Turkey’s Afrin assault wins Syrian Kurds unlikely friends

Delil Souleiman, AFP | A woman at a rally in the Kurdish town of Jandairis near the Syrian-Turkish border on February 6, 2018.

The Turkish military operation in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin is uniting unlikely players behind Syria’s Kurds.


An old adage says the Kurds – the world’s largest people without a country – have no friends but the mountains. Since Turkey launched a military operation in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin however, Syrian Kurds have been making friends and forging alliances in unlikely places.

Over the past few days, the Syrian Kurdish YPG (Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Unit) has been negotiating an agreement with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad to enter the Afrin region to help repel the Turkish offensive.

On Monday morning, Syria’s official news agency SANA said pro-Assad “popular forces” would enter the Afrin enclave “within hours” to “bolster” local forces confronting Turkish “aggression”.

SANA provided no further details of the “popular forces” deployment in Afrin, a region near the Syria-Turkey border that saw a 2012 withdrawal of Syrian government troops, leaving the area under Kurdish control.

Afrin is one of three regions, including Manbij and Jazira, in a de facto autonomous zone in northern Syria commonly known as Rojava.

Reports of a deal between the YPG and the Syrian government have been circulating for days, but they were refuted by Kurdish analysts such as Mutlu Civiroglu who said negotiations were still ongoing in a tweet posted early Monday.

Politics, not security, are sticking points

The sticking points, according to Kamal Chomani, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, appeared to be the future administration of the Kurdish enclaves.

“The Syrian regime wants complete political administration in Afrin, a comprehensive deal that includes security and politics. They want to return to Afrin. The Kurdish Rojava authorities want the Syrian army on the border [with Turkey] but they don’t accept [pro-government] forces into Afrin,” he explained.

Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Assad has, at various points, attempted to woo Syrian Kurds, fight them, or tacitly support them by looking the other way, enabling YPG fighters to maintain critical supply lines to the Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria near the Turkish border.

Brotherhood, not bloodshed, between Iraqi Kurds

On February 11, a Kurdish delegation from Iraq arrived in Afrin to deliver hospital supplies and declare their support for Syrian Kurds braving the Turkish military offensive. Members of the regional parliament that forms the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) traveled from the northern Iraqi city of Erbil to Afrin -- a journey that would entail crossing through territory controlled by pro-Assad forces.

“The KRG and also the Iraqi government [in Baghdad] are not opposed to the Syrian regime. So why shouldn’t Assad allow them to roam in Syria? It’s fairly normal,” said Chomani. “For Assad, Turkey is a much bigger threat than the Kurds.”

What’s not fairly ordinary though is a display of unity by rival Iraqi Kurdish political parties. The delegation of Iraqi Kurdish MPs who traveled to Afrin included members of the rival KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party), PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) as well as the opposition Goran parties.

In the past, tensions between the KDP and PUK have escalated into a deadly civil war – or brakuji, a Kurdish term for the killing of brothers. But just 10 days after Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, the Iraqi Kurdish parliament -- a body that was not in session for two years between September 2015 and 2017 due to factional differences – held a special session to jointly condemn the Turkish assault.

Fine balancing act between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey

For several years, the KRG under veteran Kurdish politician Massoud Barzani, forged close economic ties with Ankara, drawing massive Turkish investments into the Kurdish autonomous zone despite the longstanding tensions between Ankara and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which Turkey and the international community considers a terrorist group.

Relations between Ankara and Erbil, the seat of the KRG, however deteriorated following the September 25, 2017, Kurdish independence referendum, which was opposed by the international community.

Despite the cooling relations between Ankara and Erbil, both parties have been careful not to upset the applecart in a volatile region choked by competing players and proxies pursuing their own interests.

The KRG, for instance, has tolerated 18 Turkish bases in its territory, despite repeated calls by the regional parliament for them to be removed.

But last week, a Turkish base at Guerbya, near the northern Iraqi city of Zakho at the Turkish border, came under attack, according to local reports. A PKK spokesman told the AFP the base was attacked by “unknown assailants”. While Turkish authorities declined to comment on the report, it underscores the threats to Turkish interests in the region.

Following the 2015 collapse of a peace process between the PKK and Turkey, the KRG has been maintaining a fine balancing act with Ankara over the presence of PKK positions in the rugged Qandil Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Ankara maintains the YPG is the Syrian arm of the Turkey-based PKK, a charge the YPG and its ally, the USA, deny. While the YPG is considered the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, with the two groups sharing a common ideology, there is no evidence of the YPG operating in Turkish soil or attacking Turkish interests inside Turkey.

Iran and Turkey at odds, with their Kurds uniting

The collapse of the peace process between the PKK and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has also helped rejuvenate a long-dormant Iranian affiliate of the PKK, known as the PJAK (Kurdistan Free Life Party).

Last year, when PJAK fighters attacked Iranian border guards near the Turkey border, a senior Iranian security official held Turkey responsible for the attack in a sign of the rapidly escalating tensions between Ankara and Tehran.

The latest Turkish assault in Afrin has seen unlikely players in the region willing and able to make strategic concessions.

In a concession by Erbil to Tehran, KRG officials had approached various Kurdish-Iranian groups based in Iraqi Kurdistan asking that they pull back from the Iranian border, reported leading Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman in Al-Monitor.

‘Afrin could be a turning point’

Iran, the major Shiite power that has supported Assad since the uprising broke out in 2011, has no interest in seeing Turkey extend its interests in Syria. Neither does Assad, who has a personally fraught relationship with Erdogan.

A deal between Damascus and the YPG would have grave implications for Turkey, according to Chomani. “The Turkish army will not be able to make further incursions into Afrin because it will not be an assault on Kurdish militias, but on the Syrian regime,” he said.

Responding to reports of an Assad-YPG deal on Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara had “no problems” if Assad’s forces were entering Afrin to “cleanse” the PKK and YPG. “However, if it comes in to defend the YPG, then nothing and nobody can stop us or Turkish soldiers,” Cavusoglu told a news conference during a visit to the Jordanian capital Amman.

If the Assad regime is indeed negotiating with the YPG, it seems unlikely that the terms of the deal could include a “cleansing” of its forces from Afrin. While details of the negotiations were not available, Syrian government troops had not entered Afrin by Monday afternoon, underscoring the challenges faced by each side.

Despite the delays, Chomani believes there could well be a deal between the YPG and Damascus. “I think they will reach an agreement because both sides need it. If Syria deploys its forces, it will be a relief for Afrin and Rojava. Meanwhile Assad will get stronger because he has already lost Afrin and it’s a smart game for the Syrian regime since it will force [YPG ally] the US to deal with Syria,” he explained. “Afrin could be a turning point between the Syrian government and the Kurdish Rojava administration in the Syrian conflict.”

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