Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vows Turkey would thwart any attempt by a Kurdish militia it deems "terrorists" to carve out a Kurdish state in northern Syria. (AFP photo)
ISTANBUL, Aug. 30 (Xinhua) -- Turkey would risk a serious confrontation if it launches a military operation against Kurdish militia in Syria's Afrin without reaching a consensus particularly with Russia, analysts said.
A Turkish move against Afrin would spark a sharp response under the current circumstances, Hasan Koni, an analyst on international relations, told Xinhua.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed once again last week that Ankara would not tolerate a Kurdish state in Syria, signaling a military intervention in Afrin.
Turkey deployed last week additional howitzer guns and tanks along the border with the Kurdish militia-held Afrin canton in northwestern Syria.
A military operation targeting Afrin is not much probable given that Turkey would find itself confronted by Syria, Russia and the United States, said Koni, head of the Department of Public International Law at Istanbul's Kultur University.
Russia, a staunch supporter of Damascus in Syria's civil war, has also troops in Afrin in a sign of support to the Kurdish militia, known as the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).
Turkish media reported early this week that some Russian troops and armored vehicles had recently entered Tal Rifat, a town in Afrin.
The emergence of the Russian military units in Tal Rifat came after several days of clashes between Turkey-supported rebels and the YPG around the town.
Turkey sees the YPG as the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) outlawed for its decades-old armed struggle for autonomy in the country's predominantly Kurdish southeast.
Describing the YPG-controlled cantons in Syria as "terror corridor," Erdogan said Turkey would intervene if it looks as if terror could dominate the area.
"An operation against Afrin would create political risks if launched without reaching a full consensus with Russia," said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.
Such an operation would also negatively affect Turkey's ties with the U.S., he told Xinhua.
Despite strong Turkish protests, Washington treats the YPG as a reliable ground force against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.
The YPG forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which, with the help of the U.S. air force, has almost kicked the IS out of Raqqa, its de-facto capital in Syria.
The U.S. argues that a Turkish operation against Kurdish cantons would damage the fight against the IS by turning the YPG's attention away from the militant group.
In the western part of Syria, a huge portion of which falls under the control of the Syrian government, Russia is the dominant military force.
Turkey used to support, together with a number of coalition countries including the U.S., rebel groups fighting to topple the Syrian government.
After mending ties with Russia last summer, Turkey has pursued a policy more in line with Russia regarding Syria rather than with the U.S., Turkey's NATO partner.
Ankara, however, still refuses to cooperate with Damascus which it sees as illegitimate.
Despite Turkish criticism, both superpowers have so far stood by the YPG against a possible Turkish advance.
"The (Afrin) operation is on the table, but no full consensus seems to have been achieved so far on the issue (between Russia and Turkey)," commented Ulgen, a former diplomat.
The deployment of Russian forces in Tal Rifat is a move aiming at deterring a potential Turkish intervention, he said.
Ulgen also feels that the Russian move is a tactical one and that Moscow may change its attitude depending on a potential deal Turkey and Russia could reach on the future of Syria.
Turkey has some sway over some of the radical rebel groups in Syria's Idlib province, where it continues to provide humanitarian aid for its inhabitants.
Ankara is partnering with Moscow and Tehran in the Astana peace process to bring an end to the clashes in Syria.
According to reports by local media, negotiations between Turkey and Russia may be centered around how the radical Islamist rebels would be removed from Idlib and how the province would be handed over to the Syrian government thereafter.
In return, Turkey would have Russia's consent to conduct an operation against the YPG in Afrin.
Ozturk Yilmaz, a deputy chairman of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, recently maintained on Halk TV without elaboration that a give and take involving Afrin and Idlib is on the agenda.
"Idlib is swarming with jihadists. Turkey is currently acting as the patron of this place, while Afrin is under the YPG control," said Yilmaz, a former diplomat.
The Afrin canton, which lies to the north of Idlib, has no strategic importance for Russia, said Ulgen.
What is more important for Moscow is the impact a Turkish operation against Afrin would have on Turkish-U.S. ties, he added.
Amid the ongoing tension in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Turkey had two important visitors in the past two weeks.
Ankara first hosted Mohammed Baqeri, chief of the General Staff of Iran, for a rare three-day visit in mid-August. Iran is also a devout supporter of the Syrian government.
About a week later, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrived in Ankara for talks.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in mid-August that Russia's Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, is also coming to Ankara.
Some local media outlets said following Cavusoglu's statement that Gerasimov could arrive before Iran's military delegation left the Turkish capital. On Aug. 19, some media reports claimed that he would arrive in Ankara via Damascus in the following days.
The Russian guest, however, has not been reported to be in Turkey up till now.
The Kurds have carved out three autonomous cantons along the Turkish border during the six-year-old Syrian war. The one in Afrin is the farthest in the west, while the other two are on the eastern part of the Euphrates River.
Ankara launched a military operation into northern Syria in August last year to push the IS away from its border and block the YPG's advance toward Afrin to connect all the three cantons, an eventuality that would physically cut off Turkey from the Arab world, as Kurds in Iraq have had their own autonomous region along the Turkish border.
Turkey is particularly concerned that the emergence of an autonomous or independent Kurdish entity in northern Syria may set a precedent for its own nearly 20 million Kurds and encourage Kurdish separatism at home.
Ankara also sees the YPG presence in Afrin as a major threat, fearful that the canton may be used in the future to extend the Kurdish presence along the border up to the Mediterranean.
In such a scenario, Kurds in Syria and Iraq could, many in Ankara feel, join forces under U.S. protection to establish a single state with possibly a border on the Mediterranean.
A Kurdish state with sea lanes would no longer rely on Turkey to sell its oil.
With a military buildup on the border, Turkey may also be seeking to put pressure on the YPG in Afrin to keep it from attempting to capture Idlib with U.S. support.
By seizing Idlib, the YPG would not only increase the size of the territory under its control, but also get nearer to the Mediterranean.
This scenario is bound to remain on paper if Russia strongly opposes it, Soner Polat, a retired admiral who headed the Turkish General Staff's intelligence unit, wrote in his column in Aydinlik daily on Aug. 16.
Arguing that Turkey would become disintegrated if it remains silent, he said the country could even block this scenario on its own if it takes the issue as a life-and-death matter.