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Afrin offensive strains Turkey and Russia’s ‘alliance of convenience’

Turkey and allied Syrian fighters are pressing on with their offensive in the Kurdish-controlled Afrin enclave despite mounting international concern. (AFP)
ANKARA: Turkey’s military operation in north-western Syria and the participation of a Kurdish militant in recent talks in Sochi has hinted at potential cracks in the partnership between Ankara and Moscow.
Relations between the two countries fell to a low point in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near its border with Syria.
Months earlier Russia had launched its military offensive in support of Bashar Assad, while Turkey had backed rebel groups fighting the regime from the start of the uprising.
After the jet was brought down, there was fear a direct conflict between the two nations, but relations gradually improved leading to an agreement over safe zones in Syria last year.
Last month, Turkey’s military launched an offensive into the Syrian region of Afrin against Kurdish militants which it considers terrorists. Operation Olive Branch was only possible after Russian forces were withdrawn from the area and Turkish jets were allowed to use the airspace, which is controlled by Russia.
But that tacit support may be in doubt after Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Wednesday highlighted that the number of casualties had “reached hundreds, including civilians” and “urged the parties to exercise restraint.”
She also reiterated Moscow’s concern that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) blamed Russia for allowing the Turkish offensive to go ahead and that Moscow had “betrayed the Kurds.”
Russia had previously had close relations with Kurdish groups in Syria.
Another point of contention was the participation of Mihrac Ural, a Kurdish militant wanted in Turkey, in the Russian sponsored peace talks in Sochi on Tuesday.
Ankara was angered that Ural attended the talks as a delegate in the pro-Assad groups. He is the leader of an outlawed organization, the People’s Liberation Party-Front (THKP-C), that Turkey says killed 52 people in an attack in Hatay province in 2013.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that Turkey had asked Russia to extradite Ural.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also spoke with Vladimir Putin on the phone on Wednesday to discuss the outcome of Sochi Congress, which failed to make diplomatic headway toward resolving the war.
Experts think that the Kurdish situation will become increasingly problematic for cooperation between Turkey and Russia in Syria in the coming months. But they say the two countries will try to remain united on key issues about the future of Syria — including the fight against Daesh.
Emre Ersen, an expert on Syria from Marmara University in Istanbul, said Russia’s call for restraint in Afrin was a reminder that their cooperation over Syria is “an alliance of convenience.”
“The outcomes of the Sochi Congress have been somewhat underwhelming,” Ersen told Arab News.
“This was partly because the Russian leaders failed to convince Turkey to delay its military operation in Afrin.
“Both countries are aware that they need each other in Syria, although they have important concerns regarding the intentions of one another.”
Turkey and Russia are dependent on each other in reaching their own objectives in Syria.
Turkey needs Russia’s consent for Operation Olive Branch to be a success and Russia needs Turkey for Moscow’s plans in rebel-held Idlib province, Ersen said.
The rift over the Kurdish operation between Turkey and the US, which supports the Kurdish militants as part of its strategy against Daesh, also means that the cracks between Ankara and Moscow will not develop into a schism.
“Moscow is aware of the serious disagreements between the two Nato allies and it wants to continue to exploit this situation to its own advantage not only in Syria, but also in terms of its ongoing geopolitical rivalry with Nato in East Europe and the Black Sea,” Ersen said.
Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, said Russian diplomatic successes were made possible by skillful balancing between major rival parties.
“Russia has never claimed or wanted to abandon Syrian Kurds once and for all,” he told Arab News.
Russia’s main motive for allowing the Turkish offensive in Afrin was to warn the PYD about its cooperation with the US as it could harm the sovereignty of the Syrian state.
“Russian diplomatic officials now are trying to restore the balance and send positive signal to the Kurds. I think we must see this as a policy of stick and carrot,” Akhmetov said.
“I think Russian officials believe that Turkey will be much more inclined to push Kurds under the influence of Damascus and Russia rather than leave them under the US, considering American plans to establish a long-term presence in northern Syria,” he added.
The PYD has had a political office in the Russian capital for two years, while Russian observers in Afrin had been in close cooperation with the PYD’s military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) until the beginning of Turkish offensive.
Both groups are considered by Ankara to be “terrorist”, and associated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that was waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

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