Turkey hopes to use an Idlib model against PYD in northern Syria

Every day it becomes even more harder for Turkish diplomats to determine who is their genuine ally. The conflict that has dragged on for several years in neighbouring Syria has thoroughly tainted Ankara’s relations with its main military-political ally, the United States. The reason is that the tow nations are trying to maintain their influence in Syria, but they seemed to fail to find a common denominator, as it was the case at the very beginning of the conflict. The United States works closely with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Turkey considers this organization to be part of a terrorist network that has been threatening the country's territorial integrity for more than 30 years. To exert pressure on the US decision-makers, Turkey is ready to use any opportunity, including developing cooperation on Idlib with Russia.

In general terms, Turkey’s position on US cooperation with Syrian Kurds is influenced by two interrelated factors. Most important of them is that the United States did not provide Turkey, despite numerous attempts to achieve clarity, a clear explanation of how long the cooperation with the Syrian Kurds will continue. At the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, the American authorities insisted on a rather forced, rather than voluntary coordination of the international coalition in the fight against ISIS (IS, Islamic State - a terrorist organization prohibited in Russia) with the only effective force on the ground - the Syrian Kurds united under the PYD’s military wing, YPG.

Today, when the threat from terrorists in the military-political sphere is largely neutralized, the US authorities declare  the need to cooperate with the Syrian Kurds to counter Iranian military forces in Syria. At the same time, while the Americans are moving away from specifics in a dialogue with their Turkish partners, the Syrian Kurds are building a real "garrison state" in the territory under their control. According to Turkish data , for the entire period of cooperation, the Americans transferred to the Kurds over 5000 trucks and 2 thousand aircraft full of lethal ammunition that may be used in future clashes with Turkish security and military personnel, this time on the Turkish soil.

A number of observers are convinced that the level of aid supplied by Western countries does not match the nature and degree of threat posed by ISIS terrorists still operating in the desert regions of eastern Syria.  Turkish leadership is even more worried about the construction of US military bases, some of which also include the military of several European countries. Fortification of Western positions in the PYD-dominated territories complicates any military operation for the risk of collateral damage inflicted on Turkey’s NATO allies.

The fears of the Turkish authorities are justified. And the point here is not in the military cooperation of its allies with political forces that threaten the very national security of Turkey alone. Ankara's particular attention is focused on attempts by the PYD to use current situation to legitimize its political model of an autonomous federation, which Kurdish separatists intend to implement in Turkey, where more than 50% of all Kurds in the Middle East live today.

In these rather painful conditions for Ankara, the US military not only refuses to recognize the connection of the PYD with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, despite multiple Turkish protests, but also supports the negotiations of Syrian Kurds with Damascus, including talks on granting autonomy to the northern territories of the country, dominated by the Syrian Kurdish factions.

For these reasons, Ankara continues to put pressure on the US administration in close conjunction with diplomatic initiatives to resolve the problem of Syrian Kurds in a conflict-free manner. The operation in Afrin in the beginning of this year, as well as a series of limited air strikes in the area bordering with Syria Sinjar mountain range in Iraq in April 2017 indicates the presence of a clear plan for Ankara to purge the entire Syrian border from all anti-Turkish organizations.

News about the concentration of Turkish army units near the Syrian Tel-Abyad area, one of the administrative centres of political entity under the control of the PYD, also indicates Ankara’s determination to undertake such operations in the presence of the American troops. But do not think that a military invasion in Syria is the only thing that Turkey can offer. Ankara's diplomatic initiatives include negotiations with the United States on the peaceful and gradual liberation of city of Menbij from the pro-PYD elements and its transfer to the local forces that are neutral towards Turkey.

Turkey wants to use the model of cooperation with the United States on the evacuation of armed detachments of the PYD supporters from Menbij and in other cities on the eastern bank of the Euphrates. Nevertheless, the pace of implementation of the Menbij road map does not suit Ankara’s plans because of the unwillingness of some US allies on the ground to risk relations with the Kurds, so Turkey hopes to strengthen its diplomatic front with successful cooperation with Russia in other areas.

It is noteworthy that after the Sochi summit Putin and Erdogan agreed on Idlib and that heads of diplomatic offices sharply criticized US actions in northern Syria. Russia's support (albeit in words) of Turkey’s position, which unequivocally regards Syrian Kurds under the leadership of the PYD as terrorists, gave enough reasons to the Turkish leadership to hope for Russian support in the event of a conflict, once it evolves in the military phase. But at the same time, it is important to note that there is no evidence of whether Moscow is really ready for this at this stage of the Syrian conflict. However, it is obvious that the Russian leadership does not miss the opportunity to keep the conflict between Turkey and the United States over Syrian Kurds in a heated state.

Moreover, Russia now can not afford to refuse to work with the Syrian Kurds, and it hardly considers it necessary. The Russian leadership has repeatedly stated its intention to consider the Syrian Kurdish issue in the framework of an inter-Syrian settlement. As part of this position, Moscow does not share the position of Ankara that the issue has a regional dimension and directly affects the national security of Turkey. In addition, Kurds have established themselves as a rational political force capable of negotiation, whose interests largely coincide with the interests of the Syrian government on principle issues.

It is important to note that the Russian position on the Syrian Kurds is much more dependent on the actions of the United States than on the political course of the Turkish government. Russia's desire to see Syrian Kurds as full participants in the Syrian negotiations, including in the framework of the dialogue on the rights of autonomy, indicates the fundamental desire of Russian diplomats to maintain an independent position on the Syrian-Kurdish problem.

But at the same time, Turkey hopes to use the groundwork of cooperation with Russia in the fight against terrorists in Idlib against Syrian-Kurdish armed groups. Ankara is trying to work out a model of conflict-free elimination of the terrorist threat by dissociating radical groups from moderate opposition, disbanding terrorist gangs with the subsequent integration of their members into local structures and, finally, the physical destruction of irreconcilable radical representatives. In addition, the “idlib model”, if successful, can be applied in the eastern Euphrates: Turkey can potentially eliminate the terrorist threat without significantly destabilizing the territory in northern Syria.

Yet there is still the possibility of conflict. The Menbij map is unlikely to lead to satisfying results in Ankara’s eyes, the negotiations are most likely caused by the need to formally have at least some positive agenda in bilateral relations between two NATO allies. In Idlib, however, terrorist elements retain considerable military and political influence on the ground, despite all attempts by the Turkish side to influence the situation in favour of moderate opposition.

At the same time, the American leadership made it clear that it would linger in Syria, hinting at the continuation of cooperation with the Syrian Kurds. Within this perspective, it is worth expecting that Turkey will strive to use its cooperation with Russia in Syria for the sake of its interests in the issue of fighting the PKK. For Russia, this circumstance carries certain risks - at a minimum, Ankara may require breaking off relations with the Syrian Kurds. But on the other hand, Moscow can get the opportunity to achieve significant concessions from Turkey in the framework of the Syrian talks.

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