Afrin battle further complicates Syrian conflict
Following the US announcement that it would form a border force of 30,000 fighters led by the Kurds — which was swiftly retracted — Turkey accused Washington of trying to protect the Kurdish people in order to divide Syria. Ankara viewed this number of fighters, which were to be led by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, as an existential threat to its security and stability and a step toward a future Kurdish state.
Russia temporarily benefited from the US-Turkey conflict over the Kurds, as it had from the differences between Ankara and Moscow over the Syrian government, when Russia continued supporting the regime while Turkey backed the opposition. After the downing of the Russian jet fighter in 2015, Russia successfully used the Kurdish card against Erdogan to acquire more political concessions.
There are two likely scenarios for the war in Afrin and the rest of the Syrian territory that the Turkish army is eyeing up: The first is a large-scale operation aimed at undermining the Kurdish control of Afrin. This would be similar to Operation Euphrates Shield in terms of preparation, assault and the participation of several departments of the Turkish army, as well as Free Syrian Army fighters.
The second is a limited operation aimed at taking certain areas from the hands of the PKK in order to keep its fighters away from the Turkish border. This requires isolating the Kurds, cutting their communication with the eastern cantons and preventing them from accessing the Mediterranean.
There are many challenges facing the proposed Turkish plan. The first is the difference in Afrin’s terrain from the areas taken during Euphrates Shield, making this campaign more difficult and complicated. Moreover, Ankara is not satisfied with the long-term positions of Moscow and Washington. Ultimately this is a Turkish battle — or rather a battle for Turkey itself — but it will also affect the course of events in Syria.
International players are making their final moves on the country’s chessboard as Turkey aims to oust US-backed Kurdish fighters from northwestern region.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday that US “provocations” are a key factor that have complicated the situation in northwestern Syria and prompted Turkey to launch its military operation in Afrin. Russia labeled the US as irresponsible and said its actions would pose a threat to the peace process in Syria.
The Kurds blame Russia for betraying them, but they were trying to milk two cows at once as their relationship with the US threatened Russian interests and its project for the stabilization of Syria. US policies towards the Kurds are also a direct threat to Turkish national interests, with Kurdish separatism a cause of deep concern in Ankara. Additionally, Kurdish ambitions, fueled by the US, have become a threat to the integrity of Syria and the process of reconciliation. Thus Moscow found itself on the same side as Ankara. Before the Afrin operation, Russia and Syria both expressed their concerns, but now it is clear that the move was silently approved by Damascus and Moscow from the beginning.
On Tuesday evening, Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone with Erdogan to discuss the situation. The sides expressed a solidarity and common vision, vowing to continue working to resolve the crisis based on the principles of preservation of territorial integrity and respect for the sovereignty of Syria.
The situation in Afrin is changing not only the regional framework, but also the global one. The move by Turkey — a NATO member with close ties to Western nations — against a group backed, equipped and financially supported by the US takes them a huge step away from their former allies. This demonstrates Ankara's independence and alters their former path towards integration with the West. The ongoing situation will bring Moscow and Ankara closer to each other, pushing them to forge a more solid alliance. The West is unlikely to be able to stop Turkey from realizing its plans in the region, as any confrontation would definitely not play into their hands.
Despite claims the assault on Afrin may harm Syria, Turkey insists its operation is limited and will not affect the integrity of its neighboring country. However, the numerous interventions from various regional and international players have complicated the political and military scene in Syria after a glimmer of hope had started to appear at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The international players are now making their final moves on the Syrian chessboard ahead of any peace talks aimed at discussing a political settlement, draft constitution and interim government.
Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme
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