Syrian Kurds to pull troops from ISIS offensive if Turkey attacks Afrin - spokesman

Syrian Kurdish forces will respond to a Turkish offensive against the northwestern Syrian enclave of Afrin by withdrawing troops fighting alongside the U.S.-led coalition against the remnants of Islamic State in the east and sending them west as reinforcements, a spokesman said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned on Sunday that an operation to clear Afrin of what he called terrorists was imminent.

“One night we will come suddenly,” he told supporters in the northern Turkish town of Tokat. “In the coming days … we will continue the operation to purge our southern border of terrorism in Afrin.”

Turkish forces have already begun bombarding Afrin, held by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), from inside Turkey and from the east and south where Turkish forces are backing local armed rebel groups.

But a full-scale Turkish military operation in Afrin is risky both militarily and diplomatically. Russia has more than 100 troops in Afrin and the region is widely regarded to be within Moscow’s sphere of influence in Syria.

Meanwhile, U.S.-led coalition air power, artillery and special operations forces have helped SDF ground troops push Islamic State (ISIS) out of large swathes of northern and eastern Syria, including its former capital Raqqa, into a small area spanning the Syria-Iraq border.

"The coalition does not have operations ongoing in Afrin because it is focused on military operations against ISIS,” U.S. Defense Department spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway said. The SDF, however, was an “indispensable partner in operations to combat ISIS”, he said.

But a spokesman for the SDF said a Turkish offensive in Afrin would weaken the offensive against what is left of ISIS.

“We will not stand idly by if our citizens in Afrin are attacked by Turkish forces,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said.

“Any Turkish incursion into Syria would force the SDF to withdraw from areas recently liberated from ISIS to defend Afrin,” Bali said. “This would complicate things for the coalition as it would allow extremist groups to emerge again. So it’s in the interest of the coalition to prevent such a move by Turkey.”

The political arm of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia that makes up the bulk of the SDF, was been astute in its manoeuvring throughout the nearly seven-year Syrian civil war, making alliances with both Russia and the United States, as well as cutting deals with President Bashar Assad’s government where necessary. The Kurds are now attempting to use those links to deter Turkey.

Assad has already allowed YPG forces to cross government territory from the eastern Kurdish-held cantons to reinforce Afrin, Syrian pro-government media said.

As Syria’s multi-sided civil war appears to be nearing an endgame, Turkey sees the emergence of a viable Kurdish autonomous zone along its southern border as an existential threat liable to further inflame separatist feelings among its own large and restive Kurdish population.

The Turkish government says the YPG is an arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has fought an armed separatist campaign in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984. Turkey, the United States and European Union all list the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

Washington’s announcement last week that it was setting up a 30,000-strong border security force made up largely of YPG fighters was thus greeted with fury in Ankara. Turkey, the Syrian government, plus regional powers Russia and Iran all strongly oppose the plan that analysts said could help the Kurdish-held autonomous zones become permanent.

Erdoğan warned the United States: “Do not stand between us and the terrorists, do not enter between us and those flocks of murderers. Otherwise, we will not be responsible for undesirable incidents that may occur. “

“It is up to us to suffocate that terrorist army before it is born,” he said.

The United States was taken aback by Turkey’s angry reaction to what Washington sees as more of the rebranding of an existing programme to train local forces in eastern Syria to prevent the re-emergence of ISIS.

“The U.S. continues to train local security forces in Syria. The training is designed to enhance security for displaced persons returning to their devastated communities. It is also essential so that ISIS cannot re-emerge in liberated and ungoverned areas,” U.S. Defense Department spokesman Eric Pohen said. “This is not a new army, or conventional border guard force.”

There remains some doubt over whether Erdoğan will actually order a full-scale offensive to seize Afrin.

“Erdoğan’s threats to invade Afrin are meant to be for domestic consumption,” Sulaiman Jaafar, the head of foreign affairs department in Afrin, told Ahval.

“He is looking for something abroad to busy the Turkish people with.”

Given the Turkish president’s volatility, however, Jaafar said, “we are taking Erdoğan’s threats seriously, because at this point he is capable of anything.”