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How Will Turkey's Afrin Assault Complicate Syria's War?

Turkey's assault against Kurdish forces in the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin has further complicated the bloody and complex war raging in Syria since 2011. 

Syrian rebels, backed by Ankara, are fighting the powerful Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), as preparations get under way for competing sets of peace talks in Vienna and Russia.

How might the Afrin assault affect the broader conflict? What's in store for pro-Turkey rebel groups? And what about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, or the Islamic State group?

Analysts try to untangle the web of competing interests. 

- Can Turkey secure its interests? -Situated in Syria's north, Afrin is a small Kurdish-controlled district with unfriendly neighbours: Turkey to the north and west, and rebels to the south and east.

For Ankara, the priority is clearing the YPG -- which has received widespread US backing to fight IS -- from the border. 

But, if successful, the operation will also help Turkey consolidate its sphere of influence in an opposition-held enclave of northwest Syria.

In the "extreme" scenario that Turkey and rebels overrun the whole Afrin district, they could link up rebel-controlled territory across northern Syria, said Century Foundation analyst Aron Lund.

It would be "an area that could remain outside Assad control, supported by foreign money and foreign protection -- something that could survive regardless of what happens to the rest of the country", Lund pointed out. 

That would leave rebels with a patch of territory administered much like their Kurdish rivals now run parts of northeast Syria.

But Ankara is at the same time exploring diplomatic avenues at securing its interests.

"The US is negotiating a big deal with Turkey," according to Charles Lister, an expert at the Middle East Institute.

The Kurds would keep their swathes of territory in northeast Syria "in exchange for some form of American support, maybe just diplomatic support... for the establishment of a similar zone in northwestern Syria under opposition control".

"This would be Turkey's way of securing at least a significant portion of its border under non-YPG control -- basically, this would be America and Turkey splitting the Turkish-Syrian border between themselves."

- Could the regime benefit? - With Turkish forces bearing down on them, the YPG could be pushed into a Russian-brokered deal with the regime.

Syria's government withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas in 2012, paving the way for the Kurds to establish semi-autonomous rule. 

But Assad, it seems, wants Afrin back.

Kurdish officials told AFP that Moscow had offered them protection against Turkey if they handed Afrin over to government forces.

When Kurdish forces refused, Russia withdrew troops it had stationed in Afrin and lifted its air cover. 

A last-minute settlement was still possible, said Lund. 

"If Assad and Russia were to strike a deal with the Kurds, it would be, 'We send out our troops and this part of Afrin will get our protection, at the cost of your independence,'" said Lund.

Thanks to Moscow's 2015 intervention, the regime has retaken more than half of the country. 

- What about IS? -With US backing, the YPG and the broader Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have captured swathes of territory from IS, including the grand prize of Raqa, the jihadists' de facto Syrian capital. 

So when the Turkish offensive on Afrin began, the YPG was quick to describe it as "clear support" for IS and to accuse Turkey of wanting to give jihadists breathing space by diverting attention and resources to Afrin.

IS holds less than five percent of Syrian territory and has already started reverting to guerrilla tactics against its foes.

"IS is looking to wage an insurgency against the United States and its local partners in Syria," said Nick Heras, a fellow at the Center for New American Security.

"A distracted YPG because of Turkey's actions in Afrin is a real opportunity for IS to strike against a weakened SDF in eastern Syria."

- Will peace talks suffer? - Turkey launched its offensive just days before new rounds of competing diplomatic talks aimed at ending the nearly seven-year war.

In Vienna, Syrian government and opposition figures were gathering Thursday to launch two-day talks backed by the United Nations.

And in Sochi on January 30, Russia, fellow regime backer Iran and Turkey will host the "Syrian National Dialogue Congress." 

Moscow-driven talks have largely eclipsed the UN-backed process, and in Syria's complex war, a Turkish victory in Afrin could benefit Russia's diplomatic efforts. 

"A Turkey that is feeling less threatened by the Kurds might also be willing to cut more diplomatic deals down the line that returns Assad's authority to northwestern Syria," said Heras.

"Events as they are playing out now around Afrin serve Russian, Iranian and Turkish interests, which is a big boost for the Sochi process."

Source: Agence France Presse


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