Turkey begins assault on Kurdish-held Afrin

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ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Saturday that Turkey’s ground assault on the Kurdish-held city of Afrin in northern Syria has begun.

Erdogan also said an operation in Kurdish-held Manbij, a town to the east, would follow.

Both towns are controlled by the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara views as a terror group that threatens Turkey’s security due to its links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state for more than three decades.

Mete Sohtaoglu, a prominent Middle East commentator, thinks that Turkey has gone ahead with its Afrin operation without the full support of Russia — the main sponsor of the Astana peace talks which also involve Turkey and Iran — and he expects the Syrian regime will take over the region if Turkey succeeds in ousting the Kurdish militias.

“Regime forces are also expected to enter Afrin,” Sohtaoglu told Arab News. “Under the Astana deal between Russia, Turkey and Iran, Turkish military and regime forces agreed to not enter into direct conflict. Afrin will be put under the management of the Syrian regime at the end of the day.”

Since late Thursday, thousands of fighters from the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, who were expected to assist Turkey in its military offensive, have been bussed to the border, where military vehicles, equipment, and hundreds of troops were already massed.

Late on Friday, Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon allayed fears that the offensive could jeopardize relations between Turkey and the US, which sees the YPG as a key local partner in its fight against Daesh.

“One action does not typically result in chaos or a breakdown. We have regular communication with our ally Turkey. Allies do not always see eye-to-eye, but they are willing to work together,” Pahon told Andalou Agency.

Turkey has also reportedly constructed its fourth observation post in the Idlib de-escalation zone, as part of its commitments under the Astana deal. Turkey is tasked with establishing 10 more observation posts in the area as soon as possible.

Enes Ayasli, a research assistant at Sakarya University in Turkey, thinks that Turkey’s deployment along the western line of Idlib is a long-term strategic move by Russia. He pointed out that it will make Turkey “responsible” for militant group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham — also known as Al-Qaeda in Syria — and “their possible actions against regime forces and Russian air bases in Hmeimim and Tartus.”

In this way, he said, “Russia will secure its own existence in Latakia. It is clear that the last attack on Russian air bases increased the threat perception toward radical groups in Idlib.”
According to Ayasli, it is important that the Russian-backed regime forces prepare for possible confrontations with radical groups at the junction of Idlib and Aleppo.

“In the last three weeks, Daesh almost quadrupled its area of control,” he told Arab News. “In addition to that, some other radical groups are being targeted by regime forces. So Turkey’s securing western Idlib is a kind of warrant for Russia in its support of regime forces (in that area).”

Russia remains reluctant to comment on Turkey’s Afrin operation, although that region’s airspace is under Moscow’s control, while Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad recently warned that any Turkish planes attacking Afrin would be destroyed.
At a news conference on Friday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied claims that Russia had withdrawn its observers in Afrin ahead of a Turkish offensive.
Oytun Orhan, a researcher on Syria at the Ankara-based think tank Orsam, said that although the US does not consider Afrin as part of its operational area, it nevertheless feels a responsibility to protect the YPG.

“The latest contradictory statements coming from Washington are the result of a need to take a politically balanced position on this issue,” Orhan told Arab News. “But the US doesn’t have the tools to prevent a Turkish operation in the region, and it knows that it cannot deter Ankara merely with political statements.”

However, Orhan pointed out, the US is aware that if Turkey conducts an operation in Afrin without Russia’s consent, this may undermine the regional partnership between Ankara and Moscow and create an opportunity for the US to mend ties with Turkey, its longtime ally.

Orhan added that he does not believe the establishment of the fourth observation post in Idlib is part of Turkey’s operational preparations for Afrin.

“The first three posts provided Turkey with strategic superiority, as they were overlooking the Kurdish canton of Afrin,” he said.

“According to the initial agreement between Turkey and Russia, both countries can cooperate on the Afrin issue only after Turkey establishes all 14 observation posts. So Turkey may want to accelerate this process to get a green light from Moscow.”

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