The Turkish offensive to wrest control of the Afrin region from the local branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is set to become a tough and bloody battle. Nevertheless, this battle is not only critical to Turkish national security, but equally vital for broader regional security.
At stake is not only the future direction of Turkey’s battle against terrorism but also potentially Syria’s territorial integrity. If allowed to develop its proto-state within Syria the PKK would score the biggest victory to date for Kurdish irredentism and thus be in a position to challenge the sovereignty of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and potentially even Iran.
Apart from containing a terrorist movement, the inappropriately named “Olive Branch” operation is perhaps Turkey’s last opportunity to redeem its failing Syria policy and consequently stake a credible claim to the post-conflict settlement.
For Turkey, the path to reputational redemption and the regaining of strategic initiative necessarily involves a degree of confrontation with the United States in Syria. As the PKK’s main backer inside Syria, the US is by default (if not by design) committed to Syria’s territorial dissolution. Moreover, lasting success for PKK-aligned Syrian Kurds will dramatically embolden the PKK inside Turkey, which will inevitably impact Turkish national security.
To overcome these threats, Turkey has little option but to decisively confront Kurdish irredentists in Syria, even to the point of clashing with its American Nato ally.
The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), are often portrayed in the West as the more acceptable face of Syria’s complex proxy conflict. The YPG’s proto-state, dubbed as “Rojava”, is often presented in favourable terms, as a progressive and democratic bastion in the midst of a brutal and chaotic conflict.
The West’s primary impulse for supporting the YPG is ostensibly the fight against Daesh. The YPG has been consistently portrayed as the most effective fighting force against Daesh and was used under the guise of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces to retake the Daesh-occupied city of Raqqa.
In tandem with US support for the YPG, a sizeable number of American, European and other volunteers have rushed to “Rojava” to aid the Syrian Kurds in their wars against Daesh and other Syrian rebels. These “volunteers” are now poised to fight Turkey in Afrin.
Despite the whitewash, the YPG is still widely recognised as the extension of the PKK inside Syria. In the expert community, it is well understood that not only does the YPG adhere to the PKK ideology, but that in operational terms its leaders are trained and guided by PKK commanders.
The PKK ideology is founded on hard-left economic theories and “progressive” notions centred on federalism and feminism. However, in keeping with the group’s militant nature, in practice these values are mostly produced in militaristic form, as exemplified by the supposedly emancipated YPG female combatants.
The PKK’s proximity to communism notwithstanding, deep down the movement is committed to a virulent form of Kurdish irredentism. As such it poses a potent threat to the sovereignty of several key states, in addition to challenging the regional balance of power.
The PKK’s empowerment in Syria has two primary causes. First, the decision by the Syrian government in the summer of 2012 to withdraw from Kurdish-majority areas created a political and security vacuum which was quickly filled by the PYD/YPG. Second, the US decision to ally with the YPG ostensibly to combat Daesh has given the group a powerful strategic and political cover, not to mention plentiful arms supplies.
Turkey’s quest to wrest control of Afrin from the YPG, in addition to threats to move against nearby Manbij, is primarily prompted by deep-seated national security concerns, not least the prospect of the re-energisation of the PKK inside Turkey. But the operation is also a potent indicator of Turkey’s intention to influence the post-conflict landscape in Syria.
At a strategic level, the offensive against the YPG enclave in north-west Syria is part of a broader Turkish shift toward the Russian and Iranian axis in Syria. Before joining this loose coalition, Turkish policy in Syria was characterised by a series of failures. At the heart of this failure was Turkey’s alignment with the West, as exemplified by the expansive and unrealistic demand to remove Bashar al-Assad from power.
Turkey incurred considerable reputational damage by appearing to be less than half-hearted in its support for Syrian rebels, as demonstrated by Ankara’s steadfast refusal to help besieged rebels in eastern Aleppo. By adopting a less ambitious policy, and focussing more on its own national interests, Turkey can compensate for past failures.
But in order to assert a real strategic impact on the closing stages of the Syrian conflict, Turkey must demonstrate the intention to not only contain the YPG/PYD but also to lay the foundation for their political eradication. This necessarily involves a degree of confrontation with the US which appears to be committed to the PKK cause in Syria, albeit for purely strategic considerations.
Leaving aside the United States’ stunning double standards and hypocrisy in backing the PKK (which it designated as a terrorist organisation more than twenty years ago), the bottom line is that the US has effectively been forced into this position by its own failing Syria policy. Indeed, the US has been repeatedly out-smarted in Syria by its global strategic rival Russia and ideological foe Iran.
Turkey can re-establish credibility in Syria by ignoring mixed signals from Washington and to press ahead in ousting the YPG from Manbij. This could be the first decisive step in rolling back PKK/YPG gains across a vast swathe of northern and eastern Syria. However, achieving this goal requires the full restoration of Syrian sovereignty and that in turn is dependent on the normalisation of Ankara’s relationship with Damascus.