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Will Assad move to 'save' Kurds from Afrin offensive?

Wesley Dockery
January 23, 2018

The Turkish offensive on Kurdish militias in the Syrian border city Afrin has raised the question of how the Assad regime will react. Will Damascus intervene to protect the city's Kurds from the Turkish operation?

Türkei Grenze Syrien Artilleriebeschuß Operation Olivenzweig
Image: Getty Images/AFP/B. Kilic

On January 20, the Turkish military began Operation Olive Branch, an intervention into the Afrin region of Syria, located near the Turkish border. The goal is to clear out the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the US-backed People's Protection Units (YPG). The Turkish government considers them to be terrorist organizations and does not want to allow them to gain a foothold in an area near Turkish territory.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad condemned the offensive, saying it was part of Ankara's support for extremist rebel groups.

"The brutal Turkish aggression on the Syrian town of Afrin cannot be separated from the Turkish regime's policy from the first day of Syria's crisis, which was essentially built on supporting terrorism and terrorist organizations," he told the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).

Sovereignty vs. safety 

Haid Haid, a research fellow at The International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) at King's College London, told DW that the Kurds and the Assad government have two separate goals in mind. "The regime has made it clear that the Kurds will not have their own self rule inside Syria and the Kurds also said that they will not allow Assad to extend authority over their territory in Syria," he said. "Tension between the two groups has escalated a few times due to some incidents on the ground such as when both groups were racing to capture areas from 'IS' in the city of Deir al-Zor," he continued.

Karte Syrien Afrin Türkei DEU
Afrin is located in Kurdish-controlled Syrian territory, very close to the Turkish border

Prior to the launch of the Afrin offensive, Syrian Kurdish representatives met with Russian representatives at the Hmeimim Air Base in western Syria. The Russians are the mediators between the Assad government and the Kurds. The Russians told the Kurdish representatives that in case of a Turkish offensive in Afrin, the Syrian government could offer protection if they hand over authority to Assad. But the Kurds rejected the deal, as they didn't want the Syrian government to take over the city.     

Salah Alamadari, a Kurdish political analyst in Germany, told DW that "the Syrian regime has learned to always try to play on the contradictions" of the conflict. He believes that Russia and the Syrian government, in a game of political theater, struck a secret deal with Turkey to greenlight the Afrin offensive.  Assad would allow the Turkish offensive to take place in Afrin in exchange for Turkey allowing Syrian government troops to advance near the areas of Turkish influence in the Syria city of Idlib. The offensive would also not have been allowed to be carried out without Russian approval, as Russia controls the airspace above Afrin.

Future of the conflict

As to the future of the Syrian conflict, Haid said it is likely that the Assad regime could take advantage of the military attack on Afrin to advance against other Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria such as Deir el-Zor.

But he added that Assad would be well advised to leave his hands off it, since the fighting between the Kurds and the Turks will weaken the Kurds over the long term. "Having a weak enemy would be better than having a strong enemy and that will be the outcome of this attack on the Kurds," Haid said.

Khattar Abou Diab, a French-Lebanese political scientist, told DW that while Turks may believe the intervention in Afrin will be swift, he thinks the opposite will be the case. "I think the Turkish claim that the military operation will be quick is incorrect and that fighting there will continue for a long time, even if Turkey takes control there, as keeping these areas is not easy."