The border between Turkey and Syria recently has been the scene of major Turkish military buildup in preparation for what Turkish officials call an "imminent" assault on the northern Syria’s Afrin region.
Turkish officials assert that their expected military operation is to pursue a Kurdish armed force known as the People's Protection Units or the YPG. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization — alleging the group is linked to Kurdish separatists inside Turkey, known as the PKK, which is designated a terror organization by both the U.S. and EU.
The United States, which considers both Turkey and the YPG its allies in the region, has called upon the two parties to avoid direct confrontations.
A Pentagon spokesperson Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway told VOA on Wednesday the U.S. officials were in touch with Turkish officials to address the issue.
“We urge all parties there to avoid any further escalation,” Galloway said, adding the U.S. government was taking Turkey’s security concerns seriously.
“We are in contact with Turkish officials at various levels,” Adrian added.
Cantons not linked
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said the expected move on Afrin will engage Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters and later extend to the nearby Manbij region.
“The operation may start any time. Operations into other regions will come after,” Erdogan said during a gathering in Ankara earlier this week.
Afrin is a district, as well as a city, in northern Syria’s Aleppo Governorate, alongside the Turkish border. It is home to an estimated 1 million people, majority ethnic Kurdish.
The Kurdish YPG has been in control of the town since 2012 when the Syrian government forces withdrew amid a civil war. It is now one of the three self-proclaimed regions or cantons of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.
The YPG has been consistently trying to link Afrin to its other two cantons, Jazira and Kobani, in northeastern Syria, but its efforts have been largely unsuccessful mainly due to Turkey’s opposition.
A Turkish cross-border operation known as Euphrates Shield, which involved Turkish troops and tanks and some Syrian rebel factions, entered Jarabulus and Azaz regions in northern Syria in August 2016 to prevent Kurdish control after the Islamic State removal. Turkish troops have remained in the area ever since, thereby separating Afrin and spoiling Kurdish plans to attach it to their two main autonomous areas in eastern Syria.
In addition to concerns that the YPG may try to connect the region to its main enclave in northeastern Syria, Afrin has also been a flashpoint region for Turkey due to its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea.
According to the state-run Anadolu Agency, the region could be “a stepping stone” for the YPG group to reach the Mediterranean in its bid to establish a Kurdish autonomous region across northern Syria.
The Turkish threats of a full-fledged offensive on Afrin are not new. The Turkish artillery has bombarded the region many times in the past and vowed to remove the YPG. Its most recent escalation against the region started this week when it began its first wave of artillery fire on Tuesday night.
The political wing of the YPG, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party or PYD, on Wednesday appealed to the world powers to "move immediately" to ensure the security of the region.
“We call on the international community... to take responsibility toward more than a million people living in Afrin,” the group said in a statement.
Border protection forces
Some experts say the current threats of incursion from Turkey could come as a response to an announcement by the U.S.-led coalition on Sunday to form a 30,000-strong Kurdish-led border force in northern Syria.
The coalition officials have stated that the planned force does not include Afrin region and is limited to northeastern Syria where the Islamic State was ejected.
The coalition said about half of the force would be retrained fighters of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The YPG is the most effective armed entity within SDF.
The announcement infuriated Turkish officials who accused Washington of creating an "army of terror" along their border with Syria.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday that he has warned U.S. officials that relations between Turkey and the U.S. would be "irreversibly harmed" if Washington moves to form the border force.
Experts say Turkey considers the U.S. move a step toward recognizing a Kurdish entity in northern Syria.
“This is totally opposite of Turkey’s expectations and has the potential to worsen the relations between with the United States,” Bora Bayraktar, a professor at Istanbul-based Kultur University told VOA.
“Turkey sees this as a process legitimizing the current division in Syria,” he added.
Bayraktar said the Kurdish element of the Syrian crisis likely would continue to erode diplomatic ties between the two NATO allies.
“Relations are going from being allies and strategic partners to becoming enemies,” Bayraktar observed.
David Pollock, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute, told VOA that Turkish officials are not completely convinced that Afrin is not included in the planned border protection force despite the American assurances.
“Turks want to make sure that they register their strong opposition to this and, actually, do something about it,” Pollock said.
Pollock says Turkish threats could have something to do with domestic politics as well.
“Most likely Erdogan sees this as another timely opportunity to demonstrate his nationalist credentials and is looking towards possible elections next year,” he said.
Challenges of military actions
Pollock said an extensive operation in Afrin likely would prove difficult for Turkey given that the region is predominantly Kurdish.
“I am skeptical that the Turks will go in in a big way. There is going to be some shelling and skirmishes around the edges… but it would be a much harder challenge to occupy Afrin and stay there because it’s very ragged territory and it's almost 100 percent Kurdish, unlike some of the other PYD controlled areas,” he said.
Rafet Aslantas, an expert from Turkey-based ANKA Institute, told VOA that a Turkish operation also could mean more refugees.
“Any military action in the area could pose another threat for Turkey since Turkey already houses more than 3 million Syrian refugees,” said Aslantas.
VOA’s Yildiz Yazicioglu from Ankara, Turkey, and Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this story.