The Turkish government has started shelling the city of Afrin, west of the Euphrates River deep in the Syrian heartland, ahead of an upcoming invasion, according to Defence Minister Nurettin Cankli. The move is largely in response to the newly-formed Kurdish army, announced last week by the United States-led Coalition, called the Syrian Border Forces (SBF). It will build on the already powerful Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish militias created two years ago to fight Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
The new force hopes to reach an ambitious 30,000 troops, trained and armed by the Americans, charged with protecting borders of the Kurdish enclave, east of the Euphrates River. Five American military bases are already dotting the Syrian north, and they will make sure that the SBF is brought to life and formally deployed on the Euphrates River Valley.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to “strangle” the new army “before it is born”, and is threatening an all-out invasion, seemingly determined to never let the Kurdish project see the light anywhere close to his borders with Syria. His artillery is threatening to attack Manbij northeast of Aleppo, a city liberated by the Kurds back in 2016, once through with Afrin. The new US proxy army has taken all regional stakeholders by surprise, but it struck a particularly raw nerve in Ankara, where Erdogan has been fuming about US President Donald Trump’s honeymoon with Kurdish militias. Since reaching the White House a year ago, the US president has turned down all Turkish requests to distance himself from the SDF and the People’s Protection Units (YPD).
Erdogan writes them off as “terrorists,” due to their affiliation to the outlawed PKK, while Trump regards them as strategic allies in the war on terror — friends that ought to be both protected and empowered.
Erdogan had pleaded him to let the Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield troops have the honours of bringing down the Daesh-capital in Al Raqqa, but Trump persistently refused, letting the Kurds do the job instead. Trump has cut topped military aid to every other military group on the Syrian battlefield, but kept them flowing to Kurdish warriors. He doesn’t really seem to care what Erdogan thinks or says, and in return, the Turkish leader is preparing to take matters into his own hands, realising that relying on the US will lead to nowhere.
Trump’s alliance with the Kurds has already inched Erdogan closer to Iran and Russia. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is equally furious with the Kurdish project, fearing that whatever the Kurds get in Syria they will start demanding in Iran, home to no less than seven-eight million Kurds. In the summer of 2016, he reached a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, letting Russian and Syrian troops regain control of Aleppo in exchange for letting Erdogan’s troops carve out an enclave on the Syrian-Turkish border, at the cities of Jarablus and Azaz, and Al Bab that runs deeper within Syrian territory. The idea was to create a multi-purpose buffer to keep out Kurdish separatists from these three towns and eventually use as a safe haven for millions of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey since 2011.
This time, however, as Erdogan strikes at Afrin (which falls within Russia’s sphere of influence), Moscow is doing nothing to prevent Erdogan from amassing troops on the Syrian borders. Some believe that they are actually nudging him to push further, saying that they will not object, if Erdogan agrees to leave the city of Idlib in the Syrian northwest, which his troops had entered last October as part of the “de-conflict zones” agreement of the Astana process. He is reportedly willing to comply if they let him march forward to attack the SBF, which has now become his high priority. Some in Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus, actually see the looming battle as a blessing in disguise. It would ultimately rid them either of Erdogan or the Kurds — both of which are a thorn in their flesh. That’s what former US president Ronald Reagan had thought when he stood back and watched the Iran-Iraq War unfold and drag throughout his presidency, not lifting a finger to stop it. His reasoning was that it would either rid him of Ayatollah Khomeini or Saddam Hussain: A win-win scenario for the US. Putin and Rouhani think the same with regard to Erdogan and the Kurds. Both have been forced to deal with the Turkish leader in recent months, seeing him as the post powerful and ambitious backer of the Syrian Opposition who ought to be accommodated if a political and military endgame were to be reached. Slowly they started luring him out of the orbit, transforming Erdogan from sworn enemy into cherished ally, given that nothing had succeeded in bringing him down, neither Daesh nor a military coup in the summer of 2016.
An open war with the Kurds — one fanned secretly by the Russians and Iranians — might eventually weaken him or at a bare minimum, occupy him for years to come. Ultimately, however, Iran and Russia realise that the chances of his imminent demise are low, and that in the long run, he will succeed in crushing the Kurds. In the process, however, he will also destroy his relationship with Trump, and possibly affect his membership in Nato. A protracted war with the Kurds will serve nobody but Erdogan’s long list of enemies, who are all waiting to see his end.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.