Analysts: Kurdish position more precarious after Jarabulus operation

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A Kurdish YPG fighter bidding farewell to his comrade who was killed in clashes with ISIS militants in northeastern Syria. Photo: ARA News

ARA News 

QAMISHLI – Turkey-backed Syrian rebel groups and Turkish soldiers on Wednesday took control of the Jarabulus city in a blitz operation. Although Kurds said Turkey is now entering a quagmire it will be difficult to leave from, western analysts suggest that the position of the Kurds look precarious after the Turkish intervention. 

“It seems to be a golden rule of geopolitics that a Kurdish army gets shafted by the great powers at least once a generation,” Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer for German and European Studies at King’s College London told ARA News.

“I think with the taking of Tel Rifaat [in Aleppo province] in collusion with Russia and the regime, the YPG [People’s Protection Units] vastly overplayed its hand and overestimated US support,” Clarkson said.

“But PYD [Democratic Union Party] and other Kurdish groups have a big lobby in the US and European establishment. So they won’t get ditched by the West if they show willingness to compromise and avoid antagonizing Turkey in future,” he said.

“The link up between Afrin and rest of Rojava [Syria’s Kurdish region] is not going to happen though,” Clarkson said.

Michael Stephens, Research Fellow for Middle East Studies and Head of RUSI Qatar, told ARA News that it’s clear that the Kurds cannot advance more forward towards Jarabulus or al-Bab. 

“But I do think it’s clear the US has come to the conclusion that the Kurds have gone as far west as they need to,” Stephens said.

“Ultimately there has been frustration at the lack of planning to push further south and the US has tried, mainly by withholding airstrikes to push the [Kurdish-led] SDF into focusing on ISIS supply lines, and not simply taking territory for the sake of building a new Kurdish state,” he added.

“The recent push toward al-Bab appears a step too far. And in the context of poor relations with Turkey, the US has needed to take a harder line with Syria’s Kurds,” Stephens told ARA News.

“The SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] and YPG are still the most successful force in fighting and holding land against ISIS, and whilever that equation remains they will receive US support,” he said.

However, Stephens warned the Kurds to play their cards well. “The situation for Syria’s Kurds looks a little precarious and they will need to play a careful balancing act if they are to avoid overreaching and triggering more offensives by Turkey into Syria,” he said.

Speaking to ARA News, Nicholas Heras, a Washington-based Middle East researcher at the Centre for a New American Security, said that the Turkish-backed offensive comes after the Syrian Democratic Forces took the Manbij border pocket from ISIS.

“After Manbij, the SDF was expected to stage a campaign to seize Jarablus and the city of al-Bab, which is northeast of the city of Aleppo and which is ISIS’ last remaining significant staging point to conduct a campaign against the city of Aleppo,” he said.

“Operation Euphrates Shield [Turkey-backed rebels umbrella] likely precludes this possibility, and prevents the predominately Kurdish SDF from seizing more territory in northern Syria to consolidate a larger autonomous zone that Turkey believes will be used as a safe haven for PKK attacks against it,” Heras said. 

“Significantly, Vice President Biden publicly stated that the SDF will lose U.S. support if it does not retreat to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in Aleppo governorate, away from the area of Jarablus, which is a core and consistent Turkish demand,” he added.

According to Heras, the SDF will need to see that the geopolitical writing is on the wall, and retreat to the eastern bank of the Euphrates.

“Further, the Kurdish forces within the SDF that sought to link all of the Kurdish majority areas of northern Syria together will have to decide if it is better to control a de facto autonomous zone in most, but not all, of the Kurdish majority areas for the foreseeable future and with Coalition support, or risk losing Coalition support and all the gains toward self-governance they have made by pushing to seize more territory west of the Euphrates,” he added.

The Washington-based analyst says that Kurdish-US relations will be more tense in the future.

“From the SDF perspective, the Turkish operation, and the U.S. support for it, could push it to focus on a future Raqqa operation, rather than territorial gains along the Syrian-Turkish border region,” he told ARA News.

“Yet for the foreseeable future, there will be tension in the SDF-Coalition relationship as the Kurds adjust to the new normal of a more aggressive Turkish policy in Syria,” he concluded.

However, Fabrice Balanche from the Washington Institute For Near East Policy believes that the SDF forces could still march towards Efrin [also Afrin].

“The Syrian regime is obliged to follow Russia. Putin wants to allow the Kurds to open a corridor to Efrin from Manbij. A narrow corridor, protecting Aleppo from rebel attack and easy to close if PYD is not smart with Putin,” Balanche told ARA News.

“Turkey knows its limit: 15 km inside Syria no more, after that Russia would shell Turkish troops and rebels,” he said.

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg

Source: ARA News

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