Before the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Raqqa last June, Turkey seemed to have almost completely lost its grip on the Syrian conflict. The Kurds in Syria were on the rise, while Ankara’s rebel allies were losing ground in much of the country. Today, however, the situation in Syria is much more in line with Turkey’s interests, casting a different light on Ankara’s alliances and carrying important implications for the U.S.
Last month, Ankara began to turn the tables after it started an operation to expel the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia from the Afrin region in northwestern Syria. The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Syria’s main Kurdish separatist movement. Turkey regards the PYD-YPG as a terrorist organization affiliated with its own Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). This week, Turkish-led forces encircled Afrin. In effect, Turkey has now cleared much of its southern border of any YPG presence, except for areas in northeastern Syria protected by the U.S.
Turkey’s Objectives in Afrin
Ankara has achieved one of the three major objectives of its operation in Afrin: It has created a secure belt along the border that could expand further into Syrian territory. Turkey’s remaining objectives are to force the YPG to give up control of Afrin and to press the U.S. – the Kurdish militia’s greatest enabler – to weaken the YPG in northeastern Syria. These goals will take some time to achieve, but the Turks are making progress. According to American and Syrian sources, U.S. officials reassured Turkey that steps are being taken to reduce the demographic dominance of the Kurds in the Syrian Democratic Forces – the U.S.-backed coalition fighting ISIS in northeastern Syria. The U.S. State Department and the White House appear more committed to establishing a new dynamic that moves away from the Syrian Kurdish efforts to downplay Turkish interests in Syria.
Equally significant, Turkey is receiving a similar signal from Russia. Moscow’s approval made the offensive in Afrin possible, notwithstanding concerns in Damascus and Tehran about Turkey’s growing footprint in northern Syria. Syrian sources familiar with the talks have said that Moscow worked with Ankara to reach an understanding with the YPG. Russia had close ties with the YPG in Afrin, the only Kurdish canton that did not have the protection of the U.S.-led coalition. In talks with the YPG, Russia proposed letting the Syrian government take over Afrin. For Turkey, this meant that the Syrian army, not the Kurdish militia, would handle matters near the Turkish-Syrian border. Russia presented the scenario as the alternative to a Turkish invasion – something neither the YPG nor the Syrian regime would want. Plus, the deal would enable regime forces to control a strategic town, well-positioned near rebel pockets, without firing a bullet.
Syria and Iran’s plan
Syria and Iran had a different idea, however. If they chose the scenario proposed by Moscow, they would have had to accept the gains that Turkey had made along the border as fait accompli – an outcome that Damascus, Tehran, and the YPG would abhor. The other choice would be to reach a deal that would keep Afrin hostile to Turkey and the rebels.
Tehran, the YPG, and Damascus agreed that Iranian-backed Shiite militias, rather than Syrian government forces, should enter the city. Syrian and pro-Hezbollah media made a point of emphasizing the forces’ militia-like nature, referring to them as “popular forces” rather than “government forces.” Two days later, the YPG commander in Aleppo announced that key Kurdish neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo had fallen to the regime, attributing the loss to his forces’ preoccupation with what he called “the resistance of the century” in Afrin.
It is unclear whether the regime’s takeover of Sheikh Maqsoud, a Kurdish district in Aleppo, was part of the deal in Afrin. If so, it would explain why the regime opted for a deal less favorable than the one Moscow negotiated, one that would have given Damascus more meaningful control over Afrin.
Implications for Turkey and the U.S.
That Iranian-backed militias, rather than Russian-sponsored forces, were allowed to enter Afrin has implications for both Turkey and the U.S. Before the operation in Afrin began last month, the YPG were close with Russia, seeing Moscow as a guarantor of the Kurds’ security against Turkey. Now, the YPG seems to have fallen into Iran’s lap.
Turkey’s operation against the YPG reached a milestone with the encirclement of Afrin. These gains could mean that Ankara – which once saw the Syrian rebels of little utility when it comes to fighting the Kurds – could begin viewing its relationship with the rebels differently. The expansion in Afrin, and the hostile route that Damascus has apparently chosen there, could push Turkey to see the rebels as an indispensable asset against the Kurds.
Turkish troops, with support from the rebels, punched through Jarablus and al-Bab in 2016, isolating the Kurdish cantons in northwestern and northeastern Syria. But Turkey kept an open mind about a regime return to predominantly Kurdish areas as a way to undercut the YPG’s plans for autonomy. After the latest developments, Turkey might come to rely on the rebels as its main and long-term tool for pushing back against the Kurds.
The continuing Turkish-Kurdish fighting is not just straining the relationship between Washington and Ankara. It is complicating the American strategy to counter ISIS and roll back Iranian influence in Syria. The divergence between Turkey and the U.S. is bringing Ankara closer to Moscow. Meanwhile, Washington’s only tool to fight ISIS seems to be gravitating toward Iran, which gives Tehran an opportunity to further undermine American influence in Syria.
Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, focusing on militant Islam, Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf region. He is the co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, a New York Times and Washington Post bestseller, translated into more than a dozen foreign languages, and chosen as one of the Times of London’s Best Books of 2015 and The Wall Street Journal’s top 10 books on terrorism.
The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.