The Afrin Confrontation Risks Kurdish Autonomy and War With Turkey

Published February 19th, 2018 - 11:43 GMT
The war in Syria may get more chaotic as Turkey and Syrian forces directly confront each other in Afrin (AFP/FILE)
The war in Syria may get more chaotic as Turkey and Syrian forces directly confront each other in Afrin (AFP/FILE)


  • A deal is rumored to have been made between Syria and Kurdish militias
  • Syrian troops may help Kurdish forces oust Turkey from Afrin
  • If true, the deal re-callibrates both Assad's and the Kurds' visions of Post-war Syria
  • The Syrian war is quickly becoming more politically chaotic


By Ty Joplin


Kurdish militias and the Syrian government have reportedly reached an agreement to deploy Syrian regime troops into Afrin to help defend it against the Turkish military.

If true, the deal would represent a massive concession by the Kurdish forces in Syria, one that spells danger for their political goal of autonomy in northern Syria.

Badran Jia Kurd, an adviser to the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria confirmed to Reuters that the deal includes a Syrian troop deployment to besieged Afrin to help embattled Kurdish militias push out Turkish fighters.

The deal also reportedly includes enforcing a no-fly zone over Afrin, a move that was temporarily threatened by Assad. The no-fly zone would prevent Turkish drones and jets from conducting intelligence gathering missions and airstrikes, potentially offsetting Turkey’s current military advantage.

The reported deal looks to be born from desperation from the Kurdish forces, and imperils both sides’ political visions for Syria. But at the moment, each side appears to have little choice but to focus on limiting Turkey’s power and military presence in Syria.


The Danger of the Deal for Kurds

A Kurdish fighter in Afrin (AFP/FILE)


In January, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch, invading the Afrin region of Syria, which lies on the Syria-Turkey border. Its stated goal is to clear the region of Kurdish militias, who are closely linked to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey—a group that has been warring with the Turkish government for decades.

The Kurdish forces in Afrin, mainly the People’s Protection Units (YPG), immediately lost territory under the Turkish blitz, which was long in the making, and sent reinforcements from northeastern Syria through Assad-controlled territory towards Afrin. Assad reportedly allowed the reinforcement to go through government territory because it contributed to a goal shared by both the Kurds and the Syrian government: to slow down Turkish gains in Syria.

But in reaching out to the Syrian government for military help, the Kurds are functionally sacrificing the total autonomy they have gained in Afrin, and in so doing, threaten the viability of future autonomy in Afrin and beyond for the Kurds. Put in simple terms, if the Syrian army goes into Afrin, they are likely to stay there, and give Assad a foothold through which to increase its involvement in Afrin.

In any future negotiation on Kurdish autonomy then, Afrin may be compromised for the Kurds.

Kurdish officials are clear that the military deal is just that: a military deal that has no bearing for the politics between the Kurds and Assad. But as the case is everywhere in the world, and is true especially in Syria, military power dictates how much political space and leverage one group has.


What Assad Has to Lose

Image result for aleppo syrian regime afp

Syrian regime forces could lose control over the situation in Syria (AFP/FILE)


For Assad’s part, the potential agreement has one glaring danger: it could open up a new front in Idlib and Aleppo. Right now, there is a significant Turkish military buildup in the Idlib governorate and the rural areas south of Aleppo. A confrontation between Turkey and Assad could happen in Idlib if they battle each other in Afrin.

Assad stands to lose a rare asset that he has a fragile hold on—control. 

Turkish forces were allowed to enter as monitor enforcement of the de-escalation agreement, but appear to be using their position in Idlib as a launchpad for further military incursions.

One small but telling event hints at the danger of the Idlib front between Syria and Turkey. Turkey sent a convoy of about 100 military vehicles from northern Idlib to a small town mere kilometers away from Assad-controlled territory south of Aleppo. Startled by the advance, regime forces and loyalists shelled the convoy.

In response, Turkey struck Syrian targets with artillery and escorted their convoy with jets. Assad then positioned missile defense systems in northern Syria as a signal that the Syrian government was willing to engage with Turkish targets if need be.

If the Syrian government send troops into Afrin, they would likely have to battle Turkish forces in Idlib as well, an exponential escalation of Syria that runs the risk of spiraling the Syrian conflict out of control.

In trying to secure Syria’s borders from external actors, Assad could lose much of what he his army has fought for near Aleppo. For their part however, Turkey could become hopelessly entangled in Syria if it opts to open up the front in Idlib.


The Unpredictable Future of the Syrian War

Syrian refugees await the future of their country (AFP/FILE)


At the time of publication, the Idlib front has not been opened, nor has the Syrian-Kurdish agreement been implemented. But its mere existence shows both the desperation of the Kurds and Assad to sustain their territories while also demonstrating an ability to compromise.

The dynamism of the war in Syria, and the sheer number of divergent interests and warring factions operating in the country show that the war is not winding down, but rather becoming more entangled and politically unnavigable.

Any speculation that the Syrian war is reaching a political end should be dispelled by the grim reality that the country has now become a regional vacuum upon which factions can project power. As long as it remains an open opportunity to grab power and influence, peace will elude the country.

Those who pay the dearest are inevitably the civilians trapped inside Syria, who are dying by the thousands to wait out a war that has no end in sight.


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