Syrian opposition fighters backed by Turkey walk in front of Turkish troops near the Syria border at Hassa, Hatay province on Jan. 22, 2018.
Syrian opposition fighters backed by Turkey walk in front of Turkish troops near the Syria border at Hassa, Hatay province on Jan. 22, 2018.

LONDON - For the thousands of Syrian rebels fighting alongside Turkish forces in northern Syria this week in a military offensive Ankara has called Operation Olive Branch, each village retaken from Kurdish militiamen is payback for what they see as the Kurds' betrayal of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Ankara says the goal of its intervention, launched Saturday, is to create a safe zone 30 kilometers wide to protect its borders from Syrian Kurdish separatists, whom Turkey dubs "terrorists" and says they're tied to its outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has been waging an insurgency in the southeast for decades.

FILE - Kurdish fighters from the People's Protecti
FILE - Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) chat with members of U.S. forces in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria, April 29, 2017.

The broader Turkish aims, say analysts, is to try to drive a wedge between the United States and People's Protection Units, the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, a key ally of Washington in the battle against Islamic State. The Turkish government sees the YPG as an offshoot of the PKK.

But the participation of Syrian rebels in the Turkish offensive has a strongly personal element, one of revenge.

Many of the rebels aligned with Turkey come from rural northern Syria. They see the battle to wrest control of the northern Kurdish enclave of Afrin and outlying Arab villages as vengeance for the coordination they allege took place in February 2016 between the YPG and Russian-backed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an offensive to encircle Aleppo.

That offensive saw the YPG grab the opportunity to seize a string of Arab villages and towns in northern Syria to the southeast of Afrin, including traditionally Arab Tell Rifaat.

"The problem is not only that the Kurdish fighters cooperated with the Syrian regime and the Russians during the battle for Aleppo, but that the YPG burned dozens of Arab villages and displaced their inhabitants," Gen. Salim Idris, a former rebel chief of staff, told VOA.

The loss of Tell Rifaat was a calamity for Syrian rebels, depriving them of the chance to establish a defensive line.

Revenge by many factions

Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army, FSA, fighters stan
Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army, FSA, fighters stand on the roof of a building with a poster of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hanging on it in the Syrian town of Azez near the border with Turkey, Jan. 19, 2018.

And it was seen by Turkey-based Free Syrian Army (FSA) insurgents battling Assad as a stab in the back by the YPG, one they vowed they would get even for.

Now, they say, their time has come.

"The goal of the Free Syrian Army is to regain 16 Arab towns and villages occupied by the YPG" in 2016, said Major Yasser Abdul Rahim, the commander of Failaq al Sham, a rebel militia.

The Turkish offensive has the support, too, of the Syrian rebels' main political organization, the Syrian Coalition, which says it is backing Ankara's intervention. The coalition is urging YPG militiamen to "pull out of the towns and villages they occupied and from which they displaced their residents."

Turkey's operation highlights the tangled mess that northern Syria has become with its dizzying array of sectarian and ideological groups, all claiming right is on their side, eager to extract revenge for the bloodletting.

There seems no end in sight to the war in Syria: micro-conflicts proliferate, aggravated partly by outside powers, with friend becoming foe, and foe turning into a temporary ally in an instant.

Russian approval

International reaction to Turkey's intervention illustrates the complexity of interests involved.

Russia appears tacitly to have blessed Ankara's move. In the days leading up to Operation Olive Branch, it moved Russian military advisers out of Afrin. On Monday, Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, "We have discussed it with the Russians and we have an agreement with them."

Fighters from the self-defense forces of the Kurdi
Fighters from the self-defence forces of the Kurdish-led north hold their weapons during a rally in Hasaka, northeastern Syria, Jan. 23, 2018.

The Kurds accuse Damascus, which has formally denounced the Turkish intervention, and Moscow, of having struck a bargain with Erdogan, in which the Turkish leader will ignore an Assad offensive on nearby Idlib, the last remaining Syrian province in rebel hands, while they will give Turkey free rein in Afrin to punish the Kurds.


Meanwhile, Turkey's NATO allies appear divided over whether to rebuke Ankara for the offensive.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis warns Turkey's offensive against the U.S.-allied YPG distracts from efforts to ensure the final defeat of IS and cautioned that jihadists would exploit it.

In a statement Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May's office said, "We are closely following developments in Afrin in northwestern Syria. We recognize that Turkey has a legitimate interest in the security of its borders."

The Turkish intervention comes just weeks after Washington said it planned to shape, train and arm a mainly Kurdish manned border force to help stabilize northern Syria — a move Turkey has denounced, saying it feared such a force could be used to help the Kurds form an autonomous region in a swathe of land along its border.

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