Turkey and Iran Face Off in a New Battle in Syria

Syria’s messy war is becoming even messier. On Tuesday, pro-regime militias reportedly moved into the embattled enclave of Afrin, which is under siege from Turkish forces who invaded Syria last month. The regime units appeared to be reinforcing Syrian Kurdish factions that have controlled the area near the Turkish border, much to the frustration of Ankara, The Washington Post reports.

The main Syrian Kurdish armed group, known as the YPG, is seen by Turkey as a direct proxy of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which operates inside Turkey and is considered a terrorist organization by Ankara and Washington. But the U.S. supports the YPG, depending on its fighters to help combat the jihadist Islamic State. Washington’s complicated role in the compelled the Syrian Kurdish militias to turn to President Bashar al-Assad for help.

“The Syrian government responded to the call of duty and sent military units on Tuesday, and they will be positioned along the border and take part in defending the unity and border of the Syrian territory,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud told reporters Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey would begin a heavy assault on the city center of Afrin in the coming days. He described the Syrian government’s move as the work of “terrorists” and claimed that Turkish artillery had driven the pro-Assad forces back. Syrian sources claim that the barrage only briefly stalled the advance of the pro-Assad forces.

The convoy’s arrival is yet another geopolitical twist in a war that is growing ever more complicated. The pro-Assad militias that supposedly came to the Syrian Kurds’ rescue likely had another set of allegiances: “The fighters arriving … appeared to be from a network of Iran-backed units that have often bolstered the efforts of Assad’s military,” Louisa Loveluck reported.

If that is the case, we are seeing Turkey and its rebel allies potentially squaring off against pro-Assad militias that are linked to Iran and are operating in tandem with Syrian Kurdish units friendly with the United States — which opposes both the Assad government and Iran’s presence in Syria. It is the sort of bewildering entanglement that characterizes the ruinous seven-year conflict, its constellation of warring parties and their tangled sets of interests.

On Monday night, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan phoned Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. Sources fed local rosy statements to media about “cooperation in the fight against terrorist elements” and Rouhani said the two leaders discussed “plots to disintegrate regional states.”

But behind the scenes Iran is quietly opposing Turkey’s operation in the mostly Kurdish Afrin region in northwest Syria. Tehran is a key ally of Damascus but is reticent to confront Turkey, with which it enjoys amicable relations.

From the Iranian perspective, the Turkish operation in Afrin was unwelcome. Iranian leaders, including Rouhani, denounced the invasion, which soured recent talks held between Russia, Turkey and Iran over Syria’s political future. Officially Tehran is opposed to Turkey’s Afrin operation because it “believes it could fuel tensions in the already troubled Arab country [Syria],” Press TV claims. In Damascus, the Syrian regime has set its sights on attacking Syrian rebel-held eastern Ghouta. But the regime also wants Afrin back and doesn’t want Turkey putting down more roots inside Syrian territory.

“Iran is against Kurdish gains in general but they wouldn’t like to see Turkey taking over parts of Syria. Turkey is on the side of jihadist movements. A loss of territory in Syria to this movement will not make Iran happy,” says a source close to the YPG. “.”

If the U.S. doesn’t act, the YPG has no other card to play except negotiations with Russia, and Iran’s deepening interest.

“Afrin is the new Sudetenland,” says he source, comparing the situation to 1938 Europe.

According to the Middle East affairs website Al-Monitor, Iranian officials have pressed their Turkish counterparts to avoid a messy war of attrition in Syria.

“Turkey hoped that it would move into Afrin and its … partners would look the other way. Ankara thought it got its wish when Russia, which controls the skies over Afrin, finally gave the green light to the Turkish military incursion into the Kurdish enclave. But the recent developments on the ground suggest the way forward might not be as smooth and the partnership with Russia and Iran might not be as strong as Ankara had hoped,” wrote Gonul Tol, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

The hard reality for Ankara is that Turkey has few good options. Rising anti-American sentiment in Turkey, combined with U.S. support for the YPG, has placed the United States somewhat at odds with its NATO ally. No one else looks poised to step in.

“Neither Russia nor Iran — both of whom Turkish politicians sometimes tout as potential replacements for the United States — seem terribly eager to accommodate Turkish interests,” wrote Nicholas Danforth, a Turkey expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

Indeed, there is a growing chorus in Washington to stop accommodating Ankara’s agenda.

“Nobody wants a violent rupture with Turkey. But seven years into the catastrophic Syrian war, observers need to admit some ground truths: The Turks allowed thousands of foreign radical Islamists to flow into Syria and create bases from which they threatened Europe and the United States; these terrorists would still be in their capital of Raqqa, planning attacks, if the United States hadn’t partnered with the Kurdish-led … militia that Turkey hates so much,” wrote Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.

For the Americans, too, a tough road lies ahead.

“Washington’s ability to shape developments in regime-held Syria is admittedly weak. While Assad remains in power, perhaps the best the United States can hope for is to keep countering the regime’s egregious behavior without further inflaming the conflict,” wrote Mona Yacoubian, a senior policy scholar at the United States Institute of Peace.

As these forces inch closer to Turkish positions, the chances for a deepening crisis in Afrin grows. It also reveals that Iran and its friends in Damascus may have outplayed the Americans.