Turkey is stepping up its military and diplomatic preparations for a threatened offensive into Syria against a Syrian Kurdish militia. The escalation comes as Turkish ministers dismissed efforts by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to calm tensions.
Turkey’s threat to intervene in Syria's Afrin enclave controlled by the Kurdish militia, the YPG, was triggered by a U.S.-led coalition announcement of the creation of a 30,000-member border security force. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dubbed the force a “terror army” and vowed to destroy it, because a large part of it would consist of YPG fighters considered by Ankara to be terrorists linked to the outlawed PKK, which is waging a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.
Afrin is one several Kurdish-controlled cantons that are under the authority of the YPG militia, a key ally in the U.S.-led war against Islamic State.
Tillerson reached out to Ankara Wednesday, saying it deserved an explanation and that the “entire situation has been mis-portrayed, mis-described; some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all.” The secretary of state maintained that the U.S. just planned to continue its training of people freed from Islamic State control.
“Not enough” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as Turkish forces Thursday resumed their bombardment of Afrin and reinforcements continued to the Syrian enclave frontier.
The ongoing escalation saw Damascus push back. “We warn the Turkish leadership that if they initiate combat operations in the Afrin area, that will be considered an act of aggression by the Turkish army,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad.
“Part of the game in [the] Middle East is that countries can say something directly or have others say it for them, “suggested political columnist Semih Idiz. “I think the statement by Damascus by Meqdad is significant as it is probably Moscow saying it indirectly.”
Russia finds itself performing a delicate balancing act. Russia supports the Kurds but at the same time is courting Turkey in a bid to weaken ties between Turkey and its NATO allies.
On Thursday, the head of Turkey’s armed forces, Hulusi Akar, and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, visited Moscow for talks about Ankara's plans for a military operation. Turkish Foreign Minster Cavusoglu said Moscow’s cooperation is vital for any military operation against the YPG. Russian soldiers are deployed in the Afrin enclave as a measure to prevent the risk of confrontation between Turkish and Syrian Kurdish militia forces. Turkish air support in any Syrian incursion, considered vital by experts, would depend on Moscow's permission, given its deployment of surface-to-air missile batteries in Syria.
Russia better positioned
“I don’t think it's in the cards. I don’t think there is much hope of Russia giving up on the Kurds. Russia has this relationship with the Kurds going back 70 to 80 years and they have always maintained these ties, even though the PKK always had a presence in Moscow, said columnist Idiz. “But Russia does not have that much of an interest in severing ties with Turkey at the moment. So they will try and find some solution. Moscow is in a much better situation than Washington to do this, because Moscow has dialogue with all sides at the moment. So Moscow seems to be again the winner in this situation,” added Idiz.
Ankara’s threat to intervene into Afrin is seen as a sign of wider concerns that it will face being isolated in any final deliberations over the future of Syria.
“The U.S. will arrive there (talks on Syria) with the east of the Euphrates River (in Syria) under their control and more or less the Russians will arrive there with the (Syrian) regime in control of the rest of the country,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served widely in the region.
Ankara is facing growing pressure by both Moscow and Washington to allow Syrian Kurds linked to the YPG to participate in peace talks over Syria. Turkey steadfastly opposes the move, claiming “terrorists” have no place at the talks. "The president's brinkmanship with regard to Afrin could be an attempt to change the game or concentrate minds to remind the powers that Turkey is here and it can always be a spoiler if it wishes,” columnist Idiz said.
Analysts suggest such brinkmanship carries serious risks.
"Failure (of the military operation) would significantly rattle the AKP government, while success could infuriate the U.S. and/or Russia, triggering talk of economic sanctions once again,” said analyst Atilla Yesilada, of Global Source Partners, referring to Turkey's ruling party.