While in Istanbul the post-purge judiciary was sentencing intellectuals and journalists to life imprisonment, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Ankara for a marathon meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. On the table were the Kurdish-Syrian issue, Afrin and the need for an exit strategy so that the United States could save face.
It was not a difficult meeting (held in such secrecy that Cavusoglu had to act as the translator for the Turkish president), about which very little has leaked beside the final statement, in which there was not much trace visible of the feud that has been going on for months inside the NATO alliance between the countries providing its two largest armies.
The outcome was never in doubt: Washington would abandon the Kurds (this was already clear from Jan. 20, when the Turkish military operation began in the Afrin district) and agree to “establish mechanisms” for managing northern Syria by March, while avoiding direct confrontation.
At the center of the diplomatic dispute was Manbij, a district of Aleppo that was liberated from ISIS rule in 2016 by what would become the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—fighters of different ethnicities and confessions led by the Kurdish YPG/YPJ, and a symbol of Syrian multiculturalism.
Erdogan has made no secret of wanting to occupy Manbij, his next target after Afrin. However, 2,000 US marines have been stationed there for months. They are not only training the SDF but also took part more or less directly in the liberation of Raqqa.
Ankara extracted from Tillerson the commitment to have the Kurdish forces withdraw from Manbij and settle them east of the Euphrates, an old red line drawn unilaterally by Turkey. After that, US and Turkish troops would be deployed in the area.
But this is not only about Manbij: the YPG/YPJ would also have to abandon Afrin, the westernmost district of the Rojava region—which was Kurdish to start with. To “withdraw,” given the composition of the population, which is overwhelmingly Kurdish, would mean changing the local demographics and destroying the project of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria in Rojava, which would no longer exist if it were to exclude people on an ethno-confessional level. It is hard to imagine that the Kurds would bend to the diktats of Erdogan.
Meanwhile, the Afrin district remains under heavy Turkish bombardment and artillery fire by forces allied with Ankara, units of the Free Syrian Army and Islamists from various anti-Assad groups active in the Idlib region. Twenty-six days after the launch of “Operation Olive Branch,” the Information Center of Afrin Resistance has calculated that at least 180 civilians have been killed and 480 injured by 668 air raids and 4,645 rounds of heavy artillery fired.
More than 200 homes have been destroyed, along with 27 schools, farms, hospitals, cemeteries, mosques, bakeries, the water purification plants of the village of Metina and of the Jinderese district, an oil factory, and (in addition to the priceless temple at Ain Dara) several archaeological sites, the temple of Nebi Hori and the castle of Kalote. The headquarters of the Afrin Red Crescent were struck as well.
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