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Kirill Semenov

Political scientist, independent expert on Middle East conflicts, Islamic movements and terrorist organizations, RIAC Expert

Ankara now has greater leverage to press Washington to remove the security umbrella from the YPG, at least in the 32 km strip where a new operation is most likely to take place. Turkish President Erdogan also has the option of freezing the accession process of Finland and Sweden to NATO by taking advantage of the terrorist attack if his wishes for a new military operation in U.S. politics are not carried out.

Moscow has previously made it clear that stopping the Turkish military operation is only possible through diplomacy, since the Syrian armed forces cannot stand up to the more powerful Turkish Armed Forces if they want to participate in repelling the Turkish offensive against the YPG, especially since they are exhausted from a decade of civil war. Therefore, the most acceptable option would be to make Ankara and Damascus jointly address the issue of the Kurdish left-wing groups in Syria, helping them to find common ground on other positions as well.

The recent attack came at a very opportune time for Turkey’s leadership, when there is an uncompromising battle for votes ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for May. The Istanbul bombing has already triggered painful memories in Turkish society of the barrage of terrorist attacks in June-November 2015. At that time, the Republic of Turkey was forced to hold parliamentary elections twice, as R.T. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was unable to form a governing coalition.

However, despite all the possible domestic and foreign policy dividends of a military campaign in Syria, today Turkey is minimally ready to launch it, and it is all about its Syrian allies. After all, it was the Syrian National Army (SNA), created by Turkey from various opposition groups, that used to be a key component of ground operations against the Kurdish left-wing radical groups. Turkish Armed Forces supported the SNA with tanks, armor, special forces, artillery and aviation.

That leaves Turkey with two options. The first is to bet on the radicals from Tahrir al-Sham, which will lead to serious image losses, even if these formations are used under a false flag, given their terrorist nature. The second option is to conduct the operation relying on Turkey’s own armed forces, which is fraught with large losses of Turkish soldiers. This could blur the entire positive domestic political effect of such an operation.

A terrorist attack on November 13 in central Istanbul killed six people and injured more than 80. The tragedy took place on the busy pedestrian İstiklal Avenue, about 200 meters from the diplomatic quarter, where the Russian Consulate General and Trade Mission, as well as the Russian school, are located.

Turkish police detained a Syrian woman with suspected ties to left-wing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militias operating in Syria, who confessed to planting an explosive device. Turkish Interior Minister S. Soylu stated that the attack was carried out at the behest of the headquarters of the terrorist People’s Defense Units (YPG) in the Kobanî district of Syria. According to the Minister, the hands-on perpetrator of the Beyoğlu attack confessed during interrogation that she had been sent by PKK/YPG leaders illegally to Turkey via Syrian Afrin.

In retaliation for the attack, Turkey initiated airstrikes on Kurdish left-wing radical bases in Syria. According to the Turkish Defense Ministry, Operation Claw-Sword is targeted at "neutralizing the PKK/YPG and other terrorist elements [and] eliminating terrorist attacks against our people and security forces in northern Syria."

Operation Claw-Sword is a military campaign in Syria and Iraq unprecedented in its massive use of combat aircrafts and UAVs against the bases of various Kurdish left-wing radical groups affiliated with the PKK. Nevertheless, no decision has been made to transform this operation into a ground phase so far, but it is very likely that the Istanbul blast will have serious implications not only for the domestic political situation, but also for Turkey’s neighboring states. In particular, such sentiment was expressed by Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Syria for Syria A. Lavrentyev. "We used the Astana Format on Syria to have very detailed conversations with our Turkish counterparts and try to convince them to refrain from conducting full-scale ground operations. We still believe that there could be a serious escalation of violence not only in northeastern Syria, on the territory of Syria itself, but in the Middle East as a whole," he said during a press conference following the 19th round of the Astana talks on Syria.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party and its affiliates: Between terrorism and the fight against terrorism

However, the PKK leadership denies its involvement in the attack: "We have nothing to do with this incident and it is well-known by the public that we would not target civilians directly or approve of actions directed at civilians," said a statement of the so-called Headquarters Command of the People’s Defense Center, which is the command of the military wing of the group.

The Syrian wing of the PKK, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose combat wing are the Kurdish YPG forces in Syria, did not admit guilt for the attack either. "Attempts by Turkish intelligence services to blame our militias for the explosion are intended to legitimize Ankara’s preparations for a new military operation in northern Syria to expand the border security zone," the PYD said in a statement.

From Ankara’s point of view, however, there is no difference between the PKK and the PYD, since both are part of the Kurdistan Communities Union (Koma Civaken Kurdistan, KCK), headed by Abdullah Öcalan, who is serving a life sentence in Turkey. The KCK is an umbrella organization whose leadership replaced that of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party back in the early 2000s. The latter, in turn, became a regional Turkish affiliate of the Kurdistan Communities Union. While other groups created by the PKK, particularly in Iraq, Syria and Iran, have become branches of the KCK in these countries on an equal footing with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The same applies to the PYD in Syria.

Turkey did not accept as an argument the denial of responsibility for the Istanbul attack by the above-mentioned organizations. Ankara continues to accuse the Syrian branches of the PKK of numerous terrorist attacks, which they have denied or shifted the blame to cover organizations such as the Afrin Liberation Forces, whose connection to the YPG is considered by many experts to be apparent.

Among the most notorious and bloodiest terrorist attacks was the April 2020 bombing of a market in the city of Afrin, which was blamed on YPG cells. It killed 53 civilians and injured at least 50. And in January 2021, a car bombing in the same Afrin region claimed the lives of six civilians and wounded about 25 others. No one has taken responsibility for the attack, but Ankara blamed the YPG for the explosion.

Neither Turkey’s NATO allies nor most EU countries, which included the PKK in their terrorist lists, had any doubts about its terrorist component. But Ankara’s partners have been less consistent with the PKK affiliates of the KCK. Washington has chosen the Syrian branch of the PKK, the PYD, and its combat wing, the YPG, as its priority ally in the fight against the IS terrorists (an organization recognized as terrorist and banned in Russia). This, however, did not happen immediately as the Pentagon and the CIA were divided on this matter. The CIA insisted on continued cooperation with Syrian opposition structures from the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC) and affiliated groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA, SNA) and moderate Islamists. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Defense urged the U.S. leadership to give up support for the Islamists and switch to assistance to the far more understandable and ideologically close, given their declared principles, Kurdish left-wing YPG groups in Syria.

The Pentagon’s position eventually prevailed in the American leadership, and the PYD and YPG became the basis of the proto-state and paramilitary structures in northeastern Syria — the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — created under Washington’s auspices. Such a move has stalled U.S.-Turkish ties and is still probably the main knot of tension in their bilateral relations.

The YPG between Washington and Moscow

The recent terrorist attack in Istanbul will seriously complicate the U.S. ability to support the YPG if Ankara decides to conduct a new full-scale military operation in Syria, rather than limiting it to air strikes. According to Ankara, Washington is also responsible for this explosion because it prevents the suppression of YPG activities in Syria by the Turkish Armed Forces, trains and equips these formations, designated terrorist by Turkey. This, in particular, was made clear by Turkish Interior Minister Soylu, responding to the condolences expressed by the U.S. on the terrorist attack: "I think that we should assess the condolences made by the U.S. today as if the killer would have been one of the first to arrive on the scene, and the reaction to this message will be very precisely. It will be seen in the near future, God willing," said the Minister.

Ankara now has greater leverage to press Washington to remove the security umbrella from the YPG, at least in the 32 km strip where a new operation is most likely to take place. Turkish President Erdogan also has the option of freezing the accession process of Finland and Sweden to NATO by taking advantage of the terrorist attack if his wishes for a new military operation in U.S. politics are not carried out.

On the other hand, the position of Russia has not gone unnoticed by the Turkish leadership. Moscow has repeatedly deterred Ankara from launching a new offensive against the Kurdish left-wing radical groups in Syria. "Despite our repeated warnings to Russia, which is responsible for destroying terrorists in northern Iraq [1] and Syria under our 2019 Sochi agreement, Moscow refuses to do its duty," Turkish President Erdogan said.

One thing to keep in mind is that Russia, too, referred to Turkey’s failure to fulfill its obligations under the Idlib Memorandum by supporting the Syrian government forces during operations in Idlib. By the way, they have not been implemented so far. By preventing new Turkish operations in Syria against the Kurdish left-wing groups, Russia tried primarily to protect the interests of its ally in Damascus and to prevent new violations of Syria’s sovereignty by offering the Assad regime various forms of relations with the Syrian Kurds and their integration into the Syrian state structures. However, this process has never advanced.

After the Istanbul attack, it will probably be much more difficult for Moscow, as well as Washington, to keep Ankara from another invasion of northeastern Syria. Now Erdogan has a serious trump card that is not easy to beat, and any attempt to press Turkey on this issue can only lead to a worsening of relations. This would be extremely undesirable for Russia, since Turkey remains its leading economic partner and logistics hub after cutting ties with the West.

In addition, one should not discount the very desire to foot on both camps and the provocative actions of Kurdish formations in the SAR, which did not stop sabotage and terrorist activities in the areas of the Turkish operations "Olive Branch" and "Euphrates Shield". At the same time, in the course of the Turkish operation "The Source of Peace" in the fall of 2019, during negotiations between the Russian side and the Syrian Kurds, the latter agreed to Russian proposals to withdraw YPG units from the border strip in northeastern Syria, where Russian-Turkish patrols were supposed to operate. This provision was enshrined in the Sochi Memorandum, to which Erdogan referred in his claims against Moscow. However, once it became clear that the Trump administration had changed its decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the YPG decided not to burden themselves with their previous commitments and maintained their military presence along the Syrian-Turkish border. This, in fact, predetermined a new military operation between Turkey and the SNA and exposed Moscow to criticism from Ankara.

For his part, Mazloum Kobane, the military commander of the left-radical Kurdish formations in Syria, expressed disappointment at what he called "the weak response of Russia and the United States" to dozens of Turkish airstrikes. In his opinion, Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine increased Turkey’s value in the eyes of both Russia and the West. Many believe that the sluggish response of both states to Turkey’s escalating war against the Syrian Kurds is explained by their desire to pull Ankara over to one side. According to Kobane, unless Moscow and Washington show firmness, Turkey is likely to carry out repeated threats to launch an offensive in Syria, as it did in two separate incursions in 2018 and 2019.

Moscow has previously made it clear that stopping the Turkish military operation is only possible through diplomacy, since the Syrian armed forces cannot stand up to the more powerful Turkish Armed Forces if they want to participate in repelling the Turkish offensive against the YPG, especially since they are exhausted from a decade of civil war. Therefore, the most acceptable option would be to make Ankara and Damascus jointly address the issue of the Kurdish left-wing groups in Syria, helping them to find common ground on other positions as well.

Domestic political factor

The recent attack came at a very opportune time for Turkey’s leadership, when there is an uncompromising battle for votes ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for May. The Istanbul bombing has already triggered painful memories in Turkish society of the barrage of terrorist attacks in June-November 2015. At that time, the Republic of Turkey was forced to hold parliamentary elections twice, as R.T. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was unable to form a governing coalition.

It should not be forgotten that in 2015, because of the terrorist activity that rallied the nation, the president’s party rating rose 9% in five months, and the resulting need to tackle security problems dissipated the political uncertainty. Then the supporters of the Turkish leader did not just win back positions in the second vote, but secured a solid parliamentary majority.

However, both in 2015 and now the terrorist attack gave rise to a variety of conspiracy theories. However, even the opposition HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), which is often accused of being sympathetic to the PKK, is inclined to consider the attack a provocation by "third forces," rather than blaming the government. The Istanbul explosion occurred against the backdrop of a gradual normalization of the authorities' relations with political movements (such as the HDP), which are usually affiliated to some extent with Kurdish left-wing radical groups, including the PKK. The AKP could in some way count on the support of these forces in the upcoming elections. Now that the country’s leadership has engaged in an escalation scenario towards Syrian Kurdish groups, such an option is hardly possible.

Naturally, the opposition will also try to use the implications of the terrorist attack to their advantage. Thus, the head of Turkey’s main opposition party (Republican People’s Party, CHP) K. Kılıçdaroğlu lashed out at the government for failing to ensure border security. "They say that borders are an honor. And then they don’t hesitate to tell us that the terrorist got into Turkey illegally. How was she able to get past our borders?" he stated.

In turn, the leader of the far-right "Victory Party" (Zafer Partisi) U. Özdağ, who is gaining popularity on the issue of migration, also stressed that the authorities promised to secure the north of Syria in order to return refugees there, but "they cannot even secure the center of the largest city." He recalled that the city of Afrin, from which the terrorist had arrived, was under Turkish control. "We barely made it to the site of the explosion to pay tribute to the victims. Several barricades were lined up in front of us and let five people through. It would be better to put these barricades on the borders with Syria, so that this terrorist could not get into our country so easily," he said.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that criticism of the opposition forces may rather push the R.T. Erdogan administration to conduct a new military operation in Syria against the Kurdish left-wing radical groups than force it to abandon the idea. In fact, opposition leaders are criticizing the government for weakness and inconsistency, but not for the inherently flawed plan to create a security zone in Syria. Now the president has the opportunity to move to more active military action, which should not be limited to air strikes, to demonstrate to his opponents the willingness to put a stop to the issue of protecting the national borders from the Kurdish left-wing radical groups.

Troubled proxies

However, despite all the possible domestic and foreign policy dividends of a military campaign in Syria, today Turkey is minimally ready to launch it, and it is all about its Syrian allies. After all, it was the Syrian National Army (SNA), created by Turkey from various opposition groups, that used to be a key component of ground operations against the Kurdish left-wing radical groups. Turkish Armed Forces supported the SNA with tanks, armor, special forces, artillery and aviation.

Since the conflict between the SNA factions at the beginning of October, it has been in a state of "half-decay". One side was represented by the Third Corps of the SNA, led by the Levant Front (Jabhat al-Shamiyah), the other by the al-Hamza Division, the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division and Ahrar al-Sham, supported by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorists (an organization recognized as terrorist and banned on Russian territory), who came to Afrin from Idlib.

Although it was possible to suspend hostilities after Turkey’s interference and the entry of Turkish units in Syrian Afrin on October 17, it is premature to talk about the complete withdrawal of radical forces. All this also indicates a further strengthening of the Tahrir al-Sham and a weakening of the SNA. That leaves Turkey with two options. The first is to bet on the radicals from Tahrir al-Sham, which will lead to serious image losses, even if these formations are used under a false flag, given their terrorist nature. The second option is to conduct the operation relying on Turkey’s own armed forces, which is fraught with large losses of Turkish soldiers. This could blur the entire positive domestic political effect of such an operation.

Nevertheless, the Turkish military command still expects to bring the Syrian National Army to a state of combat readiness and use them for an offensive operation. In particular, on November 2 there was a meeting of the Turkish command with the leadership of the SNA groups in the Turkish Gaziantep. The SNA commanders were ordered to dissolve all alliances within the Army and return to the previously approved regular structure of corps, divisions and brigades; to transfer control of all checkpoints to the joint security apparatus, and border checkpoints to the finance committee (customs); and to close their own detention departments. In addition, if certain factions are involved in conflicts among themselves, they can be disbanded. However, it is not yet known whether these measures have had the desired effect.

[1]. In this case, the Turkish president made a mistake. The 2019 Sochi agreement, which provided for the withdrawal of the YPG from the 32 km border area under Russian military police control, referred only to Syria, not to Iraq.


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