Syrian government forces will arrive in Afrin on Monday to support Kurdish troops who are under attack from Turkey, according to Syrian state TV SANA, just the latest shift in regional alliances after weeks of fighting in northern Syria.
A spokesperson for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) told Al Jazeera on February 19 that they have called on the government in Damascus to provide military support and “preserve a united Syria,” almost a month after Turkish forces began an assault on Kurdish-held areas.
The U.S., which has been supporting the Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) announced on February 16 that it would seek greater cooperation with the Turkish government.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), which include the YPG, gained a degree of control in parts of northern Syria, when IS collapsed in mid-2017.
Washington announced plans to unite the SDF into a 30,000-strong force to control Turkey’s border with Syria in early January.
The Turkish government, which considers the YPG a terrorist group due to its links with Turkish Kurdish group the PKK, said it intended to “drown” any border force and began massing troops on its border on January 16.
U.S. officials said on January 18 that the term “border force” had been “misstated.”
Turkey launched an attack on the Kurdish-held areas on January 20 and on January 25 Turkey’s government spokesperson Bekir Bozdag told broadcaster A Haber (translation carried by Reuters): “Those who support the terrorist organization [the YPG] will become a target in this battle.”
“The United States needs to review its solders and elements giving support to terrorists on the ground in such a way as to avoid a confrontation with Turkey,” said Bozdag.
The Turkish offensive, codenamed “Operation Olive Branch,” advanced over the following weeks and focused on the enclave of Afrin, as tracked by monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
On February 16, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters in Ankara that he had agreed with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to coordinate the two countries’ efforts in Syria.
“We’re not going to be U.S. doing one thing and Turkey doing another,” said Tillerson. “We are going to act together from this point forward. We’re going to lock arms, we’re going to work through the issues that are causing difficulties for us, and we’re going to resolve them,” he added.
- A U.S.-led coalition runs the “Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve,” a strategic alliance to defeat IS, operating in Iraq and Syria, formed in late 2014.
- The task force has been supporting a diverse network of militia groups known as the SDF.
- The SDF is dominated by the YPG, a mainly Kurdish militia group.
- The YPG is said to be an ally of the Turkish PKK, which Turkey proscribes as a terrorist group. The PKK has been given the same designation by the U.S. State Department and the European Union, though a European court said in 2008 that it should be de-listed.
- In 2016, Turkish forces supported Syrian rebels in “Operation Euphrates Shield,” with a mission to drive out IS without allowing Kurdish forces to take control in the militants’ absence.
- Erdogan’s government is a member of the U.S.-led coalition, and NATO, but is also an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been providing military backing to the Assad government in Syria.
- In May 2017, the joint task force expanded its support of the SDF, providing light arms as well as air support and training.
- In October 2017, Turkey deployed troops in Northern Syria – in support of the Free Syrian Army rebels – again to ensure that Kurds did not expand their territory.
- In December 2017, the joint task force announced its intention to expand its training program for recruits to the SDF. Kurdish news agency Hawar News soon reported that this was a preliminary step in forming a united security force.
- On January 13 2018, the joint task force told The Defense Post that it intended to assist the SDF to form a unified Syrian border force, to prevent IS fighters crossing the Turkish and Iraqi borders, or support going the other way. The border force was expected to eventually number 30,000, including around 15,000 redeployed SDF forces, meaning that it may be heavily reliant on the YPG.
- On January 15, Erdogan promised to “drown” the border force before it was born, describing it as a “terror army.”
- Turkish troops began building up on the border on January 16, and the Turkish forces still in Syria shelled Kurdish forces in Afrin, according to the BBC.
- Hawar News reported further action by Turkish military, including the building of a border trench, on January 17. These reports have yet to be confirmed by neutral media.
- Turkish ground forces began an offensive on Afrin, codenamed “Operation Olive Branch,” on January 20.
- Turkish state media reported that “Operation Olive Branch” saw Turkish forces, in cooperation with the Free Syrian Army rebel groups, capture four villages and a strategically important mountain on the night of January 21.
- Erdogan said in a speech on January 22 that Russia had given its approval for Turkey to carry out its threats and wipe out the majority-Kurdish militia groups holding parts of Northern Syria.
Kurdish relations in-depth
Verena Gruber, who studies the political relationships between Kurdish groups, gave WikiTribune an overview of the relationships at play. (Read the full Q&A here).
Gruber said that the relationships between these groups are “fluid” and based on “opportunism and partially on ideology, history and tribal lineages.”
- In Turkey, the PKK is the dominant Kurdish actor, but contains different dimensions and factions. These include a a military wing, a political wing, the die-hard followers of imprisoned leader and founding member Abdullah Ocalan, and those who seek a different adaptation of the group’s ideology. There are also other Kurdish groups in Turkey.
- In Syria, there is the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing YPG. They are not the only Kurdish actors in Syria. Other Kurdish parties include the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria (KDPS).
- In Iraq it gets more complex. Gruber says there are two “dominant” forces, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). There are other actors, such as the Islamic Party, Gorran, or the Yezidi forces.
- There are also Iranian Kurdish groups, which may be or may get involved in the clashes between Turkey and the YPG. The militant Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) has been allied with the PKK in the past.
“The KDP of Iraq is certainly supporting the KDP of Syria,” Gruber explained. “They are however less supportive of the PYD, which is ideologically oriented towards Ocalan (note that Ocalan is the biggest rival of the Barzani clan which heads the KDP of Iraq).”
“This, again, does however neither mean that KDP might not support the YPG, nor that PYD is directed by the PKK. The PYD adheres (as does PKK) to the ideological basis of Ocalan (which stands in a clear competition to the more tribal-based, traditional ideology of the KDP), but it does not stand under the command of the PKK HQ,” said Gruber.
“Given that the PKK is ideologically very close and militarily very experienced, it is obvious why PYD and YPG certainly relate to the PKK in terms of necessary assistance and even strategic advice,” she said.
To “close the circle,” said Gruber, the PUK “plays more along the lines of PKK and PYD” as both were originally founded on a similar left-wing ideology and both are in competition with the KDP. This makes the PUK “more likely to support the PYD politically and the YPG militarily,” added Gruber.