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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Turkey offensive in Syria is a barometer for the unfolding conflict

The operation, through which Ankara is seeking to expand a buffer zone seized in August 2016, has been in the works for almost a year

Plumes of smoke rise from inside Syria, as seen from the outskirts of the Turkish border town of Kilis, on January 20, 2018, the first day of Turkey's offensive in Afrin. Lefteris Pitarakis, File / AP
Plumes of smoke rise from inside Syria, as seen from the outskirts of the Turkish border town of Kilis, on January 20, 2018, the first day of Turkey's offensive in Afrin. Lefteris Pitarakis, File / AP

Turkey’s latest offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria provides an excellent barometer for several of the biggest trends in the unfolding conflict.

The operation, through which Ankara is seeking to expand a buffer zone seized in August 2016, has been in the works for almost a year. Indeed, it was virtually announced in March 2017 when prime minister Binali Yildirim speculated it might be necessary. However predictable, the fighting represents a new escalation and complication in Syria, particularly as it pits Turkish forces, now effectively aligned with Russia, against Kurdish militias directly supported and promoted by its fellow Nato member, the US.

In 2016, Turkey’s attention in Syria shifted from broader opposition to the Bashar Al Assad dictatorship to a much more narrowly-focused project designed to limit the development of Kurdish military and political power along the Turkish border in northern Syria.

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The “safe zone” Ankara established then is now being expanded in the area of Afrin, where most fighting is concentrated. However, there are strong indications it may then spread east to Manbij and include efforts to control the Mennagh airbase and, eventually, Tel Rifaat. Turkey regards the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces as a wing of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody war inside Turkey for several decades. Unlike the campaign against Mr Assad, then, such Kurdish-related issues are closer to domestic policy than foreign policy for Turkey.

The Turkish offensive is part of the emerging post-ISIL phase of the Syrian conflict, even as remnants of that terrorist group continue to operate in isolated places. However, Turkey’s move to bolster its position in northern Syria reflects the political and strategic situation following ISIL’s collapse in Raqqa and other key areas.

Ankara’s co-ordination with Moscow is among the campaign’s most striking features. Not only did Turkey clearly ensure that Russia did not object to or oppose, particularly with anti-aircraft capabilities, the offensive. In all likelihood, Turkey and Russia have quietly agreed to a new “de-escalation” arrangement with Moscow and its pro-Assad regime allies consolidating their positions in the city of Aleppo while Turkey and its forces gain ground to the north, beginning with Afrin. Indeed, Russian forces discretely vacated these areas before Turkish troops attacked. Each side is permitting the other to entrench their control over areas they consider crucial but the other can, if need be, live without.

The post-ISIL rearrangement of zones of influence in Syria is only just beginning. Some of it will be agreed and others will simply emerge in the new strategic circumstances following the downfall of the “caliphate". One party that is playing almost no role in shaping this outcome is the US. Washington had relied heavily on YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as the ground troops against ISIL. The American plan had been to transform these militias into a “border security” force ostensibly to ensure no resurgence of ISIL. Neither Turkey nor Russia and the Assad regime, however, are willing to allow the SDF, let alone the YPG, to consolidate and institutionalise their military and political gains.

Washington has protested Ankara’s attack on its allies, but has little leverage given that American engagement in Syria has been limited and strictly focused on ISIL, to the exclusion of all other considerations. If Turkish forces do turn in the direction of Manbij, they will be charging directly not just at US allies but American forces themselves. It won’t be the first time US troops find themselves caught between their Turkish Nato allies and Kurdish counterterrorism partners. Ankara, however, does not appear deterred, let alone intimidated, by this prospect.