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Why Erdogan may accept the Syrian army taking control of Afrin

Turkey has no interest in fighting the Syrian military as long as the YPG is ousted from its south-eastern border

On 19 February, news from Syria's multifaceted battlefield yet again surprised, and confused, observers around the world.

Officials from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) announced that they had reached a deal with the Syrian government to allow pro-government troops to enter Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled enclave in north-western Syria, to "defend the unity of Syria's territory and borders" against what they call a Turkish "invasion".

A game changer?

Turkey had launched an air and ground campaign into Afrin a month earlier with the aim of cleansing Turkey's borders from "YPG terrorists". Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody campaign against the Turkish state for nearly three decades.

Following the YPG's announcement, Syrian state media broadcast images of Syrian government soldiers - the ones who made it into the area despite heavy Turkish shelling - being welcomed by Kurdish fighters and civilians in Afrin.

But the move, which was seen as a game changer in the ongoing struggle between Turkey, the Kurds, the US and Russia to control northern Syria, was effectively subdued within 24 hours.

Moscow decided to turn a blind eye to Turkey's attack on Afrin in an attempt to bend the YPG to its will and create a situation in which the Syrian government can reassert its control in northern Syria

On 20 February, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Ankara that Turkey had successfully thwarted the deployment of Syrian government troops into Afrin region.

The Turkish president said he had talked to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and they "reached a deal on these matters". Erdogan also asserted that Syrian government and the YPG made the cooperation deal without consulting Russia, which is currently in control of Afrin's airspace.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Sochi on 22 November, 2017(AFP)
"Unfortunately, as you know, these kinds of terror organisations sometimes take wrong steps," Erdogan said. "They make decisions by themselves, but we cannot allow this."

Russia: The primary protector

Despite Erdogan's insistence that the Syrian government and the YPG struck a deal without the approval of Moscow, it is hard to believe that Damascus took such a bold step without consulting its primary protector.

Since the beginning of Turkey's military campaign in Afrin in late January, Russia has been, albeit covertly, supportive of Turkey's ambitions in northern Syria.

Since the defeat of IS in Syria, Russia's primary objective has been to swiftly leave the battlefield without putting Syria's territorial integrity at risk

Moscow gave a green light to Turkey's operation, dubbed "Olive Branch", by allowing it to use Afrin's airspace to attack YPG strongholds and announcing the withdrawal of Russian troops from the enclave.

So why did Russia suddenly changed course and allow the Syrian government to intervene?

Since the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, Russia's primary objective has been to swiftly leave the battlefield without putting Syria's territorial integrity at risk. To achieve this, it asked the YPG to transfer Afrin to the Syrian government in exchange for security guarantees - a demand that had repeatedly been rejected by Syrian Kurdish leaders.

Eventually, Moscow decided to turn a blind eye to Turkey's attack on Afrin, in an attempt to bend the YPG to its will and create a situation in which the Syrian government can come to the Kurds' rescue and reassert its control in northern Syria - where many of the country's oil fields are situated.

According to this plan, this would happen without Damascus opening yet another battlefront against its own citizens.  

It has previously been reported that the deal between the YPG and Damascus had been delayed because "the Kurds refused to lay down their weapons" - allegedly a precondition set by the Syrian government to deploy troops to the area against the ongoing Turkish military operation.

This further confirmed Moscow's and the government's plans to turn Turkey's operation into an opportunity for Damascus to oust the Kurdish leadership from Afrin, or at least limit the enclave's autonomy.

It currently looks like the Syrian government's attempt to reassert its authority in Afrin has been put on pause, but it is in no way certain that Damascus is permanently ousted from the game.

With some encouragement from Russia, Erdogan may eventually accept the Syrian government taking control of Afrin - even though this is far from ideal from his point of view - because he sees the YPG as more of an existential threat.

An unavoidable price

While the Turkish president is publicly fuming about Damascus' new-found alliance with the YPG, in the long run this development could be beneficial for Turkey.

The Turkish government has been open about its support for the rebels working to end Syrian President Bashir al-Assad's rule in Syria since the beginning of Syria's civil war. However the Turkish military has clearly classified Operation Olive Branch as a "self-defence" move and insisted that Turkey respects Syria's territorial integrity.

People gather outside a mosque to attend the funeral ceremony for Koray Karaca, a Turkish soldier who was killed during the operation against Syria's Afrin region, in Istanbul, Turkey on 11 February, 2018
If Moscow can guarantee that the YPG would be permanently removed from Afrin - even if this would mean that control of the area would be returned to the Syrian government -Turkey may agree to back off, as this scenario would provide a less-than-ideal, but still acceptable, way out for Ankara, in which it can both claim victory and avoid getting sucked in to a conflict without end.

One month since it began, the Turkish public is still overwhelmingly supportive of Operation Olive Branch, which most of them see as an unavoidable price that needed to be paid for security.

But Turkey has already lost 32 soldiers in this operation, and as the number of casualties continues to increase, it is inevitable that public support for the military campaign will start to wane.

In this context, the latest shift of alliances may surprisingly prove to be beneficial for both Damascus and Ankara – two parties that have consistently been on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict since 2011.

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For the Kurds, while allowing Damascus to intervene may mean that they will lose some of their hard-earned autonomy, it could also potentially save thousands of civilian lives by cutting the conflict short - as Turkey has no interest in fighting the Syrian military as long as the YPG is ousted from its south-eastern border.

Turkey insists that it is doing its utmost to avoid civilian casualties in the conflict, yet recent reports show that in the first month of the operation dozens of civilians - including children – lost their lives.

The Kurdish Health Council, a local PYD-affiliated body, puts the civilian death toll at 150, while Human Rights Watch said that it has established that three attacks by Turkey in Afrin - on 21, 27 and 28 January - killed at least 26 civilians, including 17 children.

In a conflict as complex as this one, it is nearly impossible to predict what shape the web of alliances and rivalries in Syria is going to take in each new phase of the war. The only thing that seems to be certain is that turmoil in the region, and the suffering of the Syrian people, is not going to come to an end anytime soon.

Birce Bora is a London-based Turkish journalist and researcher. She holds a PhD in Journalism from City, University of London. Her thesis examined the representation of Turkey in the British print media between 2007-13.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses the audience during a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey on 21 February, 2018 (REUTERS)

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