Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, threatened on Jan. 13 to begin a military operation “in about a week ” to evict Kurdish militants from Afrin in northwestern Syria. Erdoğan has repeatedly threatened to “cleanse ” Afrin of the fighters over the last two years. It turned out he really meant it this time: on Jan. 20 Turkey commenced Operation Olive Branch against Afrin.
Kurdish forces, affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have constituted an important element of the Coalition’s ground force in Syria against the Islamic State (ISIS) since late 2014, expanding their “Rojava” statelet by capturing vast swathes of territory from ISIS in northern and eastern Syria that is connected to Afrin under a deal with the pro-regime coalition—Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Russia.
Any Turkish government would see this situation as a threat, and be angry at the United States for supporting the Kurds. The PKK regards Rojava and the ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD) as strategic elements in its long war against the Turkish state. Indeed, Kurds in Rojava have already provided at least logistical support for PKK attacks inside Turkey.
The Western refusal to even enforce agreed limits on the PYD was crucial to Turkey’s re-orientation of policy in late 2016, prioritising the Kurds over Assad and moving into Syria directly to push back ISIS and PYD militants. To avoid fighting on three fronts, Turkey cut a deal with the Russians that allowed Aleppo city to fall .
Soon after, a Russian-directed tripartite “peace process” with Iran and Turkey began at Astana, focusing on “de-escalation” mechanisms that the pro-Assad coalition ended up using to sequence its war. It also served to politically ratify the pro-Assad coalition’s military gains, so they could be imported into the internationally-recognised Geneva process to create a settlement on the regime’s terms.
Turkey, recognising defeat and trying to salvage what it could—namely denying legitimacy to the PYD in a Syrian settlement—went along with Astana until the pro-Assad coalition, which has extensive ties to the Kurdish administration , tried to smuggle them in to the process. On Dec. 27, Turkey’s patience appeared to run out, with Erdoğan reviving his rhetoric that Assad had to go .
There were other signs of distance between Ankara and Moscow.
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