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Turkey says Assad’s future up to Syrians to negotiate

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands at the start of the talks in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi, on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Pool Photo via AP)
ISTANBUL: Turkey supports a political solution for Syria but retains its “red lines” on the subject of Bashar Assad remaining president, a top Turkish ruling party official said on Thursday.

During a trilateral meeting with Russia and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday, Turkey made clear its “reservations” about Assad having any future role in Syria “after all these deaths,” Mahir Unal, the spokesman for the Justice and Development Party, told The Associated Press (AP).

Turkey also emphasized at the Sochi meeting, Unal said, that there must be negotiations between Assad and the opposition, which Ankara has supported from the start of Syria’s civil war, now in its seventh year.

“It’s not within the logic of negotiations to have a precise position today on the political solution and on whether the transition will be with or without Assad,” Unal said, adding that Turkey, Russia and Iran would act as “facilitators” in negotiations.

He also said that Turkey remains adamantly opposed to Syrian Kurdish fighters participating in negotiations — another red line — while at the same time supporting Syria’s territorial unity, AP reported.

The US-backed Syrian Kurds have battled the Daesh group in Syria and control a significant stretch of territory. However, Ankara considers them a terror group and an extension of the Kurdish insurgency within Turkey’s own borders.

In Sochi, the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran discussed ways to promote a peaceful settlement in Syria, including the return of refugees, humanitarian aid and exchange of prisoners.

Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that political settlement will require concessions from all sides, including Assad’s regime. The Syrian president had made a surprise trip to Sochi late on Monday for talks with Putin, which the Kremlin said were intended to lay the groundwork for Wednesday’s trilateral meeting.

“We have reached a consensus on helping the transition to an inclusive, free, fair and transparent political process that will be carried out under the leadership and ownership of the Syrian people,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after the meeting.

However, the issue of the participation of Syrian Kurds’ main political party PYD still seems on the table of the trio as it is seen by Ankara as an existential threat on its border because of close links with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody insurgency inside Turkey for more than three decades.

Erdogan emphasized that Turkey cannot share a platform with any terror organization that target Turkey’s domestic security, and added that “exclusion of terrorist elements from the process will remain among our priorities”.

Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, emphasized the importance of Moscow having convinced both Tehran and Ankara to become the guarantors of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress initiative that was initially announced as a purely Russian project.

“Yet, it seems that the participation of the PYD representatives in this upcoming congress continues to be a thorny issue between Russia and Turkey,” Ersen told Arab News.

At the same time, however, Ersen said that in principle Ankara is not against the participation of the Syrian Kurdish groups in the peace process — provided that they have no links with the PYD.

“This might help Ankara and Moscow find a middle way regarding this issue,” he said.

“On the other hand, there are also rumors that one of Russia’s main goals is to start a rapprochement process between the PYD and the Assad regime. I think this was one of the important issues discussed in Assad’s recent visit to Sochi,” he said.

According to Ersen, if Moscow achieves this goal, the PYD representatives may be persuaded to join the delegation of the Assad regime in the upcoming congress.

“But eliminating the Turkish reaction will still be a difficult issue for Moscow even in that case,” he said.

Ersen thinks that Russia still believes the US should remain as a major actor at the Syrian peace talks, where both countries prefer a political solution. “Russia-US relations are simultaneously shaped by the dynamics of cooperation and competition, and they are jointly supporting Geneva talks,” he said.

In parallel to this, peace talks in Geneva will resume on Nov. 28 under the auspices of the United Nations.

Oytun Orhan, a Syria analyst from ORSAM, an Ankara-based think-tank, said it seems impossible that PYD will take part in any political solution that involves Turkey.

“PYD’s eventual involvement may result in the collapse of Astana process, because the major reason for Turkey to develop its partnership with Russia and Iran is the US support for PYD,” Orhan told Arab News.

Orhan noted that any inclusion of PYD in the political settlement would bring up territorial integrity and federalism issues, something opposed by Turkey, Iran and the Assad regime. “Russia will rather extend this thorny issue to the time,” he said.

“Turkey would only give its consent to the leadership of Assad during the political transition process with one condition: organizing free, fair and transparent elections at the end of this process as well as getting some guarantees for a new constitution that takes into account the demands of the Syrian opposition,” Orhan said.

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