Turkey Ground Forces Enter Syria’s Afrin District

On the 21st of January, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made a press release stating that the Turkish armed forces had crossed into the Syrian district of Afrin located in the Aleppo Governorate of northwestern Syria. At the time of writing, Turkish news agency Anadolu reported that the units included special forces, infantry and armoured vehicles which had advanced five kilometres into Syrian territory. Yildirim added that Turkey intended to create a 30 kilometre “safe zone” in Afrin. Thus far, six civilians have reportedly died in the conflict.

The deployment of Turkish ground troops in Syria comes in light of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s announcement the previous day, stating that military operations had commenced in the Afrin district. This announcement refers to the shelling which commenced in the early hours of the morning on the 19th of January and which continued into the same afternoon. This is proven by a Reuters video which shows Turkish Artillery in Sugedigi, a village close to the Turkish-Syrian border, shelling Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions on the Syrian side of the border. The Afrin district is controlled by the YPG, a Kurdish armed group controlling swathes of land throughout northern Syria. Reports that only terrorists have been targeted are in conflict with reports from inside Afrin, alleging that civilian areas have also been hit.

The previously mentioned “safe zone” refers to the idea of creating a zone extending from the Turkish- Syrian border to 30 kilometres inside the Afrin district which is free from YPG control. The government of Turkey designates the YPG as a terrorist organisation, citing the group’s putative ties to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been at the forefront of Kurdish separatist activity inside Turkey for decades. The U.S. has historically supported the YPG, however on the 15thThe Turkish decision to enter the Afrin district was arguably instigated by the U.S. announcement that it would train 30,000 Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, many of which are YPG, to act as border security in northern Syria. General Akar commented at a high level NATO meeting that Turkey would resist such a move, stating, “we cannot and will not allow support and arming of the YPG terror group under the name of an operational partner. We hope this mistake will be corrected in the shortest time.” Divergence in respect to the designation of the YPG contributes to deteriorating U.S.-Turkish relations.

Hassan Saleh, a member of the Kurdish National Council, made statements to suggest Turkey’s policy in northern Syria may be political rather than in response to direct security threats stating that, “the Turkish government’s goal in Idlib is to prevent Kurds from linking the Kurdish cantons of Syria and declare a federation.” The Kurdistan 24 news group reported that Erdoğan had described the growth in Kurdish controlled areas in northern Syria as a “terror corridor”. The establishment of a recognized and autonomous Kurdish area in the north of Syria could be seen to carry implications for Turkey’s territorial integrity, considering its own large Kurdish minority.