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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Turkish offensive adds to Syria quagmire

With Syrian regime also on the offensive, peace seems a forlorn prospect

Turkish troops advance near the Syria border at Hassa on January 22, 2018, as part of the operation dubbed "Olive Branch". Bulent Kilic / AFP
Turkish troops advance near the Syria border at Hassa on January 22, 2018, as part of the operation dubbed "Olive Branch". Bulent Kilic / AFP

As Turkey enters the fourth day of a military offensive into Syria, its campaign against the Kurdish-dominated enclave of Afrin has again realigned the balance of power in the region and inaugurated a new phase of crisis across the border.

Politically, it has pushed Ankara further away from Washington, as the two largest Nato armies attempt to navigate a well of mistrust that goes back years and threatens to unravel decades of close co-operation.

The roots of the Afrin crisis were planted years ago, when the uprising against Syria's strongman president Bashar Al Assad broke out. Turkey counselled Mr Al Assad to heed the demands of protesters for reforms, but when the government responded with violence instead, then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded his ouster.

Turkey threw its lot with the Syrian opposition, and called for a more forceful response from its western allies in the United States and Europe, drawing up plans for a no-fly zone to ground the Syrian president's air force. But then US president Barack Obama was ambivalent, drawing instead a red line in which Washington would change its calculus only if the Syrian government were to use chemical weapons.

After the 2013 Ghouta chemical attack, that promise was not fulfilled. But the US did intervene in 2014 when ISIL surged into Iraq and conquered vast swathes of Syria, creating a coalition to battle the terror group. It was then that the cracks in the US-Turkey relationship widened.

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America's chosen partner on the ground was the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Justifying its decision, Washington said the Syrian opposition fighters backed by Ankara were not organised or numerous enough to take on ISIL.

But the plan alarmed Ankara because the YPG is also the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group that had fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state, and whose founder, Abdullah Ocalan, was being held in an island prison. A fragile peace process was still under way.

Despite Turkey’s misgivings, the YPG spearheaded a ground campaign backed by US air strikes against ISIL strongholds in Syria, reclaiming vast tracts of territory just across the border from Turkey amid rumblings of Kurdish aspirations for self-governance and even independence.

Amid little sympathy from its allies, who accused Turkey of fuelling the civil war in Syria by turning a blind eye towards the influx of jihadists into the country, Ankara launched operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016 to remove ISIL from key border towns, but also to limit Kurdish expansion west of the Euphrates river. It would help rebuild cities such as Jarablus and Al Bab, creating safe zones for civilians who wished to return to Syria and also installing infrastructure.

Hopes that relations would improve under Donald Trump's administration, however, were dashed when the US said last year that it would now directly arm the YPG, which led an umbrella coalition called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), ahead of a military offensive into the capital of ISIL’s self-proclaimed caliphate, Raqqa.

Turkey tempered its anger when, in a phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Erdogan, the US president pledged to end its military support of the YPG with the end of the Raqqa campaign.

But once again relations collapsed after an announcement earlier in January by US officials, who said they would train a 30,000-strong force including the YPG that would patrol Syria’s borders, to prevent the re-emergence of ISIL cells.

That was the last straw for Ankara, which accused the US of attempting to form a “terror army” and vowing to crush the YPG. The Afrin offensive was launched on Saturday, less than a week after the American plan became public.

In briefings, Turkish officials say the goals of the campaign are three-fold. The first is to create a 30-km deep safe zone from the border to prevent attacks and harassment of border posts, and potentially to house people returning to Syria. Second, its aim is to significantly weaken the YPG, which Ankara says is 8,000-10,000 strong in an enclave that is home to 600,000 civilians.

Finally, Ankara says it aims to rebuild the area in the vein of the other cities under Euphrates Shield control. But there is little indication that Turkey and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies will be welcomed with open arms in the majority Kurdish area. Turkish officials repeatedly say the operation is not aimed at Syria's Kurds, but at the YPG itself.

The opening salvo was a series of artillery strikes from inside the Turkish border on Afrin. Planes then bombed more than 150 targets on the first day and then a ground incursion began.

Turkey is joined in the campaign by factions of the Syrian opposition’s FSA, who accuse the YPG of separatism, displacing local Arabs, and being secretly in league with the Assad regime. But the campaign has ignited fierce debate among the opposition, who argue that Turkey is prioritising its interests over those of the opposition.

The Afrin operation comes despite Turkey being a broker of Syrian peace negotiations along with Russia and Iran. Turkey is also responsible for maintaining a ceasefire in the nearby province of Idlib but a Syrian regime offensive into the province, the last one controlled by the rebels, has been met with little real action by Turkey.

Instead, Turkish officials no longer insist on Mr Al Assad’s ouster in briefings, and foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he had informed the Syrian government of the Afrin offensive in written correspondence, reinforcing that the threat from the Syrian Kurdish militia, rather than the president's rule, is its top priority in Syria.