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Dispute over who speaks for Kurds at Syria peace talks

Representatives of the Syria regime and rebel groups along with other attendees take part in the session of Syria peace talks in Astana on October 31, 2017. (AFP)
ANKARA: Turkey has given Russia a list of Kurdish groups it believes should be invited to a proposed Syrian peace and reconciliation conference sponsored by Moscow.
The conference was planned for the Black Sea resort of Sochi this month, but has been postponed amid disputes over who should attend. There are differences over the role of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their political wing, the PYD. Ankara views the YPG as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“The YPG is not the sole representative of the Kurds. Actually, it represents only a small portion of them,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday.
“We are not against our Kurdish brothers, we stand with them. We handed the list of those who represent the Kurds to Russia.”
The participation of the PYD in the proposed conference “means the withdrawal of Turkey. Such a scenario is against Russia’s interests and it will hinder all efforts for a political settlement of the Syrian crisis,” Oytun Orhan, an expert on Syria at ORSAM, a think tank in Ankara, told Arab News.
“On the other side of the spectrum, Ankara doesn’t want to position itself as anti-Kurd. It has already established close relations with other Kurds in Syria, like the Kurdish National Council.”
Kurdish opinion-formers and tribal leaders could be invited to the conference to increase its inclusiveness and boost its legitimacy, Orhan said.
“However, further steps should be taken on the ground because the YPG has still the military power and holds substantial territory in Syria. At the end of the day, Russia will have to reach a deal with them or convince them through military means.”
Ankara, Tehran and Moscow, the three guarantors of the Astana peace strand that had led to cease-fires and de-escalation zones throughout Syria, are expected to meet again soon in Sochi to review progress in the political settlement of the conflict.
“Due to the March 2018 elections, Russia is now a country which is producing political rather than military solutions,” said Mete Sohtaoglu, a Middle East analyst in Istanbul.
“Russia plans to bring the PYD to the table without any conditions or demands, but it is trying to open the offices of Kurdish political parties whose activities were not allowed by the PYD in northern Syria and to form a political coalition including those groups, while persuading Ankara about their participation in Sochi and Astana as the Kurdish delegation,” he told Arab News.
Foreign Minister Cavusoglu also hinted at a forthcoming Turkish military operation in Afrin in northern Syria, a Kurdish militant stronghold that has been under the control of the YPG since last year. Turkey views it as a threat after several cross-border attacks by the PYD in Afrin in the past.
The Turkish military has set up three monitoring posts in the de-escalation zones in neighboring Idlib, at the southern part of Afrin, aiming at the same time to contain potential security threats. However, experts do not expect an imminent military operation.
“Russia would not allow such an operation,” Orhan said. “Rather, it will offer Turkey a middle ground, by asking the YPG to withdraw from Afrin and calling regime forces to replace them.”
Sohtaoglu agreed, and said Russia was trying to domesticate the PYD/YPG on behalf of Tehran and Ankara, and tone down their demands. “If the PYD rejects this it will become the spoiler and face Tehran, Damascus and Ankara militarily,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin said on Tuesday that despite its partial military withdrawal from Syria, Russia would keep its naval and air base in Syria to carry out strikes against terrorists if needed.

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