The Turkish military is struggling to keep up operations against the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) in northern Afrin, a group primarily made up of the U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ).
The prolonged operation in Kurdish territory has limited Turkey as it prepares to protect Sunni Arab civilians in Idlib awaiting an imminent operation by dictator Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday.
Turkey plays a major role in the Syrian civil war, having taken in 3.5 million Syrians and counting. Yet its relationships with the major players in the war—the United States, Russia, and Iran—are tenuous. Turkey is a NATO ally of the United States but has spent significant resources attacking the YPG, one of America’s most reliable allies against the Islamic State on the group. It is part of a discussion group with Russia and Iran on limiting civilian casualties in the war, considers Russian and Iranian proxy Assad a “terrorist.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has proclaimed that Turkish troops are in Syria to “end the rule of the tyrant Assad” and “not for any other reason,” a direct challenge to Russia and Iran’s interests in the country. Yet in practice, Turkey has spent most of its resources on conquering Afrin and northern Manbij, which has a U.S. military presence. To keep the peace, Washington and Ankara have agreed to joint patrols in Manbij, with neither withdrawing.
According to Iran’s state-run Fars News Agency, the SDF has significantly damaged Turkish positions in Afrin in the past week, “killing at least 100 [Turkish troops] and wounding over 200 others” according to remarks by an SDF commander. Fars notes a specific attack occurring on Tuesday in which “the Turkish army put its soldiers and allied militants on alert after they suffered heavy defeats and casualties in recent day’s clashes with the Kurdish militias in Afrin region.”
Fars appears to take sides against Turkey in the report, citing the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) as claiming that locals in Afrin are uncomfortable with Turkey’s presence there. Afrin is a Kurdish territory, and the YPG have been careful not to take sides with anyone but the United States. The YPG openly fights for the establishment of an independent Kurdish state, placing it at odds with Assad, the Iranian regime, the Turkish government, and other regional countries with Kurdish populations, including Iraq.
Adding to evidence that Turkish officials feel they are losing in their war against the Kurds, pro-Erdoğan Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak reported on Wednesday that the United States has “supplied the YPG terror organization with more than 5,000 truckloads of weapons to allegedly use in the fight against Daesh [the Islamic State.” The newspaper claimed that American troops most recently equipped YPG fighters stationed in Raqqa, the former capital of the Islamic State “caliphate.” Raqqa is a traditionally Arab territory, but the YPG played a major role in defeating the Islamic State there and continue to provide security aid.
Ankara considers the YPG indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
Erdoğan himself protested on a flight back to Turkey from Kyrgyzstan that the United States is not keeping up its end of an alleged deal to get the YPG troops out of Manbij, a focal point of tension between the two countries as both American and Turkish troops are now operating there.
“The job is being delayed. We have to see this fact. We are not at an ideal point. The agreement that we had reached is not being implemented in the right direction,” Erdoğan claimed.
Turkey has begun deploying even more troops to the Syrian border, according to Fars. As they have not yet crossed the border, it is not yet clear whether Turkey will be moving these into northern Kurdish territory or closer to Idlib, southwest of Manbij. At least some Turkish troops reportedly arrived in Idlib on Tuesday to secure the region as locals prepare for an expected joint Russian-Syrian offensive.
Idlib is the last major anti-Assad rebel stronghold in Syria. Last month, Assad troops dropped leaflets on Idlib telling locals—and the thousands of refugees from other former rebel strongholds like Aleppo and Hama—that the Syrian civil war was over and that rebels there should surrender or face a final decisive battle. The message has triggered alarm in the region and a global call for Assad and the Russian military to show restraint and protect civilians there.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo discussed the Idlib developments on the phone on Tuesday, according to both countries, and agreed on cooperation there, aligning Turkey against Iranian and Russian interests and in favor of U.S. ones while the opposite remains true in Manbij. Yet Erdoğan insisted on Tuesday that Turkey “is working with Russia and Iran” in Idlib to prevent conflict.
“Turkey has 12 observation posts in Idlib, and our security forces are resolutely carrying out their duties. There are 3.5 million people [in Idlib]. God forbid, if this area is hailed by missiles there would be a grave massacre,” he predicted. “In that case, where would those fleeing go to? The majority would come to Turkey.”