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News Roundup: 20th January – 26th January
Turkey’s offensive against Syrian Kurds
On 21 January, the Turkish military bombed Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled city in northern Syria. Referring to the Kurds, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to “clean our region from this trouble completely“. The Turkish military has named this campaign ‘Operation Olive Branch’ and is aimed at removing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Afrin and surrounding regions. The YPG was the main fighting force that drove ISIS out of northern Syria, with the help of US-led airstrikes. Turkey considers the group a terrorist organization, and an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a rebel group that has been fighting within Turkish borders since the 1980s. At least 27 civilians have been killed in Afrin.
Three days later, Turkey also announced that it would expand the geographical scope of the operation to include the town of Manbij, which is close to the US-backed Kurdish presence in northern Syria. The White House has reported that US President Donald Trump warned Erdogan to “de-escalate, limit its military actions and avoid civilian casualties”, although this statement was contradicted by Turkey. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has also expressed concern that Turkey’s actions were disrupting “what was a relatively stable area of Syria”, and is obstructing efforts to ensure the complete defeat of ISIS.
MEI’s Senior Research Fellow Fanar Haddad reflected on what the offensive would mean for US-Turkey relations: “From a Turkish perspective, the offensive into north western Syria is consistent with their strategic and security interests and concerns. The area is under the control of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) and it armed wing, The People’s Protection Units (YPG). As far as Ankara is concerned, these forces are an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – the Turkish Kurdish separatist group that has engaged in an intermittent, decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state and that both Turkey and the United States regard as a terrorist organization. The problem is that these forces have been key US allies in the fight against ISIS. Herein lays the contradiction: the US relies on an organization that is related to a US-designated terrorist organization which is viewed as an existential threat by another US ally, Turkey – hence, the spectacle of a NATO-ally attacking a US-ally. The US announcement that the YPG would be part of a ‘border force’ in northern Syria fed Turkish fears that the US was lending support to Kurdish territorial claims in Syria. From a Turkish perspective this is viewed through the prism of the fight against the PKK: an existential issue and a political red line that leaves little or no room for compromise. All of which raises questions about the future of US-Turkish relations and the inconsistencies that riddle their policies towards Syria.”
Research Associate Serkan Yolacan also noted that “Turkey’s offensive into Syria’s Kurdish-held Afrin was Erdogan’s response to the Trump administration’s recent decision to arm pro-Coalition YPG militias with high-tech American weapons as part of a plan to create a border force in Syria. What the Americans call a “border security force,” Erdogan calls a “terror army” in reference to YPG’s organic ties to Kurdish PKK, which has been on the terrorist blacklist of both Turkey and the US. As Turkey’s Afrin incursion risks further severing of ties between two NATO members and former Cold War allies, it further cements Erdogan’s newfound friendship with Putin, who gave Turkey the green light to bomb Kurdish positions using the Russian-controlled Afrin airspace. As far as Turkish-Russian-American relations are concerned, the post-Cold war order is crumbling on the Syrian front.”
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