Afrin "trap" could lead Turkey into military clash with Russia, U.S.

Turkey is being “led into a trap” in Afrin, the Kurdish-controlled region in north-west Syria that it is preparing to invade, Öztürk Yılmaz, opposition member of parliament and former consul general to Mosul, told Ahval.

Preparations for a Turkish military operation in Afrin have accelerated since last Sunday, when the U.S. announced its support for a 30,000-strong “border force” that would consist largely of fighters from the majority-Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and designates both as terrorist organisations.

However, the Kurdish forces in the area have support from Russia and the United States, and such an operation would leave Turkey in a dangerous position, Yılmaz warns.

“The PKK is drawing Turkey into a trap that could lead to clashes with Russia in Afrin, and with the U.S. east of the Euphrates river,” he said.

The current drive towards military action in Afrin is motivated by domestic political dynamics, according to the former diplomat, who said that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was using the situation to “play to nationalist voters.” The importance of the nationalist voter base to the AKP was illustrated on Jan. 8, when Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli announced his support for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the 2019 presidential election.

This, Yılmaz said, explains why the AKP has taken such a firm stance now against forces in Afrin, after avoiding confrontation for years as Kurdish control, and declarations of autonomous Kurdish cantons, spread across regions bordering Turkey from northern Iraq to the west of Syria.

“If we had entered into a dialogue with Assad, then we could have solved this matter without needing to intervene in Afrin,” Yılmaz said. “The AKP have not understood the balance in Syria. Syria is already, in fact, divided. There has been no tangible progress towards a political solution.”

This division, and the AKP’s policies which contributed to it, have left Turkey with little room to manoeuvre, and limited its influence to areas controlled by Turkish-backed jihadist groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Idlib, said Yılmaz.

For a lasting solution that preserves Syria’s territorial integrity, “these areas must be turned over to (Assad’s) regime as soon as possible, the regime should be strengthened and resume control of the country,” he said. “With the start of a new phase, it will become clear whether or not Assad will remain in power.”

The continued support of opposition forces in Idlib poses a further danger to Turkey, warned Yılmaz, who endured 101 days as a captive of jihadists when Islamic State seized the Turkish consulate in Mosul in 2014.

“What did the opposition groups supported by the AKP do when Assad defeated them in Aleppo? They piled in to Idlib. What will they do when they are defeated (there)? Come to Turkey. The arrival of 25,000 jihadists in Turkey poses a serious risk to our security.”

The AKP’s ambitions to profit from the Arab Spring protests starting in 2010 led to the current foreign policy impasse and serious problems for Ankara, said Yılmaz. “They thought they could establish a Muslim Brotherhood-type government that was close to them in Damascus.

“But if they hadn’t taken a role in the strategy to defeat Assad at that time, we would not have 3.5 million Syrians in our country; and we would not have spent $30 billion.”

For Yılmaz, there is only one solution to the strife in Syria that mitigates the risk to Turkey from jihadists and the PKK -- international collaboration for a political solution that preserves Syria’s territorial integrity.

Yılmaz is critical of the U.S. role in the current conflict, accusing it of using the PKK as a proxy to direct threats at Turkey, Syria and Iran.

However, the prospect of Turkey turning away from NATO and the West poses a needless risk, Yılmaz said.

“A split from NATO, the complete failure of our accession to the EU, distancing ourselves from the Council of Europe… does no good for us. If NATO does nothing else, at least it has this benefit; NATO countries cannot launch an operation against Turkey while it is part of the organisation.”

The prospect of improved ties with Russia as a substitute for failing relations with the West holds little of promise, however, said Yılmaz.

“Our relations are one-sided. We have granted them large concessions for the Turkish Stream gas pipeline (running from Russia across the Black Sea through Turkey), we presented them with great opportunities in the construction of nuclear power plants, and with the purchase of natural gas. The purchase of the S-400 missile system (from Russia) was the same.”