26 February 2018Feature
For years now, headlines about war-torn Syria have flooded our newspapers and television screens for various reasons — chemical attacks, the civil war, IS and other terrorist organisations. But most significantly, Syria has become a battle ground for nations to indirectly fight each other and assert their dominance. However, the Syrian Government may have just dealt a game-changing hand.
Turkey invaded Syria’s northwestern Afrin region in a military campaign – codenamed Operation Olive Branch – against the Kurdish YPG a little over a month ago. The Kurds, who are, or at least were, in rebellion against the Assad regime asked for assistance from the Syrian Government to fend off the Turkish military, however it was doubted by analysts, experts and commentators alike that the call would be answered. Well, it looks like everyone was wrong.
Pro-Syrian Government forces – not the Syrian military itself – clashed with Turkish armed forces on Tuesday and are now fighting side-by-side with the Kurds. This puts the complicated cherry on the complication cake because the Kurdish YPG are trained and armed by the United States, which have some 2000 personnel stationed in Kurdish-controlled Northern Syria. Furthermore, the US are vehemently opposed to the Assad regime.
The Kurdish YPG is a US-backed Syrian rebel militia which has been fighting predominantly IS militants, but have also had encounters with pro-Government forces. The Syrian Government and the Kurds do not like each other because the Assad regime does not recognise the YPG’s self-declared enclave, among other reasons. Turkey considers the YPG a security threat because of its association with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish-Kurdish rebel group which has been fighting with Turkey since the 1980s.
Turkey has recently demanded the US cease support for the YPG or risk confrontation. This is surprisingly aggressive of Turkey considering the two countries are NATO allies and the US-led coalition against IS relies on Turkish bases for operations in Syria. And as mentioned before, an alliance between Pro-Government forces and the YPG places the US in an awkward position because of its anti-Assad stance.
But it isn’t just the US that finds itself in a pickle; Russia too is in a sticky situation. Relations between Turkey and Russia have been strained since Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in 2016. They made up after Russia banned Turkish imports and flights to Turkey which cost the Turkish economy billions. However, this latest development could throw a spanner in the works. Just as the US may need to choose between the YPG and Turkey, Russia may need to choose between Syria and Turkey.
Depending on how close the Kurdish YPG and Pro-Government forces get or how far the Turkish military campaign expands into Syria, the US may need to give up its position in Northern Syria, or keep it by force. It is highly unlikely the the US would confront Turkey, so in the spirit of speculation, there are really two options: support the Turkish invasion or withdraw.
What’s more, this latest move by the Syrian Government could spark direct conflict between Turkey and Syria. Turkey is supporting various Syrian rebel groups in an attempt to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, but this could escalate the situation, which has implications of its own and will likely not please NATO.
In addition to that, the number of warring parties and campaigns in Syria is astounding. Regional countries which are actively engaging in efforts to remove President Assad include Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Israel is also anti-Assad and has conducted airstrikes on Syrian Government forces, but the country is somewhat of a lone-wolf in the conflict because of its lack of positive relationships in the region.
Regional countries that support the Syrian Government include Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon; the support these countries give varies from providing militia and arms to financial and humanitarian aid.
And then there is the plight of terrorism and the campaigns waged by the US-led coalition and Russia to defeat IS — it is remarkable this large scale, multi-nation war has not errupted. Although, it is has come close, and this latest development could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.