Turkey and Syrian rebel allies captured Afrin city in north-western Syria from the Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG) this weekend. The YPG has gained notice as the partner force of the US-led international coalition against the Islamic State. But, as Pentagon spokesman Robert Manning acknowledged on March 6, the YPG has been diverting its troops from the fight against IS in eastern Syria to the war with Turkey on the other side of the country. Manning presented this as a temporary setback, but the shifting dynamics might prove to be the undoing of the Coalition’s mission in Syria.
The US’s alliance with the YPG came about by happenstance. The international coalition mobilised to fight IS after its declaration of a “caliphate” in June 2014, and the coalition’s first major battle after airstrikes were extended into Syria came in the town of Kobani, which IS had besieged and was poised to overrun. Initially, the US said Kobani was not a “strategic objective,” even if its fall would be “horrific” to watch. Within two weeks, as the contest for Kobani became an international media spectacle, the US reversed itself and said it would be “irresponsible” to allow the town to fall. In order to prevent IS taking the town, the US provided weapons and air support to the force holding it, the YPG.
After the Kobani siege was broken, the US began formalising its alliance with the YPG, which rebranded itself as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and took on some Arab dependencies, as it expanded operations to clear IS from swathes of northern and eastern Syria.
This arrangement angered the US’s NATO partner, Turkey, because the YPG is the name under which the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) operates in Syria, and the YPG/PKK was wholly dominant within the SDF. The PKK, an internationally-recognised narco-terrorist organisation, including by the US, has waged an insurgency intended to dismember the Turkish state since 1984. A byproduct of the U.S.’s anti-IS campaign was to create a PKK-run statelet along Turkey’s border, which has provided logistical support, as well as recruits and international legitimacy, for terrorism inside Turkey.
Turkey tried to work diplomatically through the U.S. to constrain the YPG/PKK, but was ultimately unable to do so. In May 2016, Turkey backed a YPG-led offensive, supported by US air power, to push IS out of Minbij, in exchange for promises of YPG withdrawal and local rule in the aftermath. These promises were not kept, and when the YPG began moving further west it triggered a direct Turkish intervention.
Fast forward to the present, where not only did the U.S. fail to constrain the growth of the YPG; it began to publicly arm them and expanded their realm to include Raqqa—taken after the near-complete destruction of the city because of the YPG’s limited capabilities when it comes to urban warfare—and large areas of the eastern province of Deir Ezzor. The US announcement in January that it intended to create a 30,000-strong PKK-run border protection force provided the spark for Turkey to follow-through on the threats it had been making for a year, invading Afrin, long thought to be a bastion of PKK support in Syria.
Turkey hoped to achieve at least three objectives in Afrin. First, and most immediate, to carve out a buffer zone along the border. Second, to “lure the YPG to Afrin and weaken them there,” as Burak Kadercan, an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College puts it, perhaps by drawing the YPG into a protracted contest for Afrin city, which the Turks intended to clear of YPG operatives by one means or another. Third, to get the Americans to take Turkey’s concerns more seriously.
The first objective was accomplished at the end of February, and the increased time American officials are spending with the Turks suggest Ankara has made some progress on its third objective. The reports that the US had agreed to move the YPG east of the Euphrates River appear to be untrue for now, but evicting the YPG/PKK from the flashpoint town of Minbij was the “strategic priority” of the OLIVE BRANCH operation, according to Kadercan, and Turkey is now in a position to press this point because of its success with the second objective.
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