The Syrian government and Kurdish rebel forces in northern Syria are working on an agreement on the deployment of Syrian Army troops to Afrin to counter the Turkish offensive in the region, Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) reported today. The report added that the agreement increases the chance of a “direct confrontation” between the Syrian and Turkish military forces in the war-torn country. Quoting an unnamed Syrian government official in Damascus, Tasnim said that “serious talks” are currently underway between Damascus and Kurdish groups in Afrin, and the two sides are expected to announce the result of their discussions in the next few days. According to the Syrian official, Damascus is insisting that it will send troops to Afrin only if the Kurdish rebels agree to raise the Syrian flag in the area. Some Kurdish rebel leaders reportedly oppose the entry of the Syrian Army into Afrin, and Damascus is seeking “assurances” about the safety of its troops from all Kurdish units stationed in the region.
Comment: The Syrian war theatre is only getting more crowded and complicated. Although the intra-Syrian conflict is relatively receding, tension between regional and international players trying to vie for influence and shape post-ISIS Syria is escalating at an alarming pace.
Last month, Turkey launched a military offensive dubbed “Olive Branch” into northern Syria to expel the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish force that controls large swathes of northern Syria, including Afrin. Thousands of Syrian rebel forces backed by Turkey are also participating in the Afrin operation. The US military supports the YPG, which has been instrumental in the defeat of ISIS in Syria. However, the Turkish government sees the Kurdish group as an extension of outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a threat to its national security.
The Turkish offensive has further strained ties between Turkey and several regional and international powers involved in the Syrian war. Russia has allowed Turkey to conduct the operation but has called for restraint. The United States has also expressed its displeasure with the Turkish operation, arguing that it undermines the fight against terrorism in the region. Ankara has also threatened that, after capturing Afrin, the Turkish military and its Syrian allies will expand the operation into Manbij, a border town east of Afrin where the US military has a presence. That will further heighten tension between Washington and Ankara, two NATO allies.
Iran has called on Turkey to end the operation soon and respect Syria’s sovereignty, but it has refrained from strongly condemning the Turkish action. A senior advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said that Iran does not oppose the Turkish operation publicly, but tries to stab Turkey in the back.
Both Damascus and Tehran are trying to exploit the Turkish operation to mend ties with the Kurdish forces and expand Damascus’ writ in the north. The Assad government is already helping the Kurds against Turkey by allowing Kurdish fighters a safe passage through areas it controls. On Wednesday, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mikdad urged all Kurds and Arabs in Afrin to unite against the Turkish offensive. “Afrin is an integral party of the Syrian Arab Republic,” he stressed.
Although Iran and Turkey have recently taken steps to reconcile some of their differences and strengthen bilateral ties, a deep level of mutual distrust and divergent regional interests continue to mar relations between the two non-Arab Middle Eastern powers. Ankara and Tehran will continue to compete for power and influence in Syria and Iraq as the weakening of the ISIS has created a power vacuum in the region. Turkey is also positioning itself as the protector of the Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq as well as the broader region, while Iran is expanding its arc of influence through the region's Shiite communities.