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Ankara’s red lines prevail on Sochi guest list

Free Syrian Army fighters near Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, Syria on Monday. (Reuters)
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.

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