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High Stakes for Putin, Erdogan Summit on Northeast Syria

High Stakes for Putin, Erdogan Summit on Northeast Syria

Monday, 21 October, 2019 - 18:15
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepare to enter a hall for their talks at the Bocharov Ruchei residence, in Sochi, Russia, September 17, 2018. (AP)
Asharq Al-Awsat

Turkey's president is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin this week in talks crucial to the outcome of Turkey's latest incursion into northern Syria, and to the broader Syrian war.

The stakes couldn't be higher. An agreement between Putin — who has backed the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad in Syria's multi-faceted war, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could definitively end the fighting along the Turkey-Syria border.

But failure to reach a deal could set the stage for a wider conflict that pulls in Turkey, Russia, regime forces, Kurdish forces and Turkey-backed Syrian fighters, said The Associated Press.

Tuesday's meeting in Sochi, Russia, will come just hours before the clock runs out on a ceasefire agreed between Turkey and the United States. Under that agreement, Turkish troops and their allied Syrian fighters stopped fighting for five days, on condition the Kurdish fighters holding the area withdraw. The agreement has largely met Turkey's aims, but left the Kurds feeling betrayed by Washington, which is currently pulling US troops out of the area.

Any deal Russia reaches with Turkey will have to address what happens to regime forces and Russians that have moved into limited areas in the border region, and the fact that much of northeastern Syria has majority Kurdish populations.

Erdogan launched the military offensive into Syria on October 9 with two stated aims: Clearing the area of Kurdish fighters and resettling about 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey in new towns and cities Turkey will build there.

Turkey describes the Kurdish fighters as terrorists, seeing them as little more than an extension of a separatist Kurdish group which has been fighting inside Turkey on and off since the 1980s.

Erdogan has long complained about the presence of the Kurdish fighters on Turkey's borders, and Ankara was aghast at the creation of what was essentially an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria.

Erdogan has said the Turkish-patrolled "safe zone" in Syria into which the refugees would be resettled would extend about 30 kilometers into Syria and running 444 kilometers (275 miles) along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Since much of the border area is predominantly Kurdish, this has raised concerns of an attempt to alter the region's demographics.

Turkish forces and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters moved in days after US President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing American forces. Trump's decision was widely seen as an abandonment of Kurdish fighters who had died in the thousands working with the US to combat the ISIS group.

Although Turkish officials say the ceasefire agreement specifically covers a roughly 120-kilometer (75 mile) stretch between the Syrian border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, and extends 30 kilometers into Syria, Erdogan has made clear he wants Turkish military presence along the full stretch of the border from the Euphrates River to Syria's border with Iraq.

But there's an added complication.

Abandoned by their former allies, the Kurds turned to Assad for protection from Turkey.

This has led to the presence of regime troops in limited areas on the Turkish-Syrian border, namely in the Kurdish-majority town of Kobani, once a flashpoint in the fight against ISIS.

Meanwhile Russia, which often has advisers backing Syrian forces, has raised a Russian flag east of the Turkish-controlled town of Jarablus.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that Syria's Kurds should be incorporated into the country's legal structure so they do not pose a threat to Turkey.

Russia's "goal is to create a situation where all Kurdish organizations in Syria are woven into the country's legal framework and constitution, so that there are no illegal armed units in Syria," he said.

Putin's foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov said long-term stability in the region can only be achieved by restoring Syria's territorial integrity and respecting all ethnic groups. But he refused to answer questions on whether Russia expects Turkey to withdraw its forces from Syria or spell out any other details of the Kremlin's stance.

For its part, the Syrian regime has not commented on the upcoming meeting. Damascus has said next to nothing about the agreement reached through the Russians to allow Syrian troops to deploy in positions along the border and other spots as US troops withdraw.

On Friday, Assad received Putin's envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiyev. State media quoted Assad as saying the focus should now be on stopping the Turkish offensive and the withdrawal of Turkish and American forces "since they are occupation forces."

A senior Kurdish official, Redur Khalil, told The AP they want the meeting to come up with a decision to offer international protection to the area taken over by Turkey. He said they want "a permanent ceasefire" that would guarantee Turkey won't expand its presence in Syria.

Khalil said the protection would be for civilians who want to return home and are afraid of Turkey's plans for demographic changes, or revenge attacks from Turkey-backed Syrian fighters.

Most Kurdish civilians have fled the town of Ras al-Ain, fearing killings or repression by those fighters. Any still in the territory the Kurdish fighters are leaving are likely to follow suit.

Both Kurdish and Turkish officials have said Kurdish forces are indeed withdrawing from the area in question, although each side has accused the other of violating the ceasefire on several occasions.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned on Monday that Turkey will resume its offensive if the Kurdish fighters don't vacate the area by the end of the ceasefire agreement on Tuesday evening.

"If they don't withdraw, our operation will restart," Cavusoglu said.

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