The Syrian civil war, raging without an end in sight for more than half a decade, took a grim new turn on Saturday when forces backed by Turkey stormed Afrin in northern Syria. The rationale for Turkey's offensive is self-defence. Afrin is under the de facto control of the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units, or YPG, whom Ankara accuses of being an extension of Kurdish militants operating inside Turkey's borders. The showdown in Afrin serves to shine a clarifying light on the depth of the confusion that characterises the conflict in Syria.
Turkey at first sought the removal of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, before making peace, at the behest of Russia, with the prospect of his continued presence in office. The YPG, on the other hand, gained a degree of legitimacy by focusing its fire principally on ISIL. Its successes against ISIL meant that Russia and the Syrian regime left it alone, while the US effectively treated it as an ally. As a result, the YPG was able to carve out a more orless autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Syria. Turkey was alarmed, but seems to have treated this as a temporary development, believing the YPG could be ignored as long as ISIL remained a potent threat. But once the threat from ISIL diminished, Ankara's anxieties multiplied. The US military's announcement last week that it would create a border force in Syria with Kurdish fighters compounded Turkey's agitation. On Tuesday, Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, warned Washington that such a force would "seriously threaten [US-Turkey] relations and we may enter an irreversible course". By Saturday, Turkey, a NATO member, was effectively at war with a partner of the United States, NATO's closest ally.
Intense clashes have been reported between Turkish forces and the YPG's fighters. For the moment, the US is not exposed to this battle because its personnel are not stationed in Afrin. But Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, has threatened to move next to Manbij, another Kurdish-held region on the western bank of the Euphrates where the US has deployed troops. Mr Ergodan, deploying anti-terror rhetoric, is attempting to settle old scores by opening a new front in Syria. But what he has initiated in Afrin could rapidly escalate into something much bigger – something beyond his control.
The Kurdish question cannot be settled with airstrikes, as Turkey’s own history with Kurdish separatism amply demonstrates. Violence, if anything, is likely to beget more violence. The Turkish people not deserve this, and the last thing Syria needs is more bloodshed. Afrin is a dangerous distraction from what ought to be the primary preoccupation of all parties with a stake in Syria: a stable country with a responsible government.
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