During the last few days, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to initiate an offensive against the U.S.-supported Kurdish militias in the Afrin region of Northern Syria. This Friday, Ankara’s troops launched an artillery barrage across the border into the Kurd positions, which was confirmed to be the start of a campaign into Afrin, Reuters reports.
According to Turkish officials, the bombardment hit positions held by militants from the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
This offensive comes when relations between Turkey, a member of NATO, and the U.S. are reaching a breaking point. From Turkey’s standpoint, the Kurdish militias are terrorist organizations and a threat to national integrity. For Washington, though, the Kurds are an asset in the conflict against Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian allies.
Previously, American officials had asked for Ankara to focus on the fight against the Islamic State and avoid the Kurds in Afrin. Such actions were described as “destabilizing” by the Americans.
Meanwhile, the Turkish military chief went to Moscow to obtain authorization for an air campaign in Afrin. The Syrian government still warned that it could shoot down Turkish aircraft, should they invade Syrian skies.
These developments seem to show that the Syrian conflict is indeed developing into a new form as the Islamic State is disposed of. The powers involved will now try to pursue their own agendas more actively.
— Bashar Azeez (@bashargwani) January 19, 2018
In the struggle against the Islamic State, the Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurds, served as the spearhead of the U.S.-aligned factions in the Syrian Civil War. The Kurds, especially, have received a great deal of support and weaponry from Washington.
However, this support has hangered the Turkish government.
After Recep Erdogan rose to power, in 2003, he has been trying to increase Ankara’s influence in the Middle East and make Turkey the third major power in the conflict for dominance in the region, currently disputed between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
These efforts have also put Turkey at odds with NATO’s wider interests. The consolidation of Erdogan’s power and his campaign against journalists has only widened the rift with Turkey’s Western allies. But from Turkey’s standpoint, the Western support to what it sees as Kurdish terrorists does not inspire much trust either.
In an attempt to find allies elsewhere, Turkey has been bridging the chasm with Russia. Among other things, Ankara has used the newfound relation with Moscow to procure new weapons systems, like the S-400 antiaircraft missiles.
This arrangement does not seem to be moving into a wholesale alliance, though. It should be noted that in the end of 2015, the Turkish shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter-bomber. Regarding the current Afrin offensive, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has dismissed rumors about the withdrawal of Russian troops in the area.
This new offensive is not an isolated event. The Turkish Armed Forces have been supporting their own rebel allies since August 2016, in a campaign aimed at the general region of Aleppo. The Operation Euphrates Shield has managed to carve a wedge through the two main areas occupied by the Kurds: Afrin and Manbij.
The aim is for the Turkish military to take control of the whole region. To avoid an escalation of the fighting among its allies, Washington has positioned troops between the Turkish and the Kurds. This seemed to have achieved little, as both sides constantly engaged in skirmishes, including mutual shelling across the Syrian-Turkish border, the BBC reports.
These events seem to imply the start of a whole new phase of the Syrian Civil War. Now that the Islamic State has essentially disappeared as a military threat in the Levant, the factions that worked together to defeat it will turn on each other.
The Syrian government is supported by the Russians and the Iranians, and both nations have an important military presence in the territory. These forces want to keep President al-Assad in power.
Slivers of terrorist organizations still linger in the territory, including the remains of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
Moreover, NATO forces support the so-called “moderate rebels,” which aim at deposing Bashar al-Assad. The Kurds are usually thrown into this group, and they hold to strong positions along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Finally, as stated above, Turkey has its own rebel allies surging through the north.
All these groups have antagonistic goals in sight. This means that the war in Syria may actually be about to get nastier, and not the other way around.
Additionally, as discussed by The Drive, the efforts of Kurdish forces may become more desperate as time passes by. As shown by the destruction of Kurdish aspirations in Iraq after the liberation of Mosul, the Kurds may have very well outlived their usefulness. Their conflict against Turkey and the troubles it raises for NATO may only strengthen this notion.
In any regard, YPG officials have stated that they are ready to face the Turkish and their allies. Moreover, the Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli declared that the terrorists in northern Syria will be eliminated. In his words, “There is no other way.”