Kurds and refugees behind Turkey’s Syria offensive

Turkey’s intervention aims to create a safe zone in Syria for refugees and curb Kurdish progress, analysts say.

Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) female fighters embrace each other in the city of Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate
YPG's recapture of the strategic Manbij area in northern Syria was a key reason for Turkey's military intervention in Syria [Reuters]

Turkey’s military intervention in Syria is more about controlling Kurdish progress than combating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), Turkish analysts say.

“The Jarablus operation may be against ISIL, but its main aim is to make sure the border zone is controlled by Turkey-friendly rebels and not Kurdish forces,” says Faik Demir, an expert on Turkish politics and foreign policy at Istanbul’s Galatasaray University.

On Wednesday, Syrian rebels under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), backed by Turkish tanks and Special Forces, launched a military offensive titled “Operation Euphrates Shield” in northern Syria. It saw them recapture the strategic border town of Jarablus from ISIL fighters in a matter of hours.

Turkish analysts say while the operation was unprecedented – given that it is the first time a key regional power puts boots on the ground in Syria since the Syrian crisis broke out in 2011 – it was not surprising.

“Turkey has been calling on the US and other members of the international coalition [fighting ISIL] in Syria to join a ground offensive to end the civil war since last February,” Tarik Celenk, a retired major and the founder of Ekopolitik, a conservative think-tank that aims to create dialogue between Turks and Kurdish nationalists, told Al Jazeera.

Back then, however, the timing was not right. “Turkey was having serious problems with Russia, its relationship with the US was not great and, finally, there was the coup attempt in July.”

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According to analysts, a number of recent developments made this operation possible on top of which are Turkey’s improved relations with Russia, a key player in the Syrian civil war and Kurdish forces’ recapture of Manbij in northern Syria. The Syrian Kurdish forces, under the banner of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), wrested the strategic Manbij area from ISIL’s grasp two weeks ago.

The Jarablus operation is a great opportunity for the FSA and Turkey to prove to the West that they don't necessarily need the YPG in northern Syria.

by Tarik Celenk, founder of Ekopolitik, a conservative think-tank

The YPG already controls swaths of territory along Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey – from the towns of Hasakah to Afrin – while its political wing, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), claims control over an autonomous region now called Rojava.

Turkey sees both the PYD and the YPG as extensions of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody campaign against the Turkish state for nearly three decades.

“Ankara has said many times in the past that any attempt by the YPG to move west of the Euphrates River would be crossing a red line,” Celenk told Al Jazeera.”Manbij is to the west of Euphrates, and it is obvious that the YPG also had designs to seize Jarablus, which is even closer to the Turkish border,” he said.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, openly said that the Jarablus operation was also targeting the YPG. “Enough is enough,” Erdogan had said. “This now needs to be resolved”.

In a televised interview later that same day, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim explained that the operation in Syria would continue until the YPG retreats to the east bank of the Euphrates.

Analysts viewed these comments as a confirmation that Turkey’s presence in Syria is more about controlling Kurdish progress than combating ISIL.

“It is all about security; ISIL has been shelling Gaziantep, sending suicide bombers to weddings, and the PKK, which is the same as the YPG in the government’s eyes, has been killing Turkish soldiers and police officers,” explained Demir.

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So far, the YPG has been the US-led coalition’s most effective ally on the ground against ISIL in Syria. In northern Syria in particular, the FSA is significantly outgunned and outnumbered by Kurdish factions. 

“The West views the YPG as the group that is most experienced and efficient at fighting,” said Demir adding that from a Western perspective, the YPG may be “the only group in Syria that does not harbour religious extremists”.

“This is a big plus in the eyes of the US,” he said. This, however, does not mean the West will never turn its back on its Kurdish allies. In the end, according to Demir, Turkey “is much more valuable to the US”.

This view was proven when, on Thursday, YPG forces acceded to Turkish demands by withdrawing from Manbij, following United States Vice President Joe Biden’s threat to cut US support if they did not pull out.

While this was a considerable victory for Turkey, analysts believe that if Turkey wanted its Western allies to entirely cease their support for the YPG, it has to show that the FSA, with backing from Turkey, has the capability of defeating ISIL in Syria.

“The Jarablus operation is a great opportunity for the FSA and Turkey to prove to the West that they don’t necessarily need the YPG in northern Syria,” said Celenk.

He, nonetheless, added that it was not realistic to expect the elimination of the YPG from northern Syria completely. “I do not believe the FSA has the capacity to take control of northern Syria on its own,” Celenk, a retired major who served in the Turkish army, said. “The most optimistic scenario, for Turkey, is that the FSA will now show the world that it can hold on to Jarablus.”

This, Celenk explained, might lead to a certain level of democratisation in northern Syria.

“We may see a coalition of Turkish, Arab and Kurdish factions forming in the region after ISIL is completely eliminated,” he said. But if the FSA loses Jarablus, “nobody can stop the YPG from carving out more land for themselves in the region”.

Turkey offensive in northern Syria takes aim at ISIL and Kurds

According to analysts, Turkey’s short-term ambition in northern Syria is to create a safe zone that can harbour refugees and protect Turkish border towns from the spillover of the Syrian civil war.

The first country to receive and embrace those fleeing Syria’s civil war, nearly five years ago, Turkey has absorbed approximately 2.7 million Syrian refugees within Turkish borders. Last March, Turkey and the European Union reached a controversial deal aimed at stopping the flow of refugees into Europe, in return for political and financial concessions for Ankara.

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At the moment, the future of this refugee deal is in dire straits, and many more Syrians are expected to seek refuge in Turkey in the near future, as the devastating civil war rages on.

“This is something both Turkey and Europe are dreading,” Demir said. Both sides, he added, do not want an already extensive refugee crisis to grow any larger.

“So Turkey may, with support from its Western allies, try to create a safe zone in northern Syria.”

 “If Turkey succeeds in creating a safe zone – which will primarily be operated by the FSA – some of the refugees currently living in Turkey may also be relocated there,” Celenk said. “This will be an area where Syrians can live with some sort of security and dignity within their own country’s borders.”

But such a zone would inevitably anger Damascus, which has already voiced concern over Turkey’s intervention in Jarablus, as well as the YPG, and may cause Turkey to fall further into the quagmire of the Syrian war.

With or without this secure zone, Celenk expects to see the number of terror attacks in Turkey increase following the operation in northern Syria.

“Groups that are unhappy with Turkey being more active in Syria will inevitably react,” he said.

Other analysts hold a different view: “Of course, nobody can be sure of how terror groups will choose to react,” said Demir, adding that if ISIL or the PKK increase their attacks on Turkey after this operation, they will further legitimise Turkey’s presence in Syria.

“Both [ISIL and the PKK] would be acting against their own interests to strike at Turkey right now.”

Source: Al Jazeera