Turkey is preparing for a street-by-street fight to capture the most important Kurdish-held town in northern Syria, and if victorious, won’t transfer control to the Syrian government, according to a senior official.
“We have no intention to hand Afrin over to the regime,” Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told state-run TRT television on Thursday. The entire Afrin enclave, now largely under Turkish forces, should be run by its local population, he said.
The Turkish campaign to expel U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters from the border area is reaching a crucial juncture almost two months after it began, with the likelihood of greater Turkish casualties as fighting enters urban areas. It also slows down the fight against Islamic State as some senior leaders of Kurdish forces have moved from the battle in the south to Afrin, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the director of the Joint Staff, said Thursday. “That has had an effect on our ability to finish off ISIS in the lower Euphrates River Valley,” the general said.
Turkish authorities view the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia as an extension of the PKK separatists they have fought in eastern Turkey for decades. Erdogan vowed on Thursday that the army won’t leave Afrin “before the job is done,” and has signaled he wants to broaden the offensive into northeastern Syria, and then target PKK bases in Iraq, to quash Kurdish aspirations for self rule.
Afrin is thought to have been heavily fortified with concrete tunnels and explosives, and while many civilians have fled, tens of thousands could be caught in a prolonged battle. The YPG will defend the town with all it has, said Elizabeth Teoman, who specializes in Syria and Turkey at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
“The loss of Afrin city would hurt the YPG’s legitimacy in defending ethnically Kurdish areas in northern Syria and ultimately undermine” its statehood ambitions, she said by email. “Erdogan will exploit operational success against the YPG in Syria to conduct follow-on operations against the PKK in Iraq.”
The YPG on Wednesday pledged to fight Turkish soldiers and their Syrian Arab and Turkmen allies, accusing the Turkish government of sending refugees from Turkish camps into Afrin in order to change the region’s demographic, the pro-Kurdish Firat news agency reported. It condemned the international community for not speaking out. Turkey says many of those returning are Kurds who fled Afrin.
Propelled by powerful allies, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has managed to reassert control over a large part of his country after seven years of war. But the intervention by Turkey, which for much of the conflict has backed anti-Assad groups, shows how the conflict is entering a dangerous new phase amid spiraling tensions between outside powers including Russia, the U.S., Iran and Israel.
Armed groups loyal to Assad last month moved to join the Kurdish defense of Afrin but stayed outside the town after Turkish forces fired artillery in a warning not to advance further, state-run Turkish media reported.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, has flagged what his country wants to achieve. This month he disclosed a planned joint operation with Iraqi forces against PKK bases there, and an agreement with the U.S. for Kurdish fighters to withdraw from the northeastern Syrian town of Manbij, followed by a combined American-Turkish security operation. However, the U.S. said no agreement has been reached yet on Manbij. “We’re not done talking with them,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday.
Addressing Turkish lawmakers Thursday, Iraq’s parliament speaker said officials in Baghdad are “totally against the presence of terrorist organizations like PKK that could harm Turkey,” according to state-run Anadolu. “We will overcome this issue in full cooperation with Turkey.” Kalin said Turkey expected the Manbij understanding to survive the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Turkey has so far lost 40 soldiers in its drive to encircle Afrin. Erdogan, who is enjoying strong domestic support over the incursion, plans to deploy special forces experienced in fighting the PKK in urban areas to minimize casualties.
The civilian toll has been greater. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 215 non-combatants, including 32 children, have been killed by Turkish shelling and airstrikes since Jan. 20. Shortages of water, bread and electricity are worsening. Turkey says it has left a safe corridor along which civilians can flee but they are being stopped by the YPG.
For Turkey, the coming fight will be extremely difficult, said Paul Salem, senior vice president at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “For the Kurds, it’s already clear Afrin will never be united” with their eastern territories, he said.