Turkey redirects Syrian rebels to fight Kurdish militia - analysis

Turkey has persuaded thousands of Syrian rebels to focus on fighting the the mainly Kurdish, U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) rather than the Syrian regime, as Ankara prepares for its planned offensive east of the Euphrates, said an analysis on Monday for the Jerusalem Post. 

Turkey is “redirecting the remnants of the Syrian rebellion towards helping it secure border areas,” columnist Seth Frantzman wrote for JP, which “links to Ankara’s complex logic behind wanting to launch an operation.”

Ankara said last year it would return eastern Syria to its “true owners,” as it believes it has done in taking Afrin last year and Jarabulus in 2016. Turkey is also hoping to return 700,000 Syrian refugees to areas along the border, once it is able to secure a safe zone with U.S. cooperation. 330,000 Syrians have thus far returned to the areas secured by the Turkish military, according to Frantzman, while around 150,000 Kurdish Syrians have fled Afrin. 

“Many Kurds see this as demographic change,” said Frantzman. “Turkey says it is just creating security and helping Syrians go back to Syria.”

Syrian rebels have been helping Turkish forces in the area since 2016, when the United States was also backing some rebels. But policies diverged as more extremist groups such as al-Nusra Front asserted themselves, according to Frantzman, and Washington settled on Kurdish forces as its best ally against the Islamic State (ISIS). 

“The U.S. now wants the SDF and linked security forces in eastern Syria to number some 110,000. For Turkey this is a ‘terrorist army’ and Turkey often critiques the U.S. for working with ‘terrorists’ in eastern Syria, which officials call a ‘cancer’ and threaten to bury and ‘cleanse’,” said Frantzman. 

Turkey has urged allied Syrian rebels to fight against the YPG, and last week Syrian rebel commanders said some 14,000 rebels were ready to join the Turkish forces in an operation into eastern Syria. 

But fighting east of the Euphrates would put most of these rebels hundreds of kilometers away from their territory, fighting over areas that were historically Kurdish and will ultimately be turned over to the Syrian regime, according to Frantzman. 

“The cynical eyes of Damascus look on with glee, noting that soon the two remaining independent forces that grew out of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian rebels and the SDF, might be neutralized fighting each other,” said Frantzman. “The question is whether [Turkey] now prefers the Syrian regime to the SDF. Given its statements it appears to be more amenable to Damascus.”