In what might be seen to be an odd move, Syrian government forces appear to be moving to push Turkish soldiers out of the north-western Afrin canton in a bid to assist the separatist Kurdish forces. The Turkish army invaded northern Syria last month to extinguish the creation of a 30,000 strong, Kurdish-dominated “border security force” backed by the US.
The Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) are closely linked to Turkey’s outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Following the collapse of its ceasefire with the PKK in 2015, the Turkish government claims that the PKK, and by extension the YPG, are terrorists.
Turkey has been the main conduit through which fighters for the Islamic State group and the Al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front) have reached Syria and Iraq. According to journalist Seymour Hersh, Turkey was identified by the Pentagon as covertly supporting both groups since 2013.
Syria’s key ally, Russia, has also been cultivating relations with Turkey as Syria’s northern neighbor moves further away from the West. Turkey has challenged its NATO partner, the United States, over its support for Kurdish separatists.
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The US has since abandoned much support for Kurdish groups, although recently fought with Kurdish fighters against Russian-backed Syrian government forces at Al Tabiyeh on the Euphrates River. This oil-rich region is about halfway between the formerly Islamic State-occupied city of Raqqa and the Syria-Iraq border, which the US and its allies have now declared as a Syrian government “no-go” zone.
What looks like Syrian government support for the Kurdish separatists in the north makes more sense, however, considering that both the Syrian government and YPG respectively regarded the Islamic State group as their principal enemy. Syrian and YPG forces have tried to avoid fighting each other during Syria’s seven-year-long civil war which has, by some estimates, cost more than 450,000 lives and displaced more than 11 million people.
The Assad regime is also concerned about Turkey’s growing sense of regional hegemony, with some analysts believing that Turkey wishes to extend its areas of control into northern Syria.
The YPG are located across three cantons in northern Syria, which have come together in an effectively autonomous Kurdish homeland known as “Rojava”. Rojava is split from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq as a result of the KRG’s promise to the Turkish government not to support the PKK-linked YPG, alongside older political and ethnic rivalries.
To date, the YPG has not said whether it wants independence or autonomy in a post-conflict Syria. But, controlling more than a quarter of Syria, the YPG is now the main non-government organisation in the country. Its canton of Afrin, cut off from the rest of Rojava by largely pro-Turkish anti-government forces, took the brunt of the Turkish invasion.
As the US recently learned, taking sides in the Syrian civil war can have consequences beyond its borders, in this case putting into doubt Turkey’s commitment to NATO as its southern bulwark against Russia. So, too, Russia is learning that the Assad regime welcomes its critically necessary support but not at the expense of allowing Turkey to occupy part of the Syrian state.
The status of the Kurds will no doubt be decided once the civil war is over. But, as the “world’s largest stateless nation” — about 35 million — it is likely the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq will at least demand the high level of autonomy they have already fought to establish for themselves if they are forced to remain within larger states.