Tim Lowell
Jan 17 2018

“New” U.S.-backed force a bad PR move - analyst

U.S. plans to set up a 30,000-strong Syrian border security force with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria is mainly a rebranding exercise that Turkey should not get angry about, Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, told Ahval.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said this week he would strangle at birth the border force and said a military campaign to capture the Kurdish-held Syrian towns of Afrin and Manbij was imminent. Turkey sees a Kurdish-run northern Syria an existential threat that could strengthen the armed campaign for autonomy by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatists in Turkey.

“This border force, I believe, is simply the vehicle for Turkey to criticise U.S. policy,” Stein said. “Kurds already man check points on Turkey's borders, the U.S. just decided to give them an inelegant name.”

The name was “poorly thought out and a misstep”, and the 30,000 figure was similar to the number of trained recruits the U.S. programme was already expected to produce, Stein said.

“I think it is an inelegant way to describe the ongoing training programme,” he said.

“Remember, half of the 30,000 will come from the SDF, so they already exist. I would think that the training programme for the other 15,000 is formulaic and is based on a simple assumption: A time-fixed training course multiplied by X guys gives you Z fighters.”

“I don't know how long the U.S. intends to stay, but if you assume it’s for at least two more years, one can see how that 15,000 number can be reached,” Stein said.

Erdoğan was serious about wanting to invade Afrin, Stein said, but there was one factor that could not be overlooked.

“The Turkish press and the Turkish president likes to focus on the United States, but Afrin is in Russia's sphere of influence of Syria, and it was Moscow's ally, the Syrian regime, that cut a deal with the SDF to form a narrow ribbon around Manbij, after Ankara threatened it as part of operation Euphrates Shield,” he said.

Euphrates Shield was a Turkish-led military operation together with Syrian opposition forces in northern Syria between August 2016 and March 2017 that ended in capture of a chunk territory separating Afrin and Manbij.

“It is my understanding that Russia is lukewarm, to say the least, about a Turkish intervention in Afrin. But, things may have changed, or Ankara may choose to defy Russia and invade anyway.”

However, if Turkey does launch an incursion into Afrin, the Turkish government should first define its aims more concretely, Stein said.

“This talk masks an uncomfortable fact: Ankara has no policy,” he said.

“To be clear, the YPG's empowerment on the border is a long term security threat. But, is the Turkish policy forever war? Is Ankara prepared to live with insurgency for the rest of our lives? Conflicts end at the negotiating table and that is a political decision.”

The likelihood of Turkey getting a good result in Afrin is higher if objectives are kept modest, Stein said.

“A small corridor connecting Idlib to Turkish occupied Euphrates Shield would be less of a lift than taking the entire canton,” he said.

“The YPG will fight back. It has also shown the willingness to cut side deals, like in Manbij, to create trip-wires that prevent escalation. I wouldn’t put it past the YPG to think through how they can complicate any Turkish advance with uneasy alliances to insert regime or Russian forces to try and deter Turkish escalation.”

Another result of an Afrin invasion against Russia’s wishes could also be a very cold diplomatic situation in the endgame of the Syrian civil war.

“Moscow appears comfortable managing multiple peace processes and choosing whichever one sticks, so long as its core interest – the maintenance of the Assad regime – is the outcome,” Stein said.

“I could see Russia inviting the PYD to Sochi to punish Turkey. I could also see, once Sochi fails, a push to formalise a bilateral Russian-U.S. track, built around UNSC 2254 and as a complement to the Geneva track.”