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Turkey in Syria: Why a muted international response?

Deger Akal
January 23, 2018

The US and Russian response to Turkey's military offensive in northern Syria has been understated. The International Crisis Group's Joost Hiltermann explains to DW why the global powers have refrained from speaking out.

Turkey offensive in northern Syria
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

DW: Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to crush fighters from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin. Do you think that the Turkish president can achieve his military and political goals?

Joost Hiltermann: I am not sure what Turkey's military goals are, whether they extend to the entire districts of Afrin, or only the border zone between Turkey and Syria. There are some indications that Turkey might soon say that its objectives have been accomplished. On the other hand, we also heard that the Turkish side considers the Afrin move as just one step in an effort to secure its border along the length of the Syrian-Turkish border, which means east of the Euphrates. At this point it is very hard to predict.

USA New York - Dr. Joost Hiltermann Presents The Fifth Annual Blouin Creative Leadership Summit
Hiltermann: Turkey's intentions are hard to predictImage: Getty Images/The Louise Blou/T. Robinson

Turkey's Western partners — the United States and its European allies — raised concerns over Turkey's military offensive, but their calls stopped short of demanding an immediate end to it. The UN Security Council also adopted a moderate tone, refraining from condemning the offensive or calling for its end. What accounts for the muted response?

Western partners, and even Russia, say that Turkey has a right to protect its border. What they are looking at is how limited or extensive the military operation is. Is it really to secure the border, or is it an attempt to eradicate the YPG in all of Afrin? If the latter turns out to be the case, then maybe the stance may change. The US has worked with the YPG in its effort to defeat the "Islamic State" (IS). But there is no Islamic State in Afrin, the issue is really in eastern Syria, especially close to Iraqi border. For the US, Afrin is not a strategic priority. Whatever Turkey does to the YPG there doesn't directly affect American ally the YPG in other parts of northern Syria. The US is essentially letting it happen for now … The same is true for Russia, but maybe for different reasons. Because it could be an implicit deal, I don't say that it is negotiated, but there could be an implicit deal where the regime with Russia and Iran would be able to make headway in taking Idlib at some point from rebels, in exchange for allowing Turkey to secure its border in the North.  I have not seen evidence for that, but we should certainly be looking at this as a possible future scenario.

YPG fighters in Syria
The US has backed the YPG in its fight against the 'Islamic State'Image: Getty images/A. Sik

In the past, the YPG also cooperated with Russia. Now the group's leaders are accusing the Russians of betraying Kurds by giving Turkey the green light for the recent military operation.

It is a leitmotif for Kurdish parties and Kurds to be betrayed and then to cry betrayal. Because until they will get their state on their own, they are always going to be a minority in a hostile region. They are used and then they are dropped. This is what has happened historically. Of course the Kurds, in turn, tried to use and manipulate external powers to advance their own agenda and they have made remarkable progress. Until five years ago, the Kurds in Syria had no control over their own territory. Now they do. Until 1991, the Kurds in Iraq had no control over their territory. Now they have got a region there with great progress. Of course this is being reversed by the ill-conceived referendum that President [Masoud] Barzani organized in September. But all the same this is remarkable progress and there are going to be setbacks in this effort to reach greater autonomy.

The US views the YPG and its political counterpart,  the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as allies in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkish leaders accuse their NATO ally of providing support to a terrorist organization. Do you think this military operation will increase tension between the US and Turkey with regard to Syria?

USA New York Trump meets Erdogan
Could Turkey's incursion into Syria fuel tension with the US?Image: picture-alliance/AP/E. Vucci

Now that the fight against the Islamic State is pretty much over, the US has the opportunity to mend fences with Turkey. But the US has also committed itself to protecting the Kurdish areas from regime attacks, and this can only be done through the support of the YPG. So this clearly is extending the enmity that exist between the US and Turkey on this issue. So there is a great risk that relations will continue to fray. I would like to think that this can be managed over time. The US has largely succeeded in the effort defeating Islamic State, so it should carefully think about its strategic relationships in the region.

Russia seems to benefit from growing tensions between the US and Turkey. What could be the Kremlin's next policy steps?

That's a given. Russia obviously wants to divide NATO, and all Western institutions, from within. Whether it will succeed is another question. Russia also wants to keep a lever against Turkey by its nominal support of the YPG/PYD. The PYD was allowed to open an office in Moscow some years ago. And Russia has met with the PYD and YPG in Syria as well. It clearly wants to have that card in its hand. And it has stated that the Kurds, as part of any political process and drafting of a constitution, should have some self-rule in the North, which cannot be very popular in Turkey. But that's the way they are playing it. But you have to be very careful because they are also not taking steps to improve their relationship with Turkey.

Joost Hiltermann is program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.