Ankara considers the Syrian-Kurdish PYD an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is waging an insurgency against the Turkish state.
To encircle Kurdish-held Afrin, Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters were deployed to Syria’s northern Azaz region near the Turkish border on Thursday. Turkish forces and military equipment were also amassed at the border.
On Friday, about 170 Russian troops began pulling out of the region ahead of Ankara’s imminent military operation there, Turkish media reported.
The state-run Anadolu Agency reported that Russian soldiers are set to withdraw 17 km southward to the Nubul and Zehra districts, which are controlled by the Syrian regime. But there are reports that some Russian police remain in Afrin.
The reported withdrawal, which has not yet been confirmed by Russian official sources, came hours after a meeting between Turkey’s and Russia’s military and intelligence chiefs in Moscow on Thursday. Damascus has warned it could shoot down any Turkish planes in Syrian airspace.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s military has reportedly built its fourth observation post in the de-escalation zone in the Syrian province of Idlib, as part of the Astana deal that was brokered by Ankara, Moscow and Tehran last year.
Turkey was tasked with setting up 14 military observation posts around the zone to monitor de-escalation efforts, but Moscow has accused it of stalling in fulfilling its commitments.
“We are still waiting for Turkey to set up the observation posts as soon as possible,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Jan. 11.
Commentators say an increase in Ankara’s efforts in Idlib is aimed at securing Russia’s blessing for a Turkish offensive in Afrin.
“Russia is trying to play its own game in Afrin,” Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Arab News.
“Due to the fact that Moscow’s priority is to strengthen the Syrian government, Russia could be trying to influence the Afrin-based PYD to compromise with Damascus on issues of security.”
But Moscow will only give Afrin to Turkey if it gets something significant in return, he said. “Turkey and Russia may agree on a handover of the canton to the (Syrian) central government,” Akhmetov added.
Enes Ayasli, a research assistant at Sakarya University in Turkey, said Russia, with five military bases in Afrin, is the primary actor that Turkey needs to consider in terms of its operation.
“Contrary to the US, which is adopting a wait-and-see policy, Russia has been using Afrin as a trump card to promote security in western Idlib,” he told Arab News, adding that there is a trade-off between Ankara and Moscow.
But experts are cautious about the full opening of Afrin’s airspace to Turkish flights. “Turkey has missiles and howitzers that can destroy predetermined targets given Afrin’s proximity to the Turkish border,” said Ayasli.
“So it’s not a must for Ankara to wait for approval for the opening of Afrin’s airspace. The operation could be carried out under any circumstances,” he added.
“Turkey’s military plans not only include Afrin but also (the Arab-majority town of) Manbij, where there’s a US military base. The increasing US sphere of influence in Syria is a threat (to Ankara),” he said.
“Properly managing the conflict of interests between Russia and the US will strengthen Turkey’s position in Syria.”