Turkey not expected to move against Kurdish militia in Syria's Afrin: analysts

Li Jiayao

ISTANBUL, Dec. 20 (Xinhua) -- Amid increasing reports of a potential Turkish military operation against Kurdish militia-held Afrin in northwestern Syria, most analysts who spoke to Xinhua remain highly skeptical about the prospect though they do not rule out a limited strike on the militia.


"Despite all the indications, I don't see a military operation against Afrin as probable under the current circumstances," said Haldun Solmazturk, a former general with the Turkish military.

Turkish media reports about a military intervention being in the works have increased after Russia announced last week a partial withdrawal of its troops from Syria, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed once again on Sunday that Ankara would clear its borders with Syria and Iraq of terrorist groups.

Naming several towns under the control of the Kurdish militia in Syria known as the People's Protection Units (YPG), the president said Afrin, Manbij, Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ayn, Qamishli and all the way to the Iraqi border will be cleaned of terrorists.

"It's unthinkable for either the U.S. or Russia to allow such a military intervention against Kurds," remarked Solmazturk, who chairs the Incek debates at the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute.

Whenever local media reports spoke of an imminent military operation against Afrin in the past, both Moscow and Washington would indicate their opposition to the intervention by displaying video footages of their troops in the company of the Kurdish militia.

Ankara perceives the YPG-held cantons, in particular the one in Afrin which is closer to the Mediterranean Sea, as a major national security threat.

Russian President Vladimir Putin went to Ankara for talks with Erdogan the day he announced Russian troops' withdrawal from Syria, and his visit was followed by that of two top U.S. generals -- U.S. Central Command Commander Joseph Votel and Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Forces in Europe.

"I feel the probability of a major military operation against Afrin is quite low," said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.

Noting that Russia does not want to leave the Kurdish card on the U.S. hands, he said "I don't think Moscow would stop offering protection to the Kurdish militia."

In his view, a Turkish military intervention against Afrin would result in Kurds' breaking with Moscow.

Since summer, top Turkish officials have now and then threatened a military operation against Afrin, the only Kurdish canton on the western side of the Euphrates River.

Murat Bilhan, a former diplomat, thinks Ankara would carry out a military operation to drive the YPG out of Afrin even in the face of opposition from the U.S. and Russia.

"Turkey can't tolerate the (YPG) formation in Afrin which is vitally important as far as its security is concerned," said Bilhan, deputy chairman of the Istanbul-based Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies.

Ankara is concerned that a potential unification of the three Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border could risk cutting off Turkey's physical ties with Syria.

It is widely argued that the U.S. seeks a Kurdish state reaching out to the Mediterranean.

Bilhan feels that Russia is unwilling to give up on the Kurdish formation in Afrin, but would not intervene in case of a Turkish military offensive given the high-level cooperation between Ankara and Moscow.

Ankara sees the YPG as the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has been fighting against the Turkish government for more than 30 years.

Turkey has announced the YPG presence on the western bank of the Euphrates as a red line due to concern that the Kurdish militia may attempt to push further to the west to reach the Mediterranean.

Solmazturk believes that two reasons are behind Russian and U.S. opposition to a Turkish intervention against the Kurdish militia.

The first is the Syrian government, which Ankara does not recognize as legitimate, would oppose a Turkish military move.

The second is related to the efforts by the U.S. and Russia to stabilize the situation in Syria after defeating the Islamic State (IS).

"A military intervention against Afrin would counter such efforts," argued Solmazturk.

In a bid to lay the ground for peace talks, U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Putin declared in a joint statement last month that they ruled out any military solution in Syria from then on.

The joint statement only excludes fighting against terrorist groups such as the IS and al-Nusra Front.


Ulgen, a former diplomat, feels that Russia may give the green light for a limited operation in which Turkish troops would seize some checkpoints around Afrin.

Russia, which has some troops in Afrin, is reportedly withdrawing its soldiers from the canton. The move is interpreted as a Russian nod to an intervention.

In October, Turkey sent some troops to Syria's Idlib province which borders Afrin under a deal with Russia and Iran struck in Kazakhstan's Astana to settle the crisis in Syria.

Turkish troops have now had Afrin surrounded from all sides, with soldiers in Idlib being positioned in such a way so as to contain Afrin from the South, according to press reports.

Ulgen believes that a military operation against a relatively smaller place like Qamishli, which is in northeastern Syria and under YPG control, is more likely following a deal with the U.S.

Washington may feel the need to say yes to such an operation with a view to mending ties with Turkey, he argued.

Turkish and U.S. ties have been rather strained lately over an array of issues.

Erdogan said the U.S. has sent over 4,000 truckloads of weaponry to the YPG so far, while Washington argued that the cooperation is only tactical as it has used the YPG as a ground force against the IS.

The U.S. green light for a military operation will have its limits, Ulgen said, noting that any further operations against the YPG would certainly require tough negotiations with Washington.

In contrast, Solmazturk does not think Washington would allow any operation against the two YPG cantons on the eastern part of the Euphrates, namely Jazira and Kobani.

The European Union would also oppose such a move and Trump, already in trouble in domestic politics, would not be able to account for such a move to Congress, he argued.

Since the Syrian civil war began, the U.S. has reportedly built around a dozen military bases in areas under YPG control other than Afrin.

"At best, the U.S. would only allow Turkey to carry out a limited operation against PKK camps in northern Iraq," said Solmazturk.

Many feel it may cost Turkey dearly to unilaterally intervene into Afrin without first reaching a deal with the major powers.

It is more difficult to get out of a territory captured than seizing it militarily, said Solmazturk, underlining the importance of an exit strategy for a military operation.

Syrian President al-Assad described on Monday all those who fight for the interests of foreign powers as traitors, targeting in particular the YPG under U.S. sway.

Until recently, both Moscow and Damascus favored YPG's participation in the peace process and the Syrian government spoke of a Kurdish autonomy as negotiable.

Assad's statement may be taken as a message laying the ground for potential cooperation between Ankara and Damascus, since the YPG represents a threat to both now.

This may open a window of opportunity for Turkey to deal with the militia if Ankara agrees to cooperate with Damascus, Ismail Hakki Pekin, a former chief of intelligence in the Turkish military, was quoted as saying on Wednesday.

Many analysts feel the Turkish government needs to urgently get into touch with the Syrian government to act jointly against common threats.

It is not possible to effectively tackle the YPG problem and the terrorist groups in Idlib without cooperating with Damascus, Solmazturk said.

The Idlib province, which is largely controlled by the al-Nusra Front, is estimated to have around 15,000 to 20,000 armed rebels who are excluded from peace talks.

Noting the jihadists in Idlib pose a very big threat to Turkey, Solmazturk stated "it's crazy, politically and militarily, to target Afrin without first dealing with Idlib."


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