By Henry Steck, Stillman Exchange Finance
Last week the Turkish military claimed that it killed 260 Syrian Kurdish and Islamic State (Daesh) fighters in its most recent push into Kurdish-controlled Afrin, a region in northwest Syria which borders Turkey. The offensive is part of Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch”, designed to crush the YPG in the Afrin region. The US-backed SDF, or Syrian Democratic Forces, rejected the Turkish statement that Daesh fighters were present in the Afrin region. Recent offensives in Syria by Ankara have raised international concern.
Attacks by the Turkish military on Kurdish forces have resulted in calls from the UN, U.S., E.U. and Russia for Turkey to show restraint. Most recently, the German government voted against filling a Turkish request to request to modernize Leopard 2 tanks. Turkey purchased hundreds of the tanks from Germany in the 1990s, and they remain the most advanced vehicles in Ankara’s arsenal. Concern sparked in Germany after videos emerged of Turkish Leopard 2s taking part in anti-Kurd operations in Syria.
Kurdish forces such as the YPG, or Popular Protection Units, are widely regarded as some of the most effective in the fight against Daesh. They are the largest faction in the composition of the SDF and are the largest Kurdish military unit, with forces numbering over 50,000 soldiers. The YPG also has tanks and other heavy weaponry at its disposal. Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish-Kurdish rebel group that has been fighting for Kurdish Independence in Turkey since the 1980s. Ankara thus views YPG forces as terrorists, the same as Daesh. A ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK ended in 2015, and remarkable levels of violence have ensued since then. What started in 2016 as shelling has now become formal ground offensives. Civilian casualties have been considerable.
U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to raise concerns to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call on January 31st. The Turkish government is furious over the support which the United States, its NATO ally, has provided for the YPG. This issue has combined with many others to bring ties between the two nations close to a breaking point. Turkey’s military is the second largest in NATO. Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said it wanted to avoid any clash with the U.S., Russian or Syrian government forces during its offensive, but would do whatever necessary for the country’s security.
“The future of our relations depends on the step the United States will take next,” Cavusoglu said.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, January 30th print edition.
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