Reporting on the Afrin crises

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Turkish armored vehicles in Hatay province in 2015 (Seth J. Frantzman)

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Since Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies decided to intervene in Syria I have been reporting on the new conflict. Turkey says it is fighting terrorists among the YPG, but the story is much large than that. It involves claims and counter-claims about Syria and Russian pressure on the YPG, and the relationship between Turkey and Russia as well as the desire by Syria, Turkey and Russia to set-back the US gains in the east.

It all begins with the after ISIS period and the seven years of civil war winding down, I noted before the battle.

On January 19 I wrote that Turkey and Syria threats but the US in a bind regarding Afrin. I wrote: “However, Russia has remained mum on any potential Turkish operation. It must balance its interests in cultivating relations with Ankara, with its support of Damascus and its relations with the Kurds. Wishing to see itself as the broker of peace, Russia would hope that there is not a major Turkish incursion. That means any Turkish action might be limited, as it has been before, and the war of words is intended more to test the waters with the US, Russia and Syria, than lead to a major attack jeopardizing the lives of thousands.”

On January 22 I wrote about the “new front” in Syria and Turkey’s strike against the YPG. One thing this revealed was sources in the SDF. “In 2017, Russia-Turkey ties grew closer with more than a half dozen personal meetings between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. ‘Russia is punishing the Kurds for its partnership with the US,’ said an anonymous knowledgeable source. ‘Russia keeps asking the Kurds to hand over the Deir ez-Zor gas fields, plus Afrin, to the regime but the Kurds refused.” The SDF liberated the gas fields in September 2017 in eastern Syria. “The US will not hand over one square meter,’ the source said.”

On January 23 I looked at failed US diplomacy to prevent the crises and how comments by the US might have actually fueled it. Also I looked at the dispute between the State Dept. and Coalition. The report notes ‘After the Turkish offensive in Afrin had begun, the State Department’s Heather Nauert said the US understood Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns,” but was watching developments in Afrin. “The US is very concerned about the situation in northwest Syria, especially the plight of innocent civilians who are now faced with an escalation in fighting.” The US administration appears to lack message discipline and consistency on its Syria policy, with the Pentagon and State Department conducting separate policies while Trump eschews leadership. The Kurds in Afrin may be bearing the consequences of the US inability to craft a clear policy and Washington’s unwillingness to take Ankara’s threats seriously. Kurds, who fought ISIS alongside the US in Syria, also express frustration that the Americans have abandoned them, which further erodes Washington’s credibility in the region.’

Then Trump called Erdogan. On January 25 I wrote about the US readout of the statement and the controversy it has caused. Trump appeared to ask for clear restraint amid an ongoing crises in US-Turkish relations.

On January 26 I examined and wrote about the video purporting to show international volunteers heading to Afrin. Based on news on February 5th the men finally got to Afrin after ten days travel.

Turkish media has claimed that the US will stop arming the YPG but I spoke to the US-led coalition and noted on January 29 that actually the coalition has always said they work with the SDF and not the YPG separately.

I wrote at The National Interest  on February 1, “The thousands of Syrian rebels Turkey has recruited to fight alongside the operation are now being co-opted into a Turkish agenda that is mostly aimed at removing what Ankara views as a terrorist threat from its border. In addition the offensive is aimed at forcing the United States to choose sides between the YPG, which has been its partner against Islamic State for years, and Ankara, which has been a Washington ally since the 1950s.”

I interviewed Major General James Jarrard, the Special Operations Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve commander. SOJTF-OIR about current developments in Iraq, Syria and issues involving Turkey on February 3.

On February 7 I wrote at The Spectator “Afrin, one of the few areas of Syria to know relative peace since 2011, has now been plunged into conflict in the last weeks. It is paying the price of the rivalry between the US, Turkey, Russia and Syria.”

On February 8th I examined how the Assad regime has been using the Afrin conflict to make its own gains in Idlib. “The same day that Turkey and the rebels attacked Afrin, Syria attacked the rebels and took Abu al-Duhur military airport in Afrin. Led by Assad regime Brig.-Gen. Suheil al-Hassan, elite units as well as local armed tribes pushed the rebels back, according to a local source. The regime then conquered several hundred square kilometer of countryside.”

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