Ankara’s red lines prevail on Sochi guest list

Free Syrian Army fighters near Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, Syria on Monday. (Reuters)
Updated 23 January 2018
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Ankara’s red lines prevail on Sochi guest list

ANKARA: Turkey, Russia and Iran have reached a consensus on the 1,600-strong guest list for the upcoming National Dialogue Congress on Syria, scheduled for Jan. 29 and 30 in Russia’s Black Sea resort city Sochi.
Following consistent objections from Turkey, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) — considered to be a terrorist organization by Ankara — has not been invited to the talks.
Instead, Syria’s Kurdish representatives will be the Kurdish National Congress and some representatives, selected by Russia, of Kurdish tribes and civil society in Kurdish-dominated areas of Syria.
There had been speculation ahead of the announcement that in return for Turkey’s support to Russian-sponsored peace process in Syria, Russia agreed to respect Ankara’s objection to PYD involvement in the talks and also gave its consent for Turkey to launch its recent Olive Branch Operation to drive Kurdish militias out of Afrin.
The Sochi meeting is part of the Moscow-led initiative seeking a political solution to end Syria’s civil war, which is about to enter its eighth year. The meeting has been delayed for months by Turkey’s objections to the participation of the PYD.
Dr. Dimitar Bechev, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said that sidelining the PYD is a diplomatic courtesy to Ankara, but that it could also be interpreted as a warning to the left-wing party “not to go too far in its partnership with the US.”
In the long term, he said, Russia and the PYD will likely end up working together in Syria’s political transition process.
“Russia wants to start the Sochi process without any further delay. So, keeping the PYD off the guest list is just a temporary precaution of Moscow to satisfy Ankara’s red lines,” Bechev told Arab News.
Since 2016, the PYD has had a political representation office in Moscow, while Russian observers who were based in Afrin until the start of the Turkish offensive had been cooperating with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), PYD’s military wing.
In December, a Russian general and YPG officials met in the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor to evaluate Syria’s post-Daesh period.
Kerim Has, a lecturer in Turkish-Russian relations at Moscow University, believes the PYD’s omission from Sochi can be seen as a Turkish “stick” being wielded by Russia to convince the PYD to agree to Russia’s terms on the future of Syria.
“I’m not sure that Russia has once and for all left the PYD out of the table in peace process,” he told Arab News. “If the Turkish army succeeds in Afrin we will see a much clearer realization of Russia’s vision for Syria, with a narrow scope of autonomy for Kurds. But if Turkey’s losses grow, Ankara will likely be faced with the American (vision of) far-reaching Kurdish autonomy.”
Syrian political analyst Ibrahim Al-Assil, a resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, does not believe the Sochi Congress will achieve a breakthrough in the Syrian conflict without the attendance of the PYD.
“The PYD controls significant areas in Syria, and any negotiations that exclude them won't be able to achieve a sustainable agreement,” he told Arab News.
It seems inevitable that Turkey’s ongoing Afrin offensive will fuel tensions between Russia and the PYD, which holds Moscow responsible. The party has issued a statement claiming that the offensive could not have happened without the permission of Russia, as Moscow controls Afrin’s airspace.
Keno Gabriel, spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces — a US-backed umbrella group of fighters led by the YPG — said on Monday that Russia had “betrayed” the YPG by allowing Turkish planes to attack Afrin.
Meanwhile, a high-level delegation from America’s State and Defense Departments arrived in Ankara early on Tuesday to discuss the Afrin operation. Also on Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his American counterpart Rex Tillerson met in Paris.
The visit came a day after White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged in a news conference that the US takes Turkey’s security concerns seriously.
“We are committed to working with Turkey as a NATO ally,” she said.
On the fourth day of the Afrin operation, the Turkish Armed Forces reportedly advanced about 15km into YPG-held territory. Three Turkish soldiers were killed amid fierce clashes in the city of Azaz.
Nursin Atesoglu Guney, dean of the faculty of economics, administrative and social sciences at Bahcesehir Cyprus University, said, “Moscow made a strategic choice vis-a-vis the current regional picture, and is now aware of Turkey’s determination against PYD terror. It therefore stood by Turkey during the offensive.
“The US’ latest attempts to establish a Kurdish-led border guard force in Syria have also been a triggering factor for Moscow in sidelining the PYD,” she added.
But, according to Moscow University’s Has, Russia is still trying to open discussions about Kurdish autonomy in Syria, whether the proposal comes from PYD or other Kurdish participants in the Congress.
“As Moscow plans to organize a Sochi Congress more than once, the role and status of the PYD in Sochi will depend on the advance of the Turkish army on the ground in Afrin on one side, and on a possible deal between the PYD and the Syrian regime about the transfer of power in Afrin on the other,” he noted.


One year after Daesh defeat, Syria’s Raqqa still in fear

Updated 18 October 2018
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One year after Daesh defeat, Syria’s Raqqa still in fear

  • While the nightmare of militant rule may be gone, most of the city still lies in ruins
  • ‘The war has worn us out. Us and our children. It has destroyed our future’

RAQQA, Syria: A year after a US-backed alliance of Syrian fighters drove the Daesh group from the northern city of Raqqa, traumatized civilians still live in fear of near-daily bombings.
“Every day we wake up to the sound of an explosion,” said resident Khaled Al-Darwish.
“We’re scared to send our children to school ... there’s no security,” he added.
The militants’ brutal rule in Raqqa was brought to an end in October 2017 after a months-long ground offensive by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces supported by air strikes from a US-led coalition.
But despite manning roadblocks at every street corner, the SDF and the city’s newly created Internal Security Forces are struggling to stem infiltration by Daesh sleeper cells.
At Raqqa’s entrance, soldiers verify drivers’ identity papers and carefully sift through lorry cargoes.
Inside the city, there are regular foot patrols and armored vehicles sit at strategic points.
Women wearing the niqab are asked to show their faces to female security members before entering public buildings.
“If there wasn’t fear about a return of Daesh, there wouldn’t be this increased military presence,” said Darwish, a father of two, speaking near the infamous Paradise Square.
It was here that Daesh carried out decapitations and other brutal punishments, earning the intersection a new name — “the roundabout of hell.”
While the nightmare of militant rule may be gone, most of the city still lies in ruins and there are near daily attacks on checkpoints and military vehicles, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Although a series of stinging defeats have cut Daesh’s so-called caliphate down to desert hideouts, the militants still manage to hit beyond the patches of ground they overtly control.
Some Raqqa residents say the city’s new security forces lack the expertise to cope.
“We are exhausted. Every day we don’t know if we will die in a bomb explosion or if we will go home safe and sound,” said Abu Younes, sitting in his supermarket near a roundabout not far from Paradise Square.
“There is no security — (the new security forces) on the roadblocks are not qualified and there is a lot of negligence,” he complained.
“There are faults that enable Daesh to infiltrate the city easily and carry out attacks.”
But despite the continued attacks, a semblance of normal life has returned to the city.
Shops have reopened and traffic has returned to major roads — albeit choked by the impromptu checkpoints.
In a public garden, children climb up a multi-colored slide and onto dilapidated swings as their mothers sit on nearby benches carefully keeping watch.
They are set amidst an apocalyptic backdrop of twisted metal and splayed balconies — the remnants of buildings torn apart by US-led coalition air raids.
Nearby, Ahmed Al-Mohammed pauses as he listens to music on his phone. Like others, he does not hide his disquiet.
“We’re scared because of the presence of Daesh members in the city,” the 28-year-old said.
“The security forces need to tighten their grip.”
Ahmed Khalaf, who commands Raqqa’s Internal Security Forces, defended the work of his men and claimed successes against the militants.
He said patrols are highly organized and that a “joint operation cell” had recently been established with coalition forces to monitor the city’s security.
“Recently we arrested four (militants) — it was a cell that took part in attacks that terrorized the city,” said Khalaf, sporting plain green fatigues.
“We are continuing our investigation to uncover the other cells,” he added.
“Daesh’s goal is to destroy the country and to not let anyone live in safety,” he said.
Security and stability are what Najla Al-Ahmed wants most for her children.
“The nightmare of Daesh follows us everywhere — whenever we try to rest, explosions start up again,” said the 36-year-old, as she shopped with her young ones.
“The war has worn us out. Us and our children. It has destroyed our future,” she said.