U.S.-allied militias in Syria will establish a 30,000-member security force along the northern border largely made up of veterans of the Kurdish YPG militia.
Much of the territory that the border force will secure is occupied by Kurds who are looking to take advantage of the political chaos in Syria by establishing an autonomous region.
But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the force was not acceptable and he is massing his army on the border, threatening to attack the Kurdish Afrin region.
Afrin is controlled by a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG. Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) that has waged a bloody insurgency within its borders.
A YPG spokesman in Afrin said there had been clashes on Sunday between his unit and Turkish troops near the border. Rojhat Roj said shelling of areas in Afrin district, in Aleppo province, had killed one YPG fighter and injured two civilians.
Turkey and its western allies, including the US, consider the PKK a terrorist organisation. But the US has been arming some of Syria’s Kurds to help defeat Islamic State in Syria – a sore point in already tense US-Turkish relations.
The Turkish president said that “despite it all” he wanted to work with the US in the region and hoped it would not side with the YPG during the Afrin operation.
“We expect [the US] to support Turkey in its legitimate efforts” to combat terror, Erdoğan said.
Separately, Erdoğan’s spokesman described as “worrying” reports that the US-led coalition fighting Isis would establish a 30,000-strong border security force in Syria involving the Kurdish militia.
In December the Associated Press reported that the US was developing an expanded training programme for Kurdish and Arab border guards in Syria to prevent the resurgence of Isis.
Ibrahim Kalin, Erdoğan’s spokesman, said the US was taking steps to legitimise and solidify the YPG. “It’s absolutely not possible to accept this,” Kalin said, and he repeated that Turkey would defend itself.
Erdoğan said the Afrin operation would be an extension of Turkey’s 2016 incursion into northern Syria, which aimed to combat Isis and stem the advance of US-backed Kurdish forces. Turkish troops are stationed in rebel-held territory on both sides of Afrin.
Erdogan is presenting a big dilemma for the Americans. While emotionally and ideologically the U.S. may want to support the Kurds in their national aspirations, the geopolitical reality is that there are too many hands raised against them and we could do very little to support them. Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria — all have Kurdish minorities and none are willing to allow the Kurds a homeland of their own.
But the Turkish president wants the U.S. to take an active role in defeating the YPG and this, the US will not do. While the U.S. and Turkey generally see eye to eye on Syria, the Kurdish YPG is a separate issue. In Iraq, when the Baghdad government cracked down on the Kurds when they declared their independence, we remained mostly silent. Expect us to do the same if Erdogan attacks the Kurds along the border with Syria.