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Turkey needs to win Afrin quickly, or risk its border security Open in fullscreen

Tallha Abdulrazaq

Turkey needs to win Afrin quickly, or risk its border security

Smoke billows in the background from a reported Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) location [AFP]

Date of publication: 2 March, 2018

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Comment: Once again, the YPG has callously prioritised their relationship with the Syrian regime over the Syrian people, who have been struggling for their freedom since 2011, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq.
Turkey has been on a long overdue offensive  against the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) group since 20 January. 

Turkey aims to retake the city of Afrin and its surrounding climes, which would undoubtedly prove to be a gamechanger in northern Syria, and may even assist in the stabilisation of the last major rebel-held enclave in Idlib.

Turkey's advance has allowed it to secure its border from YPG presence all the way to Jarablus, which was snatched away from Islamic State (IS) extremists during Operation Euphrates Shield back in 2016.

Turkey has all but sealed off the Afrin pocket apart from Assad regime-held territory near Aleppo, there are signs that Operation Olive Branch – the codename for Turkey's offensive – might be reaching a critical stage as the YPG attempts to cut deals with third parties to survive.

In its desperation to defend against the joint Turkish and Free Syrian Army (FSA) onslaught, and with its front lines methodically collapsing, the YPG agreed to allow Assad regime troops and allied pro-Iran Shia militias into nearby Tell Rifaat. Syrian state media then showed footage of regime soldiers inside Tell Rifaat.

The Russian factor

The YPG's play here is to partially concede to the Assad regime territory it knows it stands a high chance of losing if it attempts to hold it unilaterally against Turkey's steady advance.

In other words, the YPG - which claims to champion Kurdish independence in Syria and beyond - has issued a call to help to subordinate themselves to a regime they claim to oppose, and one which savagely oppressed the Kurdish people for decades, and all just to keep it out of Turkish-backed FSA hands.

Read more: Turkey rejects calls to suspend Afrin assault

This is not the first time that the YPG has callously prioritised their relationship with the Syrian regime over the Syrian people, who have been struggling for their freedom since 2011.

From the very start of the Syrian revolution, the revolutionaries have been undermined by the YPG that has selfishly sold them out to make greedy land grabs. In 2012, with the Assad regime on the ropes, the regime cut a deal with the YPG that saw it withdraw from many Kurdish-claimed territories. The Assad regime suddenly decided to withdraw without firing a single shot.

The YPG is once again cutting deals with the regime to the detriment of what is left of the Syrian revolution

Fast forward to today, and the YPG is once again cutting deals with the regime to the detriment of what is left of the Syrian revolution. As Russia and Iran have decisively intervened on behalf of the regime, and with the revolution all but decimated as the people of Eastern Ghouta get fed into Assad's meat grinder, Moscow has sought to bring as much territory under at least nominal regime control as possible.

Prior to the launch of Olive Branch, Russia made an offer to the YPG to transfer territory under its control back to the regime, perhaps with a future understanding about providing them with autonomy or some kind of federal system.

The YPG spurned the Russians, which was perhaps a costly error, as it gave Moscow an incentive to accommodate Turkey's plans.

Turkey must take Afrin quickly

Knowing that Turkey was eager to secure its border from any further YPG threat, and also sighting an opportunity to further undermine an already strained relationship between Ankara and Washington, Russia agreed to withdraw its forces from Afrin and to allow Turkish airpower to operate over the enclave.

It seems apparent that Moscow has decided to punish the YPG by allowing Turkey and its Syrian allies to pummel the Kurdish Marxists and threaten their very existence in north western Syria, which would then force them to agree to Russia's terms.

Following the YPG's loss of territory, including Rajo which lies on a major road leading to Afrin itself, it seems obvious that they would seek to secure Tell Rifaat to prevent the Afrin pocket from being sealed off on all sides.

Also, by allowing the regime into these territories, the YPG aims to convince Russia that it now has to lean on Turkey to get it to accept regime control over Afrin, something Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has suggested would be acceptable to Ankara.

However, the force concentration of Assad regime troops and allied militias appears to be small, and the YPG has indicated that it is not yet willing to cede control politically to the regime, which means Moscow is unlikely to restrain Turkey just yet.

If Afrin is left in the hands of the regime, then Idlib too will be all but lost

It is in Turkey's interests to capture Afrin and commit more military resources - including an increase in the number of Turkish forces deployed - to speed up the process of taking Afrin.

Rather than the city being besieged within days, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last month, it has now been a month and a half since the start of operations.

Turkey is rightly concerned about the domestic impact of losing too many soldiers, but without a rapid and decisive victory soon, the YPG may find a way to survive by conceding to Russian and Assad regime demands.

If this happens, Turkish citizens will not be safer, as the Syrian regime has a long history of aiding and abetting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group considered terrorists by the United States, European Union and Turkey, and which Ankara insists is equivalent to the YPG.

Should the YPG become subsumed into the regime, Assad is unlikely to forget Turkey's support for the rebels and will be seeking revenge and to destabilise Turkey domestically.

This will mean an increased output in PKK attacks, and the YPG will be used as an auxiliary force alongside the plethora of pro-Iran militias to support the Syrian military in crushing the rebellion.

Moscow is unlikely to restrain Turkey just yet

If Afrin is left in the hands of the regime, then Idlib too will be all but lost, and Turkey will have an extremely bitter regime looking to undermine and harm it right on its southern border, and in areas where there is already a high concentration of PKK/YPG activity.

Turkey is on the clock, and it must do everything it can to prevent the YPG coming to an accord with the regime, which will encourage Russia to call time on Olive Branch.

This would be almost as disastrous an outcome as losing the battle for Afrin altogether, and would have deadly consequences for Turkey for years to come.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.


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