As the Turkish offensive in Afrin stretches into its second month, the Kurds are disappointed at the lack of Western response.
Since the offensive began in January, villages in Afrin have been shelled and others hit by air strikes. This has led the Assad regime to send its own militia into the province, and to fears that jihadist groups empowered by the battle might exploit it for their own ends.
In January, Turkey began a major military operation directed at attacking what it says are terrorist members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin in northwest Syria. Ankara claims that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is aligned with the YPG and that Afrin was used as a base of operations for attacks in Turkey. The YPG and local Kurds dispute that and argue their region was one of peace and quiet amid the ongoing Syrian civil war.
On Friday, Human Rights Watch said that Turkish forces “appear to have failed to take necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties in three attacks in northwest Syria in late January 2018.”
In addition, Kurds have put videos online alleging to show Syrian rebel groups that are allied with Turkey shooting civilians. More than 10,000 Syrian rebels have joined the Turkish offensive, and
A senior Kurdish leader knowledgeable of the situation, who asked not to be named, sent The Jerusalem Post responses to a series of questions that characterize the current issues facing the YPG in Afrin. Before the offensive the YPG hoped that both the US and Russia might act to restrain Turkey. The YPG has been in contact with Russia over the years.
However, Russia has grown closer to Turkey since 2017 and has worked with Turkey at peace conferences in Astana and Sochi. The YPG now thinks that Russia will not be willing to restraint Turkey’s offensive. In eastern Syria the YPG has been a partner with the US-led coalition via the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is an umbrella of anti-ISIS groups. The US told the Kurds that their security obligation ends west of Manbij, so the YPG forces in Afrin knew they were on their own. However, they expected the US would do more to “de-escalate” Turkey’s offensive. So far that has not happened.
Western powers have also been mostly silent on the conflict in Afrin.
The Syrian Kurds are disappointed by the silence of the West toward Turkish attacks, the source says. “They can pressure Turkey but they for some reasons are reluctant.” Kurds have held protests in Europe against the Turkish offensive.
In mid-February, rumors emerged of a deal between the YPG and the Assad regime in which Syrian forces would enter Afrin and reassert their sovereignty there. Since 2012, the regime has mostly been absent from the province. “The Syrian regime is already in Afrin to protect the borders,” the Kurdish leadership source says.
The Kurds are also concerned about a recent merger of jihadist groups in northern Syria. This includes Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din Zinki, which merged on Monday to form Jabhat Tahrir Suriya. “It is an attempt initiated by Turkey, because Turkey wants to use them against the Kurds,” the source says.
The merger came about the same time that pro-regime militias began entering Afrin. These are militias that are aligned not only with Damascus but have also been connected to Iran in its support of the Syrian regime. “I don’t believe Iran can do anything regarding Turkish aggression, because both of them try to destroy Kurdish gains,” the Kurdish source says.
The comments present a complex situation now in Afrin in which the Kurds are caught between the Turkish operation, rebel groups that they fear, and the Syrian regime and Iran.
Abandoned by the West, the US and Russia, the Kurds are seeking accommodation with whoever will help them. This looks likely to mean they will surrender the autonomy they had carved out over the last years. Whether that means the Syrian regime will finally assert itself in Afrin is unclear, because without Russian air power it cannot ward off further Turkish gains.