The powerful commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed Kurdish quasi-army currently engaged in the final battle for al-Raqqa, believes that the fall of ISIS in its self-proclaimed “capital” might be delayed because of a looming confrontation between his troops and invading Turkish forces west of the Euphrates River. On July, he said: “Our position is clear. We will fight with all our ability.
The last thing Syria needs is yet another front opening – once again between Kurds and Turks but this time in territory generally believed to be part of Russia’s fiefdom in the war-torn country.
The trigger for the latest confrontation was repeated Turkish shelling on the Kurdish city of Afrin, west of the Euphrates River, which has been neatly positioned in Russia’s sphere of influence since last April. That month, Russian troops were deployed to the once sleepy and forgotten city. They were said to be helping the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia branded a “terrorist” organization by Ankara, due to its affiliation with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Photographs of tanks carrying Russian flags rumbling through the streets of the city went viral on social media networks. Here were the Russians putting on a show and wanting to be seen by top Turkish officials and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. More pictures followed from Afrin, of Russian officers wearing YPG insignia on their uniforms, posing casually with Kurdish militiamen while waving the YPG’s red-starred flag.
Back then, Moscow was desperately trying to provoke the Turks, furious with Erdogan’s cuddling up to the new US administration. The strategy worked, almost like magic: the Turkish President quickly climbed down, answering to all of his Russian counterpart’s demands on Syria, and demanding only one condition in return: that a Kurdish state never be allowed to take root on the Turkish-Syrian border.
That was a promise Vladimir Putin was willing to make when he met with Erdogan in St Petersburg last August. Putin looked the other way as Turkish troops crossed into Syria, ejecting both the Kurds and ISIS from border cities like Jarablus and Azaz, then marching inward toward the town of al-Bab, 40km northeast of Aleppo, annexing it to the Turkish “pocket” last December.
Erdogan hopes to use the three cities and what lies between them as a buffer zone to keep Kurdish elements at bay – and to eventually relocate millions of Syrian refugees who have been living in his country since 2011. Throughout the entire military operation, code-named “Operation Desert Shield,” Putin never raised an objection.
In return, the Turkish Army stood by and watched as the Russians overran the strategic city of Aleppo, the jewel in the crown of the armed opposition, re-taking it fully seven months ago.
Now the honeymoon reaches new heights as the two sides have agreed to let Turkish troops march on Afrin, ejecting Kurdish militia from their second major stronghold west of the Euphrates after Manbij, which is 30km from the Great River. The assault, which started on the Afrin countryside on June 27-28, hopes also to eject the Kurds from the city of Tal Rifaat, located roughly 40km north of Aleppo. Turkey claims it too is becoming an incubator for Kurdish militancy.
“Would the Turks dare attack any of these cities, where US bases are now present? Of course not, because of the Americans, but Putin is different — he doesn’t seem to care and is letting the Turks target Afrin, while doing nothing to stop them”
Not a word of condemnation has been uttered by the Kremlin nor the Russian Foreign Ministry. “The Russians are complicit in the attack,” said YPG Commander Sipan Hamo in a recent interview with the London-based Asharq Alawsat, adding: “Clearly there is an under-the-table agreement between them and the Turks. The Russians support (the attack), or they don’t object to it.” He warned that, if not halted, this could obstruct the major push on al-Raqqa by the SDF, which was predicted to bring down the ISIS capital by mid-summer. Instead of fighting the jihadi terrorists, the Kurds would have to focus instead on Erdogan’s new offensive, code-named “Operation Euphrates Sword.”
Kurdish forces in Afrin feel that they have been “sacrificed by the Kremlin.” In addition to Manbij, which they liberated from ISIS in August 2016, Afrin is the only Kurdish pocket west of the Euphrates co-held by the Russian Army. Everywhere else in Kurdish territory, US airplanes and military bases have sprouted in recent months, with one in Kobani, two in al-Hassakeh, one in Qamishly, two in Malkiya and one in Tal Abyad.
“Would the Turks dare attack any of these cities, where US bases are now present? Of course not, because of the Americans, but Putin is different — he doesn’t seem to care and is letting the Turks target Afrin, while doing nothing to stop them,” grumbled one angry 80-year old resident of Afrin in a live online video stream on Kurdish forums.
Responding to doubters and skeptics, while sending a clear message to the Kurds, Erdogan touched on the topic last week, saying: “Despite who is by your side (a reference to the US), you shall know that Turkey will not let a (Kurdish) state be formed in northern Syria.”