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Analysis: Why Turkey Wants a ‘Secure Zone’ in Afrin

Turkey’s operation on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in Syria aims to halt YPG expansion near Turkey’s border, facilitate refugee returns and empower Ankara-backed FSA forces, writes analyst Ömer Özkizilcik.

Written by Ömer Özkizilcik Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right), Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu (left) and other officials gather to receive information about the third day of Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, from the commanders in the area via video conference in Ankara, Turkey, on January 23, 2018. Turkish Presidency / Yasin Bulbul / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey’s new military operation on a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria aims to carve out a “secure zone” 30km (18.6 miles) deep into Afrin, to secure its southern border from what it claims is a terror threat.

If established, the zone could block the expansion of Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in northern Syria, while also facilitating refugee returns, Turkish analysts told Syria Deeply. This could expand Turkey’s zones of influence and increase its leverage in northern Syria, but Operation Olive Branch also put Ankara at risk of encroaching on other foreign military powers in the area.

Turkey-backed Syrian rebels currently control around 2,225 square kilometers (859 square miles) in northern Aleppo, including the towns of al-Bab, Jarablus and Azaz, where Ankara’s Operation Euphrates Shield pushed out the so-called Islamic State in 2016.

Though Euphrates Shield also targeted the YPG, Turkey’s latest campaign aims to expand its operations not only to the district of Afrin but also in the town of Manbij, further east. This has raised concerns over a potential showdown with Turkey’s NATO allies in Washington, who backed the Kurds in the fight against ISIS.

“Our goal is not to clash with Russians, the Syrian regime or the United States, it is to battle the terrorist organization,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday, referring to YPG forces.

Ankara views the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group that carried out a number of attacks inside Turkey in recent years. Despite Turkey’s claims, there is much controversy over the extent to which the PYD and the PKK are connected.

The Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), an umbrella organization of six Kurdish political parties and civil society institutions in Syria, including the PYD, acknowledges that they share ideological links with the PKK, however, they maintain that they are separate entities.

On the other hand, Turkish analyst Can Acun, who has researched structural links between the YPG and the PKK, claims there is a strong enough connection between the two to justify Turkey’s concern over YPG expansion near its southern border.

“High cadres of the YPG are PKK veterans, and YPG areas [in Syria] have become a training ground and supply route for the PKK,” he told Syria Deeply, adding that this frames YPG expansion in Syria as an “essential threat to the Turkish state.”

Capturing Afrin and establishing a border buffer zone would prevent the YPG from potentially supplying arms and fighters to PKK-affiliated militants who are based in Turkey’s Amanos mountains, said Oytun Orhun, from the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) think tank.

Turkish state media alleged last week that PKK militants based in the Amanos Mountains in Turkey’s southern Hatay Province have been receiving weapons and supplies from YPG forces in Afrin. The Anadolu Agency also claimed that more than 40 fighters who were trained in the use of explosives and ammunition were dispatched to the Amanos Mountains from the YPG stronghold in the last three years.

A YPG spokesman did not respond to Syria Deeply’s request for comment.

“By clearing Afrin from YPG elements, Turkey plans to stop the PKK from infiltrating Hatay and conducting terrorist attacks within Turkey,” Orhun said. “Afrin is a main humanitarian supply route for PKK and YPG forces. With the Afrin operation, YPG will lose an important base.”

A safe zone around Afrin would also prevent YPG from connecting its Syrian cantons of Jazira and Kobani with the isolated canton of Afrin, thereby obstructing plans to establish a corridor that runs from Iraqi Kurdistan to the Mediterranean Sea.

“The operation in Afrin will at least eliminate the threat posed by the YPG in areas west of the Euphrates River and destroy YPG hopes of an autonomous region along Turkey‘s borders,” Orhun said.

The Prime Ministry’s Office of Public Diplomacy stressed that it sees “the merging of the Kobani area with Afrin as the most important pillar” of the Kurdish corridor project, in a memo published by Hurriyet Daily News.

The same memo also said that one of the aims of Operation Olive Branch was to ensure that Turkey-backed FSA “takes control of a 10,000-square-kilometer area” in northern Syria.

According to the Turkish analyst Acun, this can be done by connecting Euphrates Shield territory in northern Syria with recaptured areas in and around Afrin, potentially going as far as northern Idlib.

“By doing so, Turkey will strengthen its leverage in Syria and empower the moderate Syrian opposition,” he said, explaining that Turkish-backed FSA groups could expand their foothold in areas Turkey captures from the YPG.

An FSA commander told Reuters on Sunday that some 25,000 rebels were supporting Turkey’s push in Afrin.

Though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that “this struggle is being conducted for them [FSA]. Not for us,” returning Turkey’s estimated 3.3 million Syrian refugees was also an important consideration for the offensive, according to Acun.

Some 75,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey were repatriated following Operation Euphrates Shield: 55,000 went to Jarablus and 20,000 went to Azaz, ar-Rai and al-Bab, Turkey’s Deputy Director General of Migration Management Abdullah Ayaz said last month.

“Afrin is critical in maintaining the security of Turkey’s border provinces and ensuring the security of the Euphrates Shield Operation area,” according to the memo from the prime minister’s office.

What’s more, one Turkey-backed FSA official told Reuters that the current operation also aims to capture the YPG-held town of Tel Rifaat in northern Aleppo. As thousands of Syrian refugees from Tel Rifaat are currently in a camp on Turkey’s border, capturing the town would facilitate returns for many of the displaced, Acun said.

The actual scope of Turkey’s operation remains largely unclear. However, the offensive so far seems to have been carried out in consultation with some of the key foreign players in Syria’s north.

“The complicated situation in the Syrian war and the presence of global powers prevents Turkey from acting on its own,” Orhun said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Sunday that the U.S. was notified before the attacks took place on Saturday. “Turkey was candid. They warned us before they launched the aircraft they were going to do it in consultation with us, and we are working now on the way ahead through the ministry of foreign affairs,” Mattis said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Erdogan said on Monday that he had also reached an agreement with Russia regarding Afrin, where Moscow has had troops deployed for years. On Saturday, Russia’s defense ministry said it was relocating its troops in Afrin, only two days after Turkey’s military chief of staff was in Moscow seeking approval for an aerial campaign on the YPG stronghold.

Following, Erdogan’s announcement, YPG commander Sipan Hemo told the pro-YPG Firat News Agency that Russia “constantly said a solution without Kurds is not possible. We had certain arrangements with Russia. But Russia suddenly disregarded these agreements and betrayed us.”

“They have clearly sold us out,” Hemo said, according to Middle East Eye.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

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