Syria tensions ramp up as Assad eyes Afrin
Political tensions are mounting once again in Syria as Damascus prepared to send troops into Afrin, where the Turkish military has launched a large-scale operation against Kurdish militants, the People's Protection Forces (YPG).
As news of the possible deal between Damascus and the Kurds broke, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu warned that no one would stop Turkish troops should Syrian forces enter the enclave, in a barely veiled threat of confrontation. Turkey’s main share index fell on the news.
Turkey, the United States and Russia, as well as Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Kurds, are vying for control of northern Syria, ratcheting up tensions in a seven-year war, after the virtual defeat of Islamic State. The area, home to a mixture of Kurdish and Sunni Arab minorities, is strategically adjacent to Iraq and Turkey, with important oil resources.
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad will enter Afrin in the coming hours after reaching an agreement with Kurdish forces, Syrian state media said. Syria woukd also re-establish a military presence along the border with Turkey, which has actively supported a range of armed groups intent on overthrowing Assad’s government, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), deployed against the Kurds, it said
"If they (the Syrians) are entering to protect the YPG/PKK, nobody can stop the Turkish army," Çavuşoğlu said at a news conference in Amman, Jordan.
Turkey has rejected any talk of Assad retaking the border, saying his government has courted and supported the Kurds against Turkey.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered Turkish troops into Syria on Jan. 20, saying an operation was needed to cleanse the area of Kurdish militants allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade war for autonomy from Turkey at the cost of about 40,000 lives, most of them Kurdish.
Russia, however, is concerned about possible clashes between Turkish and Syrian troops should Syria's army be deployed, and has approached Turkey to negotiate a possible deal, according to Timur Akhmetov, a journalist and researcher for the Russian International Affairs Council.
The deployment of Syrian troops would come just three days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Ankara and agreed with Turkey to set up working groups to deal with differences between the two NATO allies over Syria. Washington has opposed the Turkish incursion, saying it threatens to de-stablise Syria further and hurt the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) -- the Kurds are the most powerful allies as the West does battle with the group.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is now “pushing the Assad piece forward” after Ankara and Washington reached the agreement to patch up their relationship, Tim Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management in London, said on Monday.
Moscow, which has benefited from a closer relationship with Ankara as ties with the U.S. frayed, could now close Syrian airspace to Turkish jets, leaving Turkish troops exposed on the ground, Ash said.
Turkey has broken international law by occupying Afrin after it realised its support for Islamist terrorists flowing across the border from Turkey failed, Bouthaina Shaaban, an aide to Assad, said on Monday, according to Turkish news website Gazete Duvar.
Mutlu Civiroglu, an expert on Kurdish affairs, said the deal between Damascus and the Kurds isn’t done, though may be signed in the coming hours.
Turkey’s main BIST-100 share index fell 0.2 percent to 116,330 points at 3:04 p.m. in Istanbul, reversing earlier gains.