Originally published under the title "Is Turkey Burying Syria's Revolution by Using Syrian Rebels against YPG?"
Turkey vowed to launch a military operation in eastern Syria last month. It continued the threats into early August as the US, which has forces in eastern Syria, scrambled to come up with a plan that would stave off the attack. Turkey's main goal is to try to create a "peace corridor" along hundreds of kilometers of Syrian border, removing the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and creating an area similar to what Turkey has done in Afrin and Jarabulus.
As Turkey prepared its offensive around 14,000 Syrian rebels sought to support the upcoming battle. This is part of the increasing way in which Turkey has encouraged the Syrian rebels to focus on fighting the YPG, as opposed to fighting the Syrian regime, redirecting the remnants of the Syrian rebellion towards helping Turkey secure border areas. But the further the rebels are encouraged to operate from the Damascus, the more their role looks cynical and more in Ankara's interests than their own. However it links to Ankara's complex logic behind wanting to launch an operation.
Turkey has encouraged Sunni Arab rebels to focus on fighting Kurds instead of the Syrian regime.
Ankara's aims are clear. It said last year it would return eastern Syria to its "true owners" and it is eyeing returning 700,000 Syrian refugees to areas along the border. Turkey's leadership indicated on August 5 that it views an upcoming military offensive east of the Euphrates in Syria as a continuation of its operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Olive Branch in 2018 in Afrin. In Olive Branch it secured a border area from Jarabulus to Al-Bab and then in 2018 it took over the mostly Kurdish area of Afrin. 330,000 Syrians returned to these areas, while around 150,000 Kurdish Syrian residents of Afrin fled.
Many Kurds see this as demographic change, sending Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey from other areas of Syria, back to Syria but to Kurdish areas to change the border demographics and create a more pro-Turkish feeling among those who returned. Turkey says it is just creating security and helping Syrians go back to Syria.
Many Kurds say Turkey is seeking to change the demographics of eastern Syria.
The context is more complicated. Since 2016 Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have been helping in these operations. In 2016 Turkey said it was creating a "buffer zone" against the Kurdish YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main US partners on the ground in the war on ISIS. This was a bit chaotic for the US in 2016 because the US had been backing the Syrian rebels as well. Both Turkey and the US once saw eye to eye on the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups of the Syrian revolution. But policies diverged as more extremist group such as Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham inserted themselves into rebel areas. When ISIS emerged as a major force in 2014 the US shifted priorities to fight ISIS. The US found that the Kurdish forces were most effective against ISIS and eventually with US support the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include many Syrian Kurds and Arabs, came into existence. The US now wants the SDF and linked security forces in eastern Syria to number some 110,000. For Turkey this is a "terrorist army" and Turkey often critiques the US for working with "terrorists" in eastern Syria which officials call a "cancer" and threaten to bury and "cleanse."
Turkey has set upon galvanizing the Syrian rebel units it works with to fight against the YPG. It successfully did this in Afrin in 2018. It has continued the military training of rebels since then. Some of these groups were accused of abuses in Afrin. On August 5 Syrian rebel commanders said they were ready to join the Turkish forces who might launch an operation into eastern Syria. A spokesman said they had 14,000 Turkish-backed forces ready to fight.
During the Afrin campaign there were questions about why the rebels had joined the operation. Commentators said it showed their strength, but that it could become a quagmire, fueling tensions between Kurds and the mostly Arab and Turkmen rebels. It had a logic to it though, with 20,000 Syrian rebels fighting in Afrin in 2018. Afrin is close to Aleppo and so for these rebels they were now on the doorstep of other areas where they might fight the Syrian regime. Also the rebels were angered by the role of the YPG in Aleppo and Afrin, which they argued had not supported the rebellion. Afrin was a bit of revenge for some.
The two remaining independent forces that grew out of the Syrian civil war may be neutralized fighting each other.
However, fighting east of the Euphrates would put them hundreds of kilometers away, often fighting over areas where the population was historically Kurdish to sieze control of parts of Syria that will never be used as a bargaining chip with the Syrian regime. The last battles of the Syrian rebels, if Turkey ever launches its offensive, would be against mostly Kurdish forces and other Syrians who signed on with the SDF, ignoring the Syrian regime which will eventually return to pick up the spoils. The cynical eyes of Damascus look on with glee, noting that soon the two remaining independent forces that grew out of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian rebels and the SDF, might be neutralized fighting each other, with the Syrian regime appear to ride to the rescue, with Russian backing, to end the instability and conflict.
For Turkey, which is working more closely with Russia, the question is whether it now prefers the Syrian regime to the SDF. Given its statements it appears to be more amenable to Damascus. For the Syrian rebels, who signed on to oppose Damascus, the end of the conflict may come at a price of fighting in eastern Syria for land that will merely be turned over to the regime in the long term.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.