In the run up to Syria peace talks set to begin in late January 2016, Michael Stephens from the Royal United Services Institute insisted that the YPG/J defence militias of Rojava had both “Russian political backing and American political backing”. Turkey knew this, and thus sought to do all it could to undermine Rojava’s role in bringing the Syrian Civil War to an end.
Turkey steps up its anti-Rojava aggression on 19 January
On 19 January, Turkish forces began to remove mines planted by Daesh near Jarabulus on the Syrian border just one day after an Ankara-backed rebel group had told civilians to leave, declaring the area a “military zone”. Sources also reported that Turkish troops had entered Syrian territory through the Jarablus border crossing, with a thousand soldiers being deployed on Syrian land close to the border.
Simultaneously, Turkey launched one of its heaviest attacks on Rojava since 24 October 2015 around Girê Spî (Tal Abyad). While the Turkish army had attacked numerous positions in Rojava since October, several artillery shells now hit the YPG/J headquarters in the city. YPG spokesman Habun Osman said that, since June 2015, Turkey had bombed the Kurdish headquarters 23 times.
If anything, these attacks encouraged the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to advance even more quickly on jihadi positions on the only stretch of the northern Syrian border not under the protection of the Rojavan administration. On 28 January, there was talk of a big plan to seal the Turkish border and cut of the jihadi supply line from Turkey.
SDF advances push Turkey into a massive defence of its jihadi allies
As the SDF advanced, Turkey was accused of providing cover for jihadis as they retreated towards the border. As US State Department Spokesman John Kirby said the USA didn’t recognise the PYD in Rojava as a terrorist organisation and Turkey summoned the US ambassador to protest these remarks, the SDF approached a strategic airbase controlled by al-Qaeda-linked Wahhabi forces.
Images of the advance seemed to show some sort of non-aggression pact between Damascus and the SDF during this advance – even though Assad’s forces had hit a YPG/J-controlled district in Aleppo with barrel bombs on January 27, leading the YPG/J to retaliate by bombing a pro-Assad security checkpoint two days later.
On 13 February, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu warned the SDF to withdraw from the border territory controlled by jihadis, saying:
We will retaliate against every step [made by the YPG and its allies]
This warning was accompanied by Turkish shelling of SDF positions. The villages of Maranaz and Mınıh, for example, had been liberated from Ahrar Al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra by SDF member Jaysh Al-Thuwar just two days before. But now Turkey targeted these civilian areas in what appeared to be retaliation for the loss of its jihadi allies. A YPG spokesman said:
The Turkish offensive against our forces in northern Syria is an apparent attempt by the government of Erdogan to support terrorist groups… Our message to the Turkish authorities is that we will continue our struggle until cleansing the region from those radical groups, and such strikes by the Turkish army won’t impede our progress
On 14 February, Press TV claimed 100 Turkish mercenaries had entered Syria with “a dozen pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns”. Moscow, meanwhile, said Turkey continued to assist terrorists crossing into Syria.
The YPG needs to stop its own actions on the ground… But we would also urge Turkey to… cease firing artillery across the border.
Toner insisted that SDF advances were somehow “counterproductive to the overall effort to defeat ISIL”.
Meanwhile, Syria’s UN envoy Bashar Ja’afari tried to take credit for SDF advances, saying on 16 February:
These Syrian Kurds supported by the American administration are also supported by the Syrian government, just for your kind information… The victory achieved in the northern part of Syria, both by the Syrian army and the Syrian Kurds, is a joint victory for all the Syrians.
This in spite of the fact that Assad was only prepared to offer a national referendum on whether to give Rojava permanent autonomy or not.
Is the Turkish regime about to take drastic steps?
Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan said on 17 February that Turkey wanted “a secure strip, including Azaz, 10km deep inside Syria and this zone should be free from clashes”. Davutoğlu, meanwhile, confirmed that the SDF would have liberated Azaz and Tal Rifaat from a coalition of Jabhat Al Nusra and the FSA if it had not been for Turkish shelling. Here, the prime minister effectively admitted that Turkey was protecting Al Qaeda.
Daren Butler at Reuters argued that the SDF advances in northern Syria, and the stubborn and ill-advised Turkish response, “may represent a masterstroke by Russia, which could benefit from any discord between NATO allies Turkey and the United States”.
While the Turkish regime sought to use the Ankara attack on 17 February to encourage the USA to get on board with its hostility towards the SDF, it seemed Washington did not take the bait. An international military conflict is unlikely, but the Turkish State is becoming more and more desperate and irrational. And the prospect of a Turkish invasion in Syria (backed by Saudi Arabia) is very much still on the cards.