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)
Updated 01 February 2018

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

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 Operation Olive Branch was only possible after Russian forces were withdrawn from the area and Turkish jets were allowed to use the airspace, which is controlled by Russia.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.


Trump plan calls for Palestinian state with capital in eastern Jerusalem

Updated 16 min 54 sec ago

Trump plan calls for Palestinian state with capital in eastern Jerusalem

  • United States will recognize Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank
  • The absence of the Palestinians from Trump’s announcement is likely to fuel criticism that the plan tilts toward Israel

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump on Tuesday proposed creation of a Palestinian state with a capital in eastern Jerusalem, dependent on Palestinians taking steps to become self-governing, in an effort to achieve a peace breakthrough in their decades of conflict with Israel.
Senior administration officials, briefing Reuters on the plan the president announced at the White House, said that under Trump’s proposed Middle East peace plan the United States will recognize Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank.

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Read the full report here: Middle East peace plan

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In exchange, Israel would agree to accept a four-year freeze on new settlement activity while Palestinian statehood is negotiated.
“Today, Israel has taken a giant step toward peace,” Trump said as he announced the plan at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, saying he also sent a letter about it to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“This is a historic day,” Netanyahu said, comparing Trump’s peace plan to former President Harry Truman’s 1948 recognition of the state of Israel. “On this day, you became the first world leader to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over areas in Judea and Samaria that are vital to our security and central to our heritage,” he added, using the Biblical names for the West Bank.
While Israeli leaders have welcomed Trump’s long-delayed plan, Palestinian leaders had rejected it even before its official release, saying his administration was biased toward Israel.
The absence of the Palestinians from Trump’s announcement is likely to fuel criticism that the plan tilts toward Israel’s needs rather than those of the Palestinians.
Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down in 2014, and it was far from clear that the Trump plan will resuscitate them.
US officials said they were braced for initial Palestinian skepticism but hoped that over time they will agree to negotiate. The plan places high hurdles for the Palestinians to overcome to reach their long-sought goal of a state.
It remains to be seen also how Israel responds, given the pressures its right-wing prime minister, Netanyahu, faces going into his third attempt at re-election in less than a year.
The US plan represented the most dramatic and detailed attempt to break the historic deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians in several years, the result of a three-year effort by Trump senior advisers Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz and former adviser Jason Greenblatt.
Trump has endorsed a proposed map outlining the two states, the officials said. The Palestinian state would be double the size of land that Palestinians currently control and would be connected by roads, bridges and tunnels, the official said.
Trump briefed Netanyahu and his rival in Israel’s March 2 elections, Blue and White Party chief Benny Gantz, in talks on Monday.
Asked what Washington was prepared to do to advance negotiations, the officials said it was up to the Palestinians to come forward and to say they are prepared to negotiate.
They said both Netanyahu and Gantz had said they were willing to support the effort.
Israeli leaders have agreed to negotiate on the basis of the Trump plan and agreed to the map, the officials said. Israel’s agreement on statehood for Palestinians is dependent on a security arrangement to protect Israelis, they said.
Israel will also take steps to ensure Muslim access to Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and respect Jordan’s role regarding holy sites, the officials said.
Palestinian statehood would be dependent on Palestinians taking steps for self-government, such as respect for human rights, freedom of the press and having transparent and credible institutions, the officials said.
“In doing the map it’s incredibly difficult to try to create contiguity for a Palestinian state based on what’s happened over the past 25 years so if we don’t do this freeze now I think that their chance to ever have a state basically goes away,” said one official in reference to the growth of Jewish settlements.
“So what we’ve done is basically we’ve bought four more years for them to get their act together and try to negotiate a deal for them to become a state, and I think this is a huge opportunity for them,” the official said.
The official said the question for Palestinians is will they “come to the table and negotiate?“
If they agree to negotiate, there are some areas that can be compromised in the future, the official said without offering details.
Trump’s plan calls for Palestinians to be able to return to a future state of Palestine and creates a “generous compensation fund,” the official said.
About Israel retaining the settlements, a US official said: “The plan is based on a principle that people should not have to move to accomplish peace ... But it does stop future settlement expansion which we consider to be the most realistic approach.
“The notion that hundreds of thousands of people, or tens of thousands of people, are going to be removed either forcibly or not from their homes is just not worth entertaining,” the official said.
Before the Trump announcement, thousands of Palestinians demonstrated in Gaza City and Israeli troops reinforced positions near a flashpoint site between the Palestinian city of Ramallah and the Jewish settlement of Beit El in the West Bank.
A Netanyahu spokesman said the Israeli leader would fly to Moscow on Wednesday to brief Russian President Vladimir Putin on the proposals.
Palestinian leaders had said they were not invited to Washington, and that no plan could work without them.
On Monday Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he would not agree to any deal that did not secure a two-state solution. That formula, the basis for many years of frustrated international peace efforts, envisages Israel co-existing with a Palestinian state.
Palestinians have refused to deal with the Trump administration in protest at such pro-Israeli policies as its moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whose eastern half the Palestinians seek for a future capital.
The Trump administration in November reversed decades of US policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington no longer regarded the settlements on West Bank land as a breach of international law. Palestinians and most countries view the settlements as illegal, which Israel disputes.
Both Trump and Netanyahu face political challenges at home. Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives last month and is on trial in the Senate on abuse of power charges.
On Tuesday Netanyahu was formally indicted in court on corruption charges, after he withdrew his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
Both men deny any wrongdoing.