ANKARA: A Turkish military operation in the Kurdish-held northwestern Syrian district of Afrin, on the Turkish border, looks to be imminent.
The Turkish Army began shelling positions held by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) from a border post in the southern province of Hatay on Saturday.
The offense came just an hour after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted at an upcoming Afrin operation.
“If terrorists in Afrin do not withdraw, Turkey will destroy the province. Within a week, they’ll see what we’re up to,” Erdogan said during a speech in the eastern province of Elazig.
In recent months, Erdogan has used lyrics from an old Turkish song to warn Syrian Kurds that Turkey’s forces “might come suddenly one night.” Turkey’s recently established observation posts in the de-escalation zone in Idlib also overlook Afrin.
Ankara hopes to prevent the Syrian Kurdish PYD, which it regards as a terrorist organization closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), from carving out a “terror corridor” up to the Mediterranean.
But a military operation poses considerable risk to regional dynamics, something Turkey must surely take into consideration ahead of the upcoming Sochi Congress on Jan. 29 and 30.
Any such operation is likely to require the consent of Russia, the main sponsor of the Sochi talks, which currently has an observation force in Afrin, and controls the district’s air space.
Sinan Hatahet, an expert on Syria at Al Sharq Forum in Istanbul, said Turkey does not care whether Arabs or Kurds control Afrin, as long as whoever is in charge prevents the PYD from establishing a sustainable presence there.
“Nevertheless, the best outcome Ankara could achieve at this stage is the withdrawal of PYD and (Kurdish-backed militia) YPG to the east of the Euphrates Valley, even it means (Syrian President Bashar) Assad regains control of Afrin,” Hatahet told Arab News.
“The PYD in Afrin is surrounded from the west, north and east by Turkey and equally hostile mainstream opposition forces, but has been able to survive through a regime-controlled route from its south to Aleppo. The PYD have not been able to control Afrin thus far, without the tacit complicity of Damascus,” he added.
But the situation that led to that complicity is changing, he explained: “In 2012, the Syrian Army was under constant attack from the opposition and needed to redeploy its forces near the main areas of strategic interest. Six years later, the Syrian government feels it has won the war, and it is no longer in a situation to tolerate the PYD outside its comfort zone.”
Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert from Ankara think tank ORSAM, said the Turkey’s military activity in the region should be seen from two angles.
“If Moscow didn’t give a green light, it means Turkey wants to take the initiative, without waiting for consent from Russia, regardless of the risks,” Orhan told Arab News. “Such a move will increase the pressure on Russia to conduct a coordinated operation in Afrin.”
According to Orhan, any ground operation in Afrin, without the consent of Russia, may be targeted by regime forces or by Iran-backed militias, as was the case in the offensive on Al-Bab when three Turkish soldiers were killed by regime airstrikes.
“In this case, the YPG may be covertly provided with weapons to protect itself,” he said.
If Turkey does proceed without Russia’s consent, Orhan suggested it could be seen as a show of strength to Russia, sparked by the disagreement between Moscow and Ankara over the participation of the PYD at Sochi.
But Orhan also underlined that the recent drone attacks on Russian military bases in Syria, which Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed on Thursday were “a provocation” intended to damage relations between Turkey and Russia may have had the opposite effect.
“Following the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, Turkey and Russia cooperated further to investigate the case, and they also accelerated that cooperation under the Astana process,” Orhan said. “The same may happen after this drone attack.”
Mete Sohtaoglu, an Istanbul-based Middle East researcher, thinks the aim of any Turkish military operation would be the blockage of a logistical entry point in the east of Afrin, and control of the area around the northwestern city of Tel Rifaat, to cut off the terrorists’ weapons supply.
“Turkey is planning to increase its military presence in Syria, with the goal of ensuring a Syria without Assad,” he told Arab News. “Ankara and Moscow evaluate the dynamics of Afrin and Idlib separately.”
Sohtaoglu also anticipates that control of Afrin may be transferred to Assad’s regime before Turkey has the chance to launch any military operation.
Hatahet, for one, thinks it is too early to judge the potential impact of such an operation on the Astana or Sochi peace initiatives, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran.
“There are many reasons why some may wish to undermine the solidity of this untraditional association and partnership,” he said. “Meanwhile there is a genuine co-dependency that exists between the three states in regards to stabilization in Syria. None of them can achieve its goals in Syria on its own.”