Russia's plan for PKK-PYD: what will Moscow offer Ankara?

by Salih Yilmaz

How does Russia evaluate decision of the United States on the withdrawal of its troops from Syria?

The statement by US President Donald Trump to withdraw American forces from Syria, announced by him on December 19, 2018, forced active participants to the Syrian resolution process to reconsider their perspective strategies.

From the point of view of Russia, before the proclamation of this decision in Syria, there was a certain balance of power. And after the withdrawal of US troops, this balance was destroyed not in favor of Russia. According to the assessment of Russian experts (and the approach of the country's leaders does not differ from it), the decision of the USA to withdraw from Syria is an attempt to mislead everyone. It can be assumed that the countries of the region should now seek withdrawal from Syria of the Russian forces as well, but it is obvious that Russia does not intend to abandon its military presence in this country so far.

Russia is ready to consider options for exclusion from Assad process if a suitable alternative is found.

The allegations that Russia will not stop supporting the Assad regime are not entirely true, since Moscow, in principle, may agree to replace Assad with another player if all parties to the peace settlement support Assad’s withdrawal and his successor will not conduct an anti-Russian policy . It is even noted that in 2016, Russia was searching for alternatives to Assad, but no candidate agreed to this role. For Russia, the most important thing is to make sure Assad and other candidates don't pursue an anti-Russian strategy and for do not create a power vacuum in the country. In fact, Turkey’s confident refusal to cooperate with Assad makes Russia think about new candidates for creating strong Syria in the future.

Russia's opposition to PKK-PYD activity in the east of the Euphrates is similar to Turkey’s position

The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his New Year’s message to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, noted that thanks to the joint efforts of Moscow and Ankara, contributes greatly to the fight against terrorism in Syria and strengthens security in Eurasia, says a lot, including PKK -PYD and Idlib. In particular, this statement shows that the positions of Turkey and Russia may differ on some issues, both countries nevertheless refrain from a policy capable of putting each other in a difficult position.

Russia, of course, does not approve of the increased activity of Turkey in the region after the United States leaves Syria, but if it has to choose between Turkey and the United States, then it will prefer Turkey.

What will Russia offer Turkey in the PKK-PYD issue ? What are its plans?

In negotiations with Turkey, Russia offers above all the transition of the territory where PKK-PYD is active, under the control of the Assad regime. At the same time, the PKK-PYD terrorists will have to surrender their weapons, all members of the organization who are not local residents will be withdrawn from the country, and Russian forces will guard the Turkish-Syrian border. Russia proposes to provide this protection with the help of Muslim soldiers from Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, as is the case in Manbij, Aleppo and Deraa.

During a visit to Moscow of one of the leaders of PKK-PYD in Syria, Sipan Hamo, these conditions were offered to him, but they did not receive approval. PKK-PYD does not wish to lay down their arms and neither does they consider it appropriate to talk about withdraw from the country of those members who are not originally residents of Syria. The leaders of PKK-PYD themselves offer Russia conditional submission to Assad, but at the same time they want to retain the armed forces that will control the territories under their control.

The fact that Russia prefers to meet with Syrian Kurd Sipan Hamo, and not with Ilham Ahmed and Asya Yusuf, the leaders of PKK-PYD in Syria who came from Qandil mountains and are not Syrians, tell us something. It is known that Russia is a mediator in the negotiations between PKK-PYD and Assad. However, this mediation includes options for the continued existence of Assad, rather than strengthening the power of PKK-PYD, as in the United States. Russia does not oppose the cultural political autonomy of the Kurds in the east of the Euphrates. But Moscow is against the armed elements in this autonomy. It is emphasized that negotiations are possible if PKK-PYD transfers all weapons to the regime forces and agrees to a political cultural autonomy. Although Russia, in negotiations with PKK-PYD, takes into account Turkey’s scrupulousness and demands that all foreign elements sent from Qandil leave Syria for the time being, this is not possible, because the proposals of the United States are more acceptable to the PKK, according to which cultural political autonomy, and for this there is no need to surrender weapons.

It is believed that some 4,000–5,000 PKK-PYD members in the east of the Euphrates, who are not indigenous to Syria, can be sent to Iraq. As an example of this, they cite a plan to neutralize the terrorist elements in the Makhmur camp between northern Iraq and Turkey. But it seems that this plan cannot be used by the leadership of northern Iraq, since there are fears that it will not be possible to send about 4,000 members of PKK to northern Iraq and “dissolve” them among the Peshmerga. In this case, there is a risk that they, being opposed to Barzani, may cause a crisis. Moreover, such a plan will not be adopted by Barzani without the permission of the United States.

Although there are disputes over the idea of ​​creating a buffer zone by disarming PKK-PYD by Russia on the Turkish border, stripping the country of foreign terrorists and creating a Muslim police force, this idea is unacceptable for Turkey. So far, Russia does not oppose Turkey’s military operation in the territory from Ain El-Arab to Al-Maliki, not reaching the south of Al-Hasaki. However, starting from the border of Hasakoy, Russia wants to create a buffer zone. Under this plan, after the elimination of PKK-PYD with the cooperation of Turkey and Russia, they want to transfer the region under the control of Assad.

Turkey considers Russia's proposal well-intentioned, but its implementation is not possible because Turkey does not intend to trust the security of its borders to the initiative of another country or Assad. Although Russia gives guarantees about PKK-PYD, no one can guarantee that the PKK-PYD card will not be used in the future by Assad or other external actors.

Turkey, considering the Syrian issue, takes into account not only the PKK-PYD, but also the inhabitants of the region, who need to be freed from the persecution of Assad. The transfer of the Assad forces by Turkey to the region will mean that all the policies pursued by Turkey up to now have been in vain and that they will have to give up their convictions.

Russia’s proposals for the preservation of the Assad regime are unlikely to be approved by Turkey. Instead, Russia should ensure coordination with Turkey and rely on it more than Assad.

Russia and Iran have offered to include in the format of Astana and the east of the Euphrates

The implementation of Russia's proposals to continue the process after the withdrawal of American troops in the framework of the Astana talks is also not possible, because the Astana format is based on the process of political settlement in Syria as part of the termination of clashes. For Turkey, it is important that its security threats emanating from the terrorist organization in the east of the Euphrates be eliminated, and that neither PKK-PYD nor Assad should make local people suffer. Since this is directly related to Turkey, the policy of Russia and Iran also causes objections from other external subjects that may hamper Turkey’s operations. It seems that the United States and Israel will not be able to put up with the influence of Iran in the region.

The inclusion of Russia in the equation and Iran may be necessary for Russia to balance with the United States and Israel. But for Turkey, this situation may harm the fight against PKK-PYD. The Turkish public will not agree with the scenario in which PKK-PYD and Assad will continue to be players in the region.

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