Over the weekend, Turkish forces entered the northwestern Syrian district of Afrin to drive out the forces of the Kurdish militia known as the YPG, which now controls the area and has close ties to Kurdish separatists in Turkey. In eastern Syria, however, the YPG has participated in the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State (IS). Ankara, Frederic Hof explains, most likely chose to focus on Afrin because it is far away from the territory where American forces have been operating, yet still an area that Kurds wish to incorporate into an independent state. But there is no guarantee the conflict will stay contained:
Despite the flamboyant anti-Turkish threats of its Syrian client, Russia has gingerly stepped aside in this corner of the Aleppo province, moving its ground forces and vacating the airspace to accommodate the Turkish operation. For the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, nothing—not even the full political ascendancy of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad—would top Turkey and the United States coming to military blows over Syria. . . .
[W]hat if (for example) Syrian Kurds, suffering casualties and perhaps defeat in the Afrin salient, elect to engage targets inside Turkey from positions east of the Euphrates? What if such targeting were to expand Turkish-Syrian Kurdish hostilities from the extreme northwestern corner of Syria to areas where the Kurds form an essential part of the anti-IS “partner force”? What if Turkish retaliatory strikes were to engage—presumably unintentionally—American forces? . . . .
Why is there no American ambassador in Ankara? Why is there no senior American special envoy being dispatched to Turkey in the absence of an ambassador? Is the administration unaware of what the Kremlin is seeking from this latest dust-up? And is Ankara fully aware of the trap Putin has set? . . . [H]ave Turkish domestic politics reached the point where a potential clash with a NATO ally is no longer unthinkable? Has Ankara taken any initiative to offer Washington help in stabilizing the predominantly Arab areas east of the Euphrates River? . . .
The worst possible outcome of Turkish-American bilateral diplomatic lassitude over Syria would be to hand the Kremlin the kind of easy victory it reaped in the wake of the 2013 redline fiasco [during which the U.S. declared that it wouldn’t tolerate the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and then proceeded to tolerate them], but this one driving a stake directly into the heart of NATO. Unless Washington is comfortable with such a scenario and unless Turkey is content to turn away from Washington and enter Moscow’s orbit, these two allies owe it to themselves to make a sustained effort to get on the same page in Syria.