by Paul Iddon.
Unlike the other three Kurdish regions in the Middle East, Syrian Kurdistan (known among Kurds as West Kurdistan, or Rojava) is not contiguous. The ruling authorities in Syria over the years attempted to keep the Kurds divided by splitting up their territories, making them more easier to control and subjugate. When the Kurds finally garnered unprecedented self-rule, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdrew the bulk of state military forces from the region in 2012, to fight elsewhere in the war-torn country, they had to deal with the fact that their territories were split into three separate enclaves.
The enclaves, referred to by the Kurdish authorities as cantons, are spread across Syria’s northern border with Turkey. In the north-east are the two primary cantons, Jazira and Kobanî. Situated to the east of the Euphrates is Kobanî and further north-east on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan is Jazira Canton. To the west of the Euphrates is an about 100 km stretch of territory and then the smallest canton, Afrin. Linking up with Afrin would effectively put the Kurds in control of the entirety of Syria’s border with Turkey.
The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) rule Rojava. Their armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), bravely defended Rojava’s cantons against Islamic State (ISIS). The YPG also afflicted ISIS with its first major setback, when it broke the groups brutal unrelenting siege of Kobanî (October 2014-January 2015) with US-led coalition air support. Since then they’ve gradually repelled that group from their territories and went on the offensive against them. In the summer of 2015 they successfully forced ISIS from the border town of Girê Spî (Tal Abyad) and in the process linked up their cantons, putting them in control of three-quarters of the Syrian border. After rolling back the ISIS offensive against the cantons they founded a larger Arab-Kurdish military coalition called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in October 2015, to confront ISIS across Syria.
In the meantime Turkey declared the about 100 km stretch of border from Kobanî to Afrin a “red-line” for the YPG. Immediately west of the Euphrates from Kobanî canton is Jarablus and not far west from Afrin is Azaz. Ankara invariably states that this Jarablus-Azaz region is vital to its security and doesn’t want a group that it argues is closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to control it. ISIS occupied large swaths of this region. Other Islamist groups, such as the Levant Front, backed by Turkey also held territory there in the Azaz region and opposed the Kurds, viewing them as collaborators with the Syrian regime.
Ankara’s red-line was, nevertheless, crossed by the SDF/YPG. In December 2015 the group captured the Tishrin Dam from ISIS further south from Kobanî. They subsequently began to build-up a foothold on the west side of the Euphrates.
In February 2016 the Syrian regime and its Russian backers launched a major offensive against Aleppo. This tied down other opposition groups opposed to the YPG.
Seizing an ideal opportunity the Kurdish fighters advanced eastward of their tiny isolated canton and successfully seized the small city of Tel Rifaat and the disused Menagh Airbase from the Levant Front. Russia even provided them with some supporting airstrikes for this offensive. Turkey responded by halting any further advance with cross-border artillery fire. The YPG, nevertheless, still hold both areas today.
In late May 2016 the SDF/YPG forces coming from Kobanî and Jazira were ready for a new mission: to capture Manbij, a major ISIS state stronghold in the Jarablus-Azaz vicinity. In secret meetings at Incirlik Airbase the Americans convinced the Turks not to interfere with the operation, promising them that mostly Arab members of the SDF would lead the operation into that Arab-majority city, with the YPG playing a supporting role – given their prowess as pointers for coalition airstrikes.
It was a lengthy and costly operation that lasted all summer, but the SDF/YPG prevailed by late August. The SDF established a military council in Manbij to administer the city post-ISIS. They clearly had grander plans given the fact they had prepared other councils for the nearby city of al-Bab and Jarablus. These councils were never implemented since the Turkish military launched a major cross-border operation into the Jarablus-Azaz area on August 24, Operation Euphrates Shield, and captured these cities from ISIS using Free Syrian Army (FSA) militiamen as proxies. The operation enabled Ankara to directly takeover the border region and keep Afrin separated from Kobanî. Consequently Turkish troops and their FSA proxies remain in the region to the present.
Turkey’s FSA proxies later threatened Manbij to the extent that the US had to send in Army Rangers in armored vehicles to prevent any clashes. Sporadic clashes between Turkish forces and the Syrian Kurds are not uncommon, in fact they are increasing as of late. In early April 2017 Turkey even launched a unilateral airstrike against a YPG base in Rojava’s northeast.
As Turkey is readying to send troops into Syria’s Idlib province as peacekeepers, to uphold the de-escalation zones it negotiated along with Iran and Russia, it’s increasing attacks against the YPG in the northwest. Ankara is now saying that the YPG in Afrin should be neutralized as it almost has the tiny far-flung canton completely boxed in.
“In order to stabilize the region, the Afrin region needs to be cleared of terror elements and terrorists,” said Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak on June 28, in a clear reference to the YPG. “Turkey is continuing to work with its counterparts to achieve this end with the help of the Foreign Ministry and the National Intelligence Organization.”
To Afrin’s west and north are the Turkish provinces of Hatay and Kilis, to her south there will soon be an unspecified number of Turkish troops as part of the de-escalation zones and to her near east are Turkey’s aforementioned FSA proxies.
Turkey likely figures it’s easier to confront the YPG in that isolated region, where there are no American troops, rather than in the far larger, and contiguous, north-east territories.
The YPG have their own intentions, they view the continued Turkish military presence in Jarablus-Azaz as an occupation and seek to force them out. Were a full-blown war to break out over Afrin the Kurdish forces would likely target the Turks and their allies in these areas. It’s unclear if the small American force in Manbij could even stand in the way of a major Turkish-YPG war.
It’s highly unlikely that Syrian Kurdish forces outside of Afrin would passively sit on the sidelines if the Turks attempt to pulverize their comrades there. This would in turn have stark implications for the ongoing Raqqa operation, which could slow down or even stop if the SDF/YPG need to re-allocate the necessary manpower and resources to fight the Turks.
In other words Turkey is more likely than not to spark a regional war across all of northern Syria if they try to cut off and crush the YPG in Afrin. Which is one reason, of many, the US should scramble to de-escalate the situation there rather than run the grave risk of letting it spiral out of control.