What’s at stake in Turkey’s new escalation against Syria

After weeks of deadly Turkish air strikes in northern Syria, Kurdish forces and international players are trying to gauge whether Ankara’s threats of a ground invasion are serious.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly warned of a new land incursion to drive Kurdish groups away from the Turkish-Syrian border, following a deadly Nov. 13 bombing in Istanbul. Turkish authorities blamed the attack on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and on the Syria-based People’s Protection Units, or YPG. Both have denied involvement.

On Nov. 20, Ankara launched a barrage of air strikes, killing dozens, including civilians as well as Kurdish fighters and Syrian government troops. Human Rights Watch has warned that the strikes are exacerbating a humanitarian crisis by disrupting power, fuel and aid.

In the most recent development, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin flew to Turkey this week for talks on the situation in Syria.

Here’s a look at what various foreign powers and groups embroiled in the Syria conflict stand to gain or lose:

What Turkey wants

Turkey sees the Kurdish forces along its border with Syria as a threat and has launched three major military incursions since 2016, taking control of large swaths of territory.

Erdogan hopes to relocate many of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to northern Syria and has begun building housing units there. The plan could address growing anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey and bolster Erdogan’s support ahead of next year’s elections, while diluting historically Kurdish-majority areas by resettling non-Kurdish Syrian refugees there.

Erdogan has also touted plans to create a 30-kilometer (19-mile) security corridor in areas currently under Kurdish control. A planned Turkish invasion earlier this year was halted amid opposition by the U.S. and Russia.

The Kurdish response

Kurdish groups are pressing the U.S. and Russia, both of which have military posts in northern Syria, to once again prevent Turkey from carrying out its threats.

The Kurds are worried that West will stand aside this time to appease Ankara in exchange for approval of Sweden and Finland joining NATO.

“This silence toward Turkey’s brutality will encourage Turkey to carry out a ground operation,” said Badran Jia Kurd, deputy co-chair of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Kurdish groups, which fought against the Islamic State group alongside a U.S.-led coalition and now guard thousands of captured IS fighters and family members, warn that a Turkish escalation would threaten efforts to stamp out the extremist group.

In recent weeks, officials from the U.S. and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said they had stopped or scaled back joint patrols against IS because of the air strikes, although patrols have since resumed.

The role of the Syrian insurgents

The so-called Syrian National Army, a coalition of Turkey-backed Syrian opposition groups with tens of thousands of fighters, would likely provide foot soldiers for any future ground offensive. In previous incursions, including the 2018 offensive on the town of Afrin, the SNA was accused of committing atrocities against Kurds and displacing tens of thousands from their homes.

Several officials from the SNA did not respond to calls and text messages by the Associated Press. One official who answered said they were ordered by Turkish authorities not to speak about plans for a new incursion.

The Syrian government's stance?

The Syrian government has opposed past Turkish incursions but also sees the SDF as a secessionist force and a Trojan horse for the U.S., which has imposed paralyzing sanctions on the government of Bashar Assad.

Damascus and Ankara have recently been moving to improve relations after 11 years of tension triggered by Turkey’s backing of opposition fighters in Syria’s civil war. Damascus has kept relatively quiet about the killing of Syrian soldiers in the recent Turkish strikes.

Will the United States get involved?

The United States maintains a small military presence in northern Syria, where its strong backing of the SDF has infuriated Turkey.

However, the U.S. at first said little publicly about the Turkish air strikes, speaking more forcefully only after they hit dangerously close to U.S. troops and led to anti-IS patrols being temporarily halted. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last week voiced “strong opposition” to a new offensive.

Asked if the U.S. had any assurances for Kurds worried that the U.S. might abandon them to coax a NATO deal out of Turkey, a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said only that there had been no changes to U.S. policy in the region.

Will Russia broker a deal?

Russia is the Syrian government’s closest ally. Its involvement in Syria’s conflict helped turn the tide in favor of Assad.

Although Turkey and Russia support rival sides in the conflict, the two have co-ordinated closely in Syria’s north. In recent months, Russia has pushed for a reconciliation between Damascus and Ankara.

Moscow has voiced concerns over Turkey’s recent military actions in northern Syria and has attempted to broker a deal. According to Lebanon-based Pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen TV, the chief of Russian forces in Syria, Lt. Gen. Alexander Chaiko, recently suggested to SDF commander Mazloum Abdi that Syrian government forces should deploy in a security strip along the border with Turkey to avoid a Turkish incursion.

By Bassem Mroue and Suzan Fraser

The Globe and Mail

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