On February 19th the Syrian government moved troops towards the Northern Syrian city of Afrin, where Turkish troops are currently engaging the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Unit (YPG). Over the last few weeks Turkey has focused on taking the town of Afrin as part of an effort to create a buffer area in Syria, pushing the YPG from its border. The Syrian government has called the attack on Afrin a “blatant attack” on its sovereignty.
On February 20th a convoy of pro-Syrian militia forces entered Syria’s Afrin region. The Turkish military reportedly fired “warning shots” forcing the 20 plus vehicle convey to withdraw to about 10km away from the city.
The YPG said that the Syrian forces will deploy alongside Afrin’s border with Turkey. Erdogan said on Tuesday “The besieging of the Afrin city center will start rapidly in the coming days.”
The Syrian moved sparked substantial diplomatic activity. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke on the phone with his Russian and Iranian counterparts. But Russia’s Foreign Ministry called on Turkey to speak directly with the Syrian government.
Erdogan also spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani reportedly said the Iranians sought to see Syria cleared of “terrorists” but also insisted on that Syrian’s territorial integrity be respected according to a statement from Rouhani’s office.
Turkey publicly views the YPG as a terror organization but has also been one of the primary backers of Sunni Syrian rebels seeking the overthrow of Iranian ally Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Over the last few years Turkey has increasingly accepted that Assad’s government is unlikely to be ousted by Syrian rebels. Turkey wants to maintain their image of standing by the rebel groups it supports. In practice this has meant agreeing to work with Iran during “De-Escalation” agreements with Russia.
Though Iran and Turkey have been working together for a while, in 2009 Erdogan told the British newspaper The Guardian that “Iran is our friend” saying he had good relations with their leaders.
In 2016 Turkey’s relationship with Iran has also strengthened over support for Qatar, when Turkey sent troops to Qatar following the Saudi-led boycott of the country over Qatar’s support for terrorist groups including Al Qaeda-linked groups, Hamas and Hezbollah.
The YPG relationship with Assad’s forces remains uneasy. Both powers hold more Syrian territory than any other group. The YPG seek autonomy over the regions they control, while Assad continues to seek the restore Syrian control of the entire territory, calling the YPG traitors in the past.
The YPG had no other choice but to ask Assad’s military for help since no other outside force would help them against Turkey, which includes the United States.
The U.S. has been backing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the YPG throughout the course of U.S.-led effort against Islamic State, but does not back YPG efforts at autonomy. The U.S. recently backed Kurdish forces in the city of Manbij where Turkey threatened to attack the city. U.S. presence in the area was enough to hold the Turkish forces at bay.
The U.S. foreign policy in Syria today remains convoluted. In 2013 under the Obama administration the U.S. undertook a policy of covertly arming Syrian rebels to overthrow Assad. The Obama administration’s red line on the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was repeatedly violated, despite the Obama administration’s reaching an agreement with the Russians for the disposal of Syrian chemical weapon stockpiles. But in 2015 the U.S. began using airstrikes to combat the Islamic State which had taken over a significant amount of Syrian territory.
Today the U.S. plays a minimal role with the wide variety of Sunni Syrian rebel groups who rely primarily on support from Turkey and Qatar. The majority of U.S support is going towards the SDF/YPG in north east Syria in the continued fight against the IS, which has been largely ousted from its territory in Syria and Iraq.