Turkish “Free Police” Another Tool to Stop Kurdish Expansion

On January 24th, a 450-person Syrian police force trained by Turkish police began operating in the rebel-held border town of Jarablus, in Aleppo province. Known as the “Free Police” (an allusion to the Free Syrian Army), this new, armed security force is comprised of regular police and other units that received five weeks of training from Turkish police.

Located in the northern portion of Syria, Jarablus sits at the edge of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit’s (YPG) push to connect the pieces of the de facto autonomous region that the YPG controls along the border of Turkey and Syria. As the YPG has come closer and closer to Azaz (buffer zone on the boarder of Syria and Turkey) Turkey has become more and more hostile, now deploying the Turkish-trained Syrian police force to deepen its influence in northern Syria.

Turkish media reports that Turkey aims to deploy over 5,000 of these police officers. “Our mission is to maintain security and preserve property and to serve civilians in the areas liberated (from Islamic State),” police force head General Abd al-Razaq Aslan told Reuters.

While Turkey’s deputy Prime Minister has claimed that Turkey’s military push in northern Syria is simply to protect its border, it is actually a broader continuation of Operation Euphrates, the Turkish military intervention in Syria with the goal of assisting the Free Syrian Army (FSA – Syrian rebels), and further crippling the YPGs efforts in Northern Syria.

Many of these new recruits are former rebel fighters who fought under Turkish direction in northern Syria last August when the same pro-Turkey forces ran IS out of Jarablus, leaving a vacuum in the region that US-backed Syrian Democratic forces quickly filled. The Kurdish YPG comprises a significant portion of the SDF.

While Ankara has been bolstering its presence in northern Syria, representatives of Bashar al-Assad and leaders of the FSA have been talking for the first time since the UN-brokered negotiations last year. This time, instead of the UN acting as a mediator, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are mediating negotiations in Kazakhstan. The three mediators are determined to end the brutal, nearly six-year conflict in Syria. Not surprisingly, Kurdish forces were not offered a seat at the table.

Reportedly, talks succeeded in consolidating a cease-fire for an unknown period of time. Russia, Iran and Turkey report that they plan on using their influence in Syria to strengthen the cease-fire but no details of how they were planning on doing so were provided. Despite this new agreement, neither the FSA or the Syrian regime are willing to stop fighting at Wadi Barada, an area near Damascus where a major water facility is located.

Yeni Safak newspaper posted a video of the Free Police dressed in Turkish police uniforms and chanting “long live Turkey, long live Erdogan and long live a free Syria.” Turkish authorities have admitted that this effort is in large part to ensure the continuation of pro-Turkish forces in Northern Syria even if a peace deal is reached and Turkey has to pull out of Syria.

The Turks have a long history of fighting with the Kurds.  In Turkey, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has been a source of conflict in Turkey since the early 1980’s when it was first began waging an insurgency inside Turkey. Ankara has blamed the PKK for a number of the recent terrorist attacks there. In Syria, Ankara sees the YPG, and consequently the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), simply as a front for the PKK.

While the PKK and YPG claim that they are not associated with each other, Ankara believes both to be terrorist groups.  The PKK is officially considered a terrorist group by the US and EU, however, they do not consider the YPG a terrorist group.

The EU and US have urged the Turks to stop attacking the YPG but there are problems with this.

First, Turkey has vowed to only stop attacking the Syrian Kurds as soon as Ankara no longer sees them as a threat. Second, Turkey claims that their efforts are primarily directed in fighting the Islamic State (IS). The Kurdish forces in both Syria and Turkey both say that Turkish activity against IS is merely a cover to justify attacks on Kurdish forces.  The SDF have been essential in the United State’s efforts to fight IS in Syria, and the U.S. formally rejects the notion that the SDF has ties to the YPG. Unfortunately, Turkish forces in Syria are known to purposefully attack Kurdish forces – including the SDF that the US partners with – as well as IS.

Ankara’s increased presence in northern Syria and efforts to push out the Kurdish forces could prove problematic for US interests in Aleppo. Erdogan criticized the United State’s strategy saying that it is wrong to fight one terrorist organization with another, making Turkish-American cooperation nearly impossible.