Whitney Webb @_whitneywebb
ALEPPO, SYRIA — With military forces from the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Russia gathering around Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, the last major military offensive of Syria’s seven-year-long war may only be weeks away. As the noose tightens around Idlib, the last hold-out for majority of terrorist fighters still active in Syria, the Syrian army seems to have secured the help of a new military ally: the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Turkish media reported on Sunday that 1,300 YPG fighters have been transferred to Aleppo over the course of the past two weeks to take part in the upcoming Syrian military offensive against the rebel-controlled Idlib province. According to those reports, the last of the YPG convoys arrived in Aleppo from Manbij on Saturday.
The Turkish newspaper The Daily Sabah, citing a report from the Turkish state-funded outlet Anadolu News Agency, stated that the YPG’s participation in the upcoming offensive would mark the first time that YPG forces have allied with the Syrian Arab Army on the battlefield since the conflict began. The report also asserted that the YPG “plans to strengthen good relations with the regime and Russia by supporting the [Syrian] regime’s attacks on the opposition.” However, it is worth noting that the YPG expressed interest in battling terror groups within Idlib long before its new alliance with the Syrian government emerged.
News of a YPG-SAA military alliance may come as a surprise as the YPG and related Kurdish groups in Northern Syria chose to ally themselves with the United States early on in the conflict. Indeed, the YPG have long formed the backbone of the U.S. proxy force in occupied northeastern Syria known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in hopes of using the U.S.’ desire to partition Syria to transform that territory into an independent Kurdish-dominated state, long a goal of some elements within Syria’s Kurdish community.
The YPG’s collaboration with the U.S. and its international coalition in Syria has been used by the latter as a common justification for its illegal occupation of around 30% of Syrian territory, claiming that U.S. ground troops in the area were only present in the area to aid the YPG in fighting the terror group Daesh. Thus, this alliance has largely facilitated the U.S. coalition’s occupation of a considerable amount of Syrian territory, a territory that accounts for the majority of Syrian oil, gas, freshwater and agricultural resources.
However, the U.S. has increasingly abandoned its protection of the Kurds, having allowed Turkey, which regards the YPG as a terrorist group, to attack YPG-held territory earlier this year, resulting in the YPG’s loss of Afrin and the surrounding area to the Turks. Adding insult to injury, since June, the U.S. military presence in the area has been involved in joint patrols with the Turkish military near Manbij as part of a deal that Turkish media reports have claimed is “aimed at purging the area of the YPG/PKK presence.”
Given that the U.S. military has long justified its presence in the area by claiming to support the YPG’s and SDF’s offensives against Daesh (ISIS), the U.S.’ increasing cooperation with Turkey has forced the Kurds to take a long hard look at their alliance with American forces.
Unsurprisingly, over the past few months, the Syrian Kurds have been distancing themselves from the U.S. military presence in Syria and steadily increasing coordination with the Syrian government, a direct consequence of the U.S.’ apparent embrace of Turkish military operations in Syria and increased local resistance to the U.S. occupation.
Indeed, in June, over 70 tribes — whose territory is either partially or entirely under occupation by the United States and the YPG-dominated SDF — expressed their commitment to rejoining the Syrian state, re-establishing Syrian territorial integrity, and creating a joint military force with the SAA that would seek to expel foreign troops and militants from Syria. Facing increased local resistance, along with the apparent duplicity of their American allies, the Kurds have increasingly turned to the Syrian government.
First, in July, a military alliance began to take shape as the YPG and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) reached a preliminary agreement that led to increased SAA influence in areas under YPG control in the al-Hasakah region. Per the agreement, the YPG also allowed the SAA to reopen recruitment offices throughout the region. Since then, the YPG has agreed to hand over several of Syria’s most lucrative oilfields — a devastating strategic loss to the United States. And it further reportedly agreed to form a joint “police force” with the Syrian Army to protect Manbij from a potential Turkish invasion, given that the Turkish government has suggested that a military operation to take Manbij continues to be on the table.
Now, the YPG-SAA alliance has only deepened ahead of the Idlib offensive, as confirmed by reports of YPG deployments to Aleppo in preparation for the upcoming military operation alongside the Syrian Arab Army. The YPG’s participation in the upcoming Idlib offensive on the side of the Syrian government would essentially cement its realignment in the Syrian conflict, greatly weakening the U.S.’ justification as well as its motivation for its continued military presence in Syria, while also potentially provoking an increasingly unpredictable and reactionary Turkey.
Turkey’s motives and choices
Just one day after news of the YPG’s participation in the Idlib offensive was reported, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkey was in “the last stage of preparations for increasing the number of regions in Syria, where we have provided stability through ‘the Euphrates Shield’ and ‘the Olive Branch’ operations. With God’s help, we will liberate new territories in the near future and bring security there.”
Though it is unknown exactly what the targets of this upcoming military operation will be, past Turkish military operations have largely targeted Kurdish militants, making it likely that either parts of Idlib or Kurdish-controlled areas elsewhere, like Manbij, will soon be targeted by the Turkish military.
Indeed, Erdogan had mentioned both areas as the sites of future Turkish military operations earlier this year. In January, Erdogan stated that Turkey would soon control Idlib, ostensibly to clear out terrorist groups in order to allow Syrian refugees living in Turkey to return to Syria. However, Turkey has consistently supported rebel groups within Idlib, such as the Free Syrian Army and even Daesh itself, making it almost certain that any Turkish effort to “clear out” terrorists would only target select groups that Ankara dislikes and allow the other terrorist groups of which it approves to proliferate.
Since Erdoğan first mentioned the plan to take Idlib, Turkey has set up several “military observation posts” surrounding Idlib, which were agreed under the Astana deal with Russia and Iran to create “deconfliction” zones in Syria. These Turkish military outposts have given Turkey territorial control over parts of Idlib and a role of one kind or another in the upcoming offensive. It seems likely that Turkey will only seek to expand its influence in the region and not sit idly by during the upcoming Syrian government offensive — particularly if the Syrian military is joined by the YPG, which Turkey wishes to see eliminated.
However, it is unlikely that Turkish troops would attack the YPG troops active in the Idlib offensive directly, particularly if they are embedded with Syrian or Russian troops. Indeed, given Turkey’s crumbling relations with the U.S. and the associated economic ills that have accompanied that for Ankara, Turkey is reconsidering its alliance with the United States, not just in Syria but entirely — making it unlikely that Turkey would seek to make enemies of the Syrian government, or Syria’s powerful allies like Russia, in order to target a little over a thousand YPG soldiers.
A tangle of contingencies
Yet, Erdoğan has also spoken of wresting Manbij from Kurdish control, stating in March that Turkey would attack Manbij unless Kurdish forces immediately and unconditionally withdraw. Given that the Syrian government and its allies — along with over a thousand YPG soldiers — will be focused on the Idlib offensive, the opportunity may arise for Erdoğan to make good on his promise to target the Kurdish-held city and the surrounding area. If so, the U.S. is unlikely to defend the Kurds at this point, especially in light of the fact that the YPG has given Syria control over its most lucrative oil fields and is increasingly abandoning the U.S. alliance.
However, the joint “police force” combining YPG and SAA fighters could deter Turkey from taking Manbij. If that proves to be true, Turkey may set its sights elsewhere in Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria, given that Erdoğan has also stated a plan to invade Kurdish-held territory as far as Qamishli, the most easterly Syrian town held by the YPG before the Iraq border.
Though Turkey is unlikely to occupy permanently any territory it controls, the more territory it controls the greater its ability to bargain with the Syrian government once the conflict has ended. This would potentially give Turkey the opportunity to push for concessions regarding the Kurdish territories and a severe reduction in the autonomy the Kurds in Syria are seeking.
Ultimately, the upcoming offensive on Idlib and Turkey’s reaction to the YPG’s role in that fight will force Turkey to reassess its alliances in the Syrian conflict — given that Turkey, ironically like the Kurds, is now second guessing its alliance with the United States. Yet, Turkey — with or without the United States — may seek to continue acting as a maverick within Syria, remaining one of the conflict’s most potent and troubling wild cards.