Turkey’s Afrin offensive culmination of tensions with U.S. – analyst

Turkey’s threat to attack the Kurdish-held northwestern Syrian enclave of Afrin “is the culmination of years of tensions with Washington over Syria policy” and an attempt by Ankara to thwart the de facto U.S. security guarantee to Kurdish militias in Syria, analyst Aaron Stein said.

Turkish leaders used last week’s U.S. announcement that it was setting up a 30,000-strong border security force largely made up of Syrian Kurds as a pretext to justify long-standing plans to seize Afrin, Stein, a fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank, wrote in the U.S. online magazine War On The Rocks.

The Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), belongs to the same umbrella organisation as Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatists fighting in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984.

While Turkey sees the PKK and YPG as one and the same, the United States, though it lists the PKK as a terrorist group, has backed the YPG as what it calls “an indispensable partner” in its fight against Islamic State (ISIS).

U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield last week said one of the reasons for keeping U.S. troops in Syria was the “protection of our allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have fought so valiantly against ISIS in the northeast”.

Turkey sees the emergence of a Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Syria as an existential threat likely to encourage separatism at home and is incensed that its NATO ally the United States might back Syrian Kurdish federal ambitions.

“The real issue is that the Trump administration has rolled out a Syria policy that gives the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the YPG dominated umbrella grouping of militias, an open-ended, de facto U.S. security guarantee,” Stein said.

Turkey is, however, constrained by the United States and Russia, which both have forces deployed in Kurdish-held areas, the United States in eastern Syria, and Russia in the Afrin canton.

While Turkey has been openly hostile towards the United States and its backing of the SDF, Ankara has been “mute” in its criticism of Russia for its good relations with the Syrian Kurds. Ankara has been drawn into Moscow’s sphere in Syria, Stein said, all but abandoning its long-held goal of overthrowing President Bashar Assad in the hope of getting its way on the Kurdish issue.

“The broader question is whether powers hostile to the United States — namely Iran, Russia, and the Assad regime — will try to capitalise on Ankara’s poisonous rhetoric and co-opt Turkey to join an alliance of convenience aimed at pushing the United States to withdraw from Syria,” he said.

However, “a Turkish invasion of Afrin may only harden U.S. resolve to stay in Syria,” Stein said.