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Kurdish question hangs over Sochi conference

Three issues come to the fore in Syria at the beginning of 2018: The Astana-Sochi process, Idlib and the Kurds. Russia decided to convene, on Jan. 29 in Sochi, the Syrian People’s Congress, but the US, UK and France are opposed to this meeting because it might consolidate Russia’s already strong leading role in the solution of the Syrian crisis.
Russia is trying to accommodate Turkey’s insistent objection to the participation of the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). They will eventually participate under the name of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and the delegation will include some non-Kurds, such as Arabs, Turkmens, Armenians, Syriacs, Assyrians and Chechens, as well as the Kurds who support Kurdish political parties other than the PYD.
This scenario falls short of Turkey’s expectations but, when it is presented as an innocent package, it becomes more difficult for Turkey to reject, because that would be perceived as Turkey being opposed to the representation of around 10 percent of the Syrian population and a military force that controls a quarter of Syria’s territory, including almost all of its oil, gas and water resources.
The Sochi conference has to be linked one way or another to the work conducted under the UN’s auspices, because Russia wants the UN to endorse the entire process, including the withdrawal of forces from the US and Turkey.
France is not happy to see that the Astana and Sochi processes are dominated by Russia. President Emmanuel Macron voiced his discontent during a press conference held last week at the end of his talks with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
As the opposition is defeated in many places in Syria, Idlib has seen a concentration of various groups fighting against the regime. The Syrian army, on Jan. 7, carried out attacks in Idlib, mainly aimed at the opposition group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, and captured several villages in south Idlib, clearing the way to the rebel-held air base at Abu Al-Duhur.

Turkey-opposed efforts to create an autonomous Kurdish zone in the north of Syria remains the major issue ahead of peace talks later this month — and it may threaten the territorial integrity of the country.

Yasar Yakis

Meanwhile, Russia’s Hmeimim air base near Latakia was attacked last week by 13 drones. The Russian Defense Ministry subsequently sent a letter to the Turkish chief of joint staff and to the head of intelligence, bringing to their attention that the drones approached the air base from Idlib and asking them to establish observation posts in the area to fulfil its task of deconfliction. To emphasize its discontent, Russia leaked the content of this letter to the media.
At almost the same time, Turkey summoned the Russian and Iranian ambassadors in Ankara to the Foreign Ministry and asked for their respective governments’ intervention to stop the Syrian army’s bombing of opposition forces. This move contradicts Turkey’s commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity, because it will become void if Turkey complains about Syrian army attacks aimed at extending its sovereignty to all provinces including Idlib.
Turkey was more focused on what was going on in the neighboring Syrian province of Afrin, where Kurds declared their third autonomous canton. Turkey’s threat to crush any effort to create an autonomous Kurdish zone in the north of Syria is legitimate, but such a threat may not be sufficient to prevent this process from following its own path. Turkey has to make more effort to understand what the major actors have in mind when it comes to the Kurdish issue. London-based Pan-Arab paper Asharq Al-Awsat reported on Jan. 8 that the Trump administration is planning to recognize the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as the legitimate authority in eastern Syria. This would mean the Syrian government loses part of its sovereignty in the northeast of the country, while for Turkey it would be a nightmare.
France gave an indirect sign of extending similar recognition to Kurds by announcing that the PYD has the right to judge the French Daesh fighters it has captured. France announced this position one day before Erdogan’s visit to Paris.
The Kurds remain the major issue in Syria, and it may threaten the territorial integrity of the country. The US will use the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces to negotiate concessions with the regime, while Russia and Iran will support the government against the American pressure. Serious clashes may be expected during this confrontation and the Syrian civilian population will continue to pay a heavy toll.
If Turkey-Syria relations had not deteriorated to this extent, the easiest solution would be for Turkey to cooperate with Damascus and agree with it not to let the Kurds establish an uninterrupted belt in the north of Syria. Such a solution would give full satisfaction to Ankara and Damascus, but it is conceivable only if they were able to forget the recent past.
•  Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.
Twitter: @yakis_yasar