involved in Syria’s civil war to find a political solution to end the conflict.
Moscow has been preparing to host a Syrian National Dialogue Congress, set for Jan. 30 in Sochi. It hopes to broker peace between the Syrian regime and its opposition while appeasing major stakeholders, including various Syrian groups.
Turkey claims to have received guarantees last December that the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds would not attend scheduled talks in Sochi. It protested continued American support for the YPG on Jan. 10 and seeks to pressure Washington to block their participation in the political process.
Meanwhile, American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Jan. 17 announced that a small U.S. presence of some 2,000 troops will remain in Syria indefinitely.
Erdogan has said that Manbij, where the U.S. stations military personnel, will soon be attacked and asked the Americans to leave the town. In turn, President Donald Trump cautioned him against the growing risk of conflict.
This hasn’t scared the Turks. “Those who support the terrorist organisation will become a target in this battle,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag warned.
Erdogan declared Friday that his forces could go even further into Kurdish territory than his government had previously stated. Will two NATO allies actually come to blows?