Erdogan hints at Afrin operation post-Idlib

Erdogan hints at Afrin operation post-Idlib
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he arrives to address the lawmakers of his ruling party in Ankara, Turkey. (Presidential Press Service, pool photo via AP)
Updated 26 October 2017

Erdogan hints at Afrin operation post-Idlib

Erdogan hints at Afrin operation post-Idlib

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday hinted at an upcoming operation in the northern Syrian district of Afrin operation once the Turkish Army’s operation in Idlib province, which began on Oct. 8, is complete.

“Our operation in Idlib is nearly complete. Ahead of us is Afrin. These are threats to us, and we’ll never make concessions to such threats,” Erdogan said.

Analysts say an operation in Afrin, which is controlled by the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), could lead to a serious confrontation.

Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist group affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Ankara has repeatedly said it will not tolerate a Kurdish state or a “terror” corridor between YPG-controlled areas in Syria, fearing that it may be used to expand the Kurdish presence to the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, Turkey continues to provide security assistance in northern Syria. The Anadolu news agency reported on Wednesday that since last year, the Turkish Police Academy has trained 5,631 volunteers at five schools in Turkey to help them perform their duties as police officers and special forces units in northern Syria.

According to press reports, Ankara intends to deploy troops at Abu Al-Duhur airport and Taftanaz military air base to surround Afrin.

Bora Bayraktar, a Middle East expert from Istanbul Kultur University, said Turkey has already launched its Afrin operation without making it explicit, by setting up checkpoints along the Idlib-Afrin border.

Because the YPG has gained local sympathy in Afrin, Bayraktar said he does not expect a comprehensive operation, but rather a siege.

“The conduct of the operation points at containing the Kurdish militia from expanding its territories toward the Mediterranean,” he told Arab News.

“The presence of the YPG terror group in Afrin could be neutralized in the course of time by co-opting local tribes.”

But Russian troops are supporting the YPG in Afrin, so a Turkish operation there would need Moscow’s consent.

Such an operation could further strain relations between Ankara and Washington, as the latter considers the YPG a reliable partner on the ground against Daesh.

“For the moment there’s a fragile agreement with Russia for such an operation, but that could change at any moment,” said Bayraktar.

“Russia may get closer to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political wing of the YPG. And the Syrian regime isn’t happy about the presence of Turkish troops,” he added.

“Turkey needs to finalize and launch the Afrin operation very quickly, or it will miss the opportunity.”

But Mete Sohtaoglu, an Istanbul-based Middle East expert, said Turkey’s main target is specifically Tal Rifat, a town in Afrin.

“With the observation post that was recently built, the Turkish Army already has a dominant position to monitor the situation in Afrin. But what’s critical for Ankara is Tal Rifat,” he told Arab News.

“Russia is conducting negotiations with the YPG to give Turkey an option to establish a de-escalation outpost in the region without needing to launch a military intervention.”

Sohtaoglu said Ankara’s aim is to control arms supplies to Afrin so as to isolate the YPG in northern Syria.

“If the negotiations between the YPG and Russia don’t lead to the withdrawal of Syrian Kurds from the region, Turkey would launch an operation in Tal Rifat,” he added.