Turkey’s month-long offensive against the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria has opened up a new front in the seven-year Syria war, as its forces this week fired artillery at Syrian pro-regime militias trying to enter.
The fight has thrown a spotlight on the international powers—from Turkey and Russia to Iran and the U.S.—vying for position as Islamic State recedes.
Here’s a rundown of what’s at stake for competing powers in Afrin.
In the fight against Islamic State, the main Kurdish militia, the YPG, benefited from being a U.S. ally. As it took territory from Islamic State, the YPG established a semi-autonomous region called Rojava that included Afrin. As opposed to northeast Syria, the U.S. has not directly backed the Kurds in Afrin where there was no Islamic State presence to combat.
But as was the case in Iraq, the Kurdish ambitions have run afoul of their neighbors, namely Turkey. Suffering great losses in Afrin, the Kurds’ goal now is to minimize the damage and safeguard territory further east, including areas containing oil fields.
Afrin may have given the Kurds a glimpse of how precarious their future could be. Threatened by a hostile Turkey and facing a possible future U.S. withdrawal from Syria, which would deprive them of support, the Kurds have turned to Damascus for help repelling the Turkish assault.
Turkey sees the YPG as terrorists and an extension of the separatist Kurdish PKK insurgency, which has fought the Turkish state for decades. Ankara has watched with anger as the YPG, with the backing of its fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, has established a statelet south of its borders. Blocking Kurdish influence has become a primary goal for Turkey in Syria.
To counter the Kurdish expansion, Ankara intends to create an 18-mile wide buffer zone between the border and the Kurdish areas.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who uses anti-Kurdish rhetoric to stoke nationalist fury at home, is unlikely to relent until the Kurdish expansion is rolled back either through force or negotiation with the U.S. He may accept the Syrian regime taking control of Afrin, even though he is opposed to it, as he sees the Kurds as more of an existential threat.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has long had an ambiguous relationship with the Kurds. He has opposed their bid for autonomy but also occasionally provided assistance to them while keeping a door open for negotiations.
This week, the regime sent hundreds of pro-regime militias to help the Kurds in Afrin where they were met with Turkish artillery fire.
By protecting the Kurds in Afrin, the regime could win control of the area and gain potential leverage with the Kurds for the future, when Damascus wants to reclaim all Kurdish areas, including oil fields in the east.
Russia wants to project itself as the main foreign arbiter in Syria, and the conflict in Afrin has allowed it to do so. Turkey’s bombing of Afrin, which is under Russian control, appeared to have tacit approval from Moscow.
Russia has also cultivated relations with the YPG, inviting it to a peace congress in Sochi and granting more formal recognition than the U.S. has done.
The attack on Afrin strained those relations, but the Kurds are left with little choice. There is no deal with the regime without Moscow’s consent.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, has denounced the Turkish invasion of Afrin, saying that any foreign intervention needs authorization from Damascus.
To Iran, an ideal outcome in Afrin is regime control that allows Tehran to maintain friendly relations with both the Syrian Kurds and Turkey, which would help counter U.S. influence in the north.
Meanwhile, the pro-regime militias trying to enter Afrin are believed to be Iranian-trained. Their presence would put Iranian proxies on the border with Turkey and strengthen Iran’s foothold in the area.
The fight in Afrin has put the U.S. in an awkward position, pitting the YPG, its reliable partner in the fight against Islamic State, against its ally, Turkey.
Washington doesn’t want to abandon the Kurds but is also aware that any fracture in the NATO alliance is a boon for Russia, which seeks to replace the U.S. as the great power in the Middle East.
For now, the U.S. is able mostly to ignore Afrin because it only cooperates directly with the YPG further east, where they have been battling Islamic State. But if Turkey expands its offensive eastward, it risks direct confrontation with U.S. soldiers in Manbij. In the meantime, Washington has tried to find a diplomatic solution to the rift, and dispatched several high-profile officials to meet the Turkish government.
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Stakes rise in Turkey’s Afrin assault as pro-Assad militia arrive
BEIRUT/ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey warned on Wednesday that pro-Damascus forces would face “serious consequences” for entering Syria’s Afrin region to help Kurdish fighters repel a Turkish offensive.
Their arrival raises the specter of wider escalation on Syria’s northern battlefront, which includes the Syrian army, allied Iran-linked militias, Kurdish forces, rebels, Turkish troops, and Russian and American forces.
The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said Turkish planes bombed a town in Afrin and fighting raged on the ground on Wednesday. Turkey launched its assault last month to drive out the YPG, which it deems a menace along its border.
More paramilitary forces aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad went to Afrin on Wednesday, state media said.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said shellfire had forced an earlier convoy to retreat. “Any step by the (Syrian) regime or other elements in this direction will surely have serious consequences,” Ibrahim Kalin told a news conference.
A commander in the alliance fighting alongside Damascus in Syria’s seven-year war told Reuters that pro-government forces in Afrin had returned fire after rebels backed by Turkey attacked them on Tuesday night.
A new confrontation, pitting the Turkish army directly against pro-Assad forces, would further scramble the web of alliances and rivalries already at play in northern Syria.
Erdogan has described the pro-government fighters as Shi‘ite Muslim militias acting independently and warned they would pay a heavy price.
Kalin said Turkey was not in direct talks with the Syrian government, but its messages to Damascus were being indirectly conveyed.
“The Syrian forces that entered and are still entering will be in the suitable locations to repel the Turkish occupation army,” said Rezan Hedo, a YPG media adviser.
They would deploy near the Turkish border, the YPG has said.
The pro-Assad commander said Russia had intervened to “delay the entry” of Syrian army troops, and so allied “popular forces” with heavy weaponry went instead.
Some Syrian Kurdish officials have said they believed Moscow wanted to keep leverage with Ankara to advance its wider ambitions of brokering a settlement of the conflict.
Turkey and Russia have fought on opposing sides during the seven-year war, with Moscow the key ally of Assad and Ankara one of the main backers of rebels fighting to overthrow him. But Ankara shifted its Syria policy, seeking to mend ties with Russia and turning its firepower against Kurdish forces.
Turkey has in recent months lent support to diplomacy by Russia, whose jets helped Assad’s government seize back most major cities since 2015. Ankara said last month it had sought Moscow’s agreement before the Afrin assault.
“The Russians are the ones who decided this game,” said Kurdish politician Fawza Youssef.
“The Russians have been playing it like this for a while… They pressure the Turks with the Kurdish card (and vice versa),” said Youssef, a senior member of the Kurdish-led autonomous authority in north Syria.
There was no comment from Moscow on Syrian deployments.
Ahead of the Turkish offensive last month, Russia pulled out the military police it had deployed in Afrin last year.
The Turkish offensive was slow to achieve gains along the frontier but pushed several km (miles) into Syria. Still, the YPG holds most of the Afrin region including its central town.
Turkey regards the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdish PKK movement which has waged a three-decade insurgency on its soil, though the groups say they are independent.
In response to questions on Afrin on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged all Syrian combatants to talk to Damascus within Syria’s “territorial integrity”.
Kurdish autonomy declarations in north Syria do “not help to resolve the problem” nor does U.S. support in territory outside government control, the TASS news agency cited Lavrov as saying.
Since the onset of Syria’s conflict in 2011, the YPG and its allies have carved out three autonomous cantons in the north, including Afrin. Their power expanded as they fought Islamic State militants with the help of U.S. jets – though Washington opposes their political ambitions as does the Syrian government.
The U.S. arming of the YPG has infuriated NATO ally Turkey. But while Washington’s troops stand with the Kurdish forces in the much larger swathes of east Syria they control, it has not given them support in Afrin.
Syrian Kurdish officials have said they sought assistance from Assad’s military after foreign powers did not help them against Turkey’s army.
The move of pro-Assad forces into Afrin has drawn more attention to the relationship between Damascus and the YPG, which will prove pivotal in how the conflict unfolds.
The Kurdish fighters and the Syrian government, which each hold more ground than any other side in the war, have mostly avoided direct conflict despite occasional clashes.
But Kurdish leaders seek autonomy as part of Syria, and Assad repeatedly pledges to take back the whole country.
While both have at times hinted a long-term agreement might be possible, their dealings are vulnerable to wider factors as powerful foreign allies also wrangle over Syria.
In Afrin, they have a common enemy in the Turkish forces. Kurdish officials said this week that talks with Damascus over Afrin had remained purely military.
“Until now, there is no talk at all over returning state institutions or administrative matters,” said Youssef, the senior Kurdish politician. “The priority now is that there’s an assault… After, the political can be discussed.”
A key ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Reuters that Ankara’s military campaign was in violation of international law and could strain ties within NATO.
Norbert Roettgen, who heads the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, also said the military operation would complicate fledgling efforts to rebuild German-Turkish ties.
Reporting by Ellen Francis and Ece Toksabay, with additional reporting by Angus McDowall and Laila Bassam in Beirut, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Polina Ivanova in Moscow and Andrea Shalal in Berlin; writing by Ellen Francis; editing by Mark Heinrich