BEIRUT — After weeks of deadly Turkish airstrikes in northern Syria, Kurdish forces and international actors are trying to assess whether Ankara’s ground invasion threats are serious.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly warned against a new ground incursion aimed at driving Kurdish groups away from the Turkish-Syrian border, following the deadly November 13 bombing in Istanbul. Turkish authorities have blamed the attack on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, based in Syria. Both have denied any involvement.
On November 20, Ankara launched a barrage of airstrikes, killing dozens of people, including civilians as well as Kurdish fighters and Syrian government troops. Human Rights Watch has warned that the strikes are exacerbating a humanitarian crisis by disrupting electricity, fuel and aid.
In the most recent development, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin visited Turkey this week for talks on the situation in Syria.
Here is an overview of what the various foreign powers and groups involved in the conflict in Syria have to gain or lose:
WHAT TURKEY WANTS
Turkey views Kurdish forces along its border with Syria as a threat and has launched three major military incursions since 2016, taking control of large swaths of territory.
Erdogan hopes to relocate many of Turkey’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees to northern Syria and has started building housing there. The plan could respond to growing anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey and boost support for Erdogan ahead of next year’s elections, while diluting historically Kurdish-majority areas by resettling non-Kurdish Syrian refugees there.
Erdogan also announced his intention to create a 30 kilometer (19 mile) security corridor in areas currently under Kurdish control. A Turkish invasion planned earlier this year was halted amid opposition from the United States and Russia.
THE KURDISH RESPONSE
Kurdish groups are pressuring the United States and Russia, both of which have military posts in northern Syria, to again prevent Turkey from carrying out its threats.
The Kurds fear the West will pull out this time to appease Ankara in return for approving Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership.
“This silence in the face of Turkey’s brutality will encourage Turkey to conduct a ground operation,” said Badran Jia Kurd, deputy co-chairman of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.
Kurdish groups, which fought against the Islamic State group alongside a US-led coalition and are now guarding thousands of captured IS fighters and their family members, warn that a Turkish escalation would threaten efforts to eradicate the extremist group.
In recent weeks, officials from the United States and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said they had stopped or reduced joint patrols against ISIS due to the airstrikes, although patrols have since resumed.
THE ROLE OF SYRIAN INSURGENTS
The so-called Syrian National Army, a Turkish-backed coalition of Syrian opposition groups numbering tens of thousands of fighters, would likely provide infantry for any future ground offensive. In previous incursions, including the 2018 offensive on the city of Afrin, the SNA has been accused of committing atrocities against Kurds and displacing tens of thousands of people from their homes.
Several SNA officials did not respond to calls and text messages from The Associated Press. An official who responded said Turkish authorities had ordered them not to talk about plans for a further incursion.
THE POSITION OF THE SYRIAN GOVERNMENT?
The Syrian government has opposed past Turkish incursions, but also sees the SDF as a secessionist force and a Trojan horse for the United States, which has imposed crippling sanctions on Bashar Assad’s government.
Damascus and Ankara recently moved to improve relations after 11 years of tension sparked by Turkey’s support for opposition fighters in Syria’s civil war. Damascus has remained relatively silent on the killing of Syrian soldiers in recent Turkish strikes.
WILL THE UNITED STATES BE INVOLVED?
The United States maintains a small military presence in northern Syria, where its strong support for the SDF has infuriated Turkey.
However, the United States initially spoke little publicly about the Turkish airstrikes, speaking more forcefully only after they came dangerously close to American troops and caused the temporary halt to anti-aircraft patrols. IS. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last week expressed “strong opposition” to a new offensive.
When asked if the United States had any assurances for the Kurds who feared the United States would abandon them to persuade Turkey of a NATO deal, a senior US official who spoke as on condition of anonymity said only that there had been no change in US policy in the region.
WILL RUSSIA NEGOTIATE AN AGREEMENT?
Russia is the Syrian government’s closest ally. His involvement in the Syrian conflict helped turn the tide in favor of Assad.
Although Turkey and Russia support rival sides in the conflict, the two have closely coordinated in northern Syria. In recent months, Russia has pushed for reconciliation between Damascus and Ankara.
Moscow has expressed concern over Turkey’s recent military actions in northern Syria and has tried to broker a deal. According to Lebanon-based pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen TV, the head of Russian forces in Syria, Lt. Gen. Alexander Chaiko, recently suggested to SDF commander Mazloum Abdi that Syrian government forces should deploy in a security strip along from the border with Turkey. to avoid a Turkish incursion.
Iran, a key ally of the Assad government, strongly opposed Turkish plans for a ground offensive earlier this year, but has not publicly commented on the possible new incursion.
Tehran also has a large Kurdish minority and has fought a low-level separatist insurgency for decades. Iran has seen sustained protests and a deadly crackdown by security forces since the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurd, in the custody of the country’s vice squad in mid-September.
Iran has blamed much of the unrest on exiled Kurdish opposition groups in neighboring Iraq, accuses these groups of denial and has carried out strikes against them. Another Turkish incursion into Syria could provide a template for a broader response if unrest in Iranian Kurdistan continues to escalate.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Andrew Wilks in Istanbul and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed.