More fire — on Turkey's Afrin assault

Turkey’s military intervention in the Syrian border town of Afrin against Kurdish militants is a grim reminder of the complexities of the seven-year-long Syrian civil war. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) played a crucial role in the battle against the Islamic State, ousting it from eastern Syria late last year. In the war, the U.S. provided air cover to YPG-led troops, while the Syrian army and Russia avoided directly clashing with them. But once the IS threat receded, the old geopolitical calculations returned, with Turkey, facing Kurdish militancy at home, turning against Syrian Kurds. Ankara has been warning against empowering Kurdish militants. It sees the Syrian YPG as a vassal of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the main insurgent group battling government troops in southeast Turkey. Now that the fight against the IS is virtually over, or at least for now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is concerned that the YPG, with renewed battleground experience and weapons supplied by the West, could offer support to the PKK. When the U.S. announced plans to create a 30,000-strong Kurdish border force, an alarmed Turkey announced the offensive in Afrin. The plan is to oust YPG guerrillas from the town and hand it over to Turkish proxies. From Afrin, they could move to other cities now held by the YPG.

Mr. Erdoğan would like to create a buffer between Turkey and Syrian Kurdistan. There is a convergence of interest among Russia, Syria, Iran and Turkey in the Afrin assault. Mr. Erdoğan sent troops into Afrin only after getting Russian assent. For Russia, which is at present bombing rebel/jihadist positions in Syria’s Idlib, Turkish cooperation is needed to continue the mission and it will turn a blind eye to the Afrin attack. For Syria and Iran, which see Kurdish militants as separatists and potential threats, the assault is a blessing in disguise. Yet, despite the tacit regional support Turkey now enjoys, the attack could prove counterproductive. First, the U.S. has been completely sidelined in the operation. If the rift between the U.S. and Turkey, both NATO allies, keeps widening over Syria, the proxy battles in the country could acquire their own momentum. Second, the YPG has proved its worth in the ground battles against the IS since 2015. It is not a fragile militia group that can be pushed over easily with a ground offensive. Besides, the YGP has enormous local support in Kurdish towns along the border. Third, even if Turkey ousts the YPG from Afrin, it won’t ease tensions on the border. Rather, it would drag Turkey deeper into the Syrian conflict. This means that Syria’s border region, which is among the hardest-hit by the civil war, is likely to see more bloodshed and destruction in the coming months, if not years, unless all countries involved in the conflict change course from war to talks.

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 8:07:15 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/more-fire/article22515398.ece

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