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Russian jury still out on Turkey's Afrin offensive

Though reports in Turkey suggest the Russians have greenlit plans for an operation in Afrin, Turkey’s top military and intelligence brass emerged from talks in Moscow today looking glum.
Turkey's Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar (R) and Turkish intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan leave after a meeting with Russian delegation in Istanbul, Turkey, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Osman Orsal - D1AEUGEUKCAB

Turkey’s army chief Hulusi Akar and head of national intelligence Hakan Fidan flew to Moscow today to hold talks on Syria and, as many commentators speculated, to secure Russia’s blessing for a planned Turkish offensive against the Syrian Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin.

Following their meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Ministry of Defense posted a brief statement on its website saying the talks had focused on the situation in the Middle East as well as on “current topics of mutual interest.” The meeting was “held in a constructive manner,” the statement concluded but provided no further details.

The English-language Daily Sabah, the mass-circulation outlet that serves as a mouthpiece for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wasted no time in spinning the story to fit Turkey’s desired narrative. In quoting the Russian statement, it substituted the word “constructive” with “productive,” implying that the general and the spymaster had been given the green light to proceed with the offensive.

Photographs of the Turkish and Russian delegations assembled around a large oval table released by the ministry suggested otherwise. The Russians were grinning; the Turks were glum.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu remained evasive when asked whether Russia was on board for a Turkish operation. In an interview with CNNTurk, he said, “The Russians should not be opposed.” Cavusoglu said that Turkey was holding discussions with Syria’s top ally, Iran, which also has troops deployed along the Syrian Turkish border. Cavusoglu argued, however, “It is our right under international law. … We are going to do this. We need to do this. We do not care what the countries of the world have said.”

For all of Turkey’s bravado, Russia’s consent is seen as key because it controls the skies over Afrin. There also needs to be de-confliction between the sides. The Russians have military personnel, including a general, stationed at the Kafr Jannah base, which is wedged between Azaz in the Turkish-controlled Euphrates Shield zone and Afrin, placing it directly in the line of Turkish fire. The Russian post was set up for peace-monitoring purposes between the Syrian regime and the rebels in so-called de-escalation zones agreed between Russia, Iran and Turkey in Astana last spring. The Russian presence has also helped to shield the Syrian Kurds from potential attack.

Opinions remain divided over which way Russia will tip. Some speculate that Russia will cut a deal for a largely symbolic and face-saving Turkish incursion in return for more robust Turkish action against the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militants who hold sway over Idlib.

But allowing Turkey to pummel Afrin would rob Russia of its leverage over the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the dominant Kurdish force that is the US-led coalition’s top partner in Syria, and upend the delicate balance that allows Russia to play simultaneously with the regime, the United States, Iran, Turkey and the Kurds. The remaining — and biggest chunk of YPG-controlled territory — is under de facto US protection, which is why Turkey has been unable to go full out against the group so far.

Perceived Russian betrayal would thrust the YPG more firmly into the US camp and make it less accommodating in its transactional dealings with the Syrian regime.

Barzan Iso, a Kurdish analyst based in northern Syria, speculated in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor that Russia was making a show of humoring Turkey in a bid to extract further concessions from the YPG so as to benefit the regime. “The YPG currently controls most of Syria’s energy resources and richest agricultural land, and the goal may be to hold up the threat of Turkish intervention in order to pressure the YPG into ceding some of that territory [in and around Deir ez-Zor] back to the regime,” he said.

Meanwhile, Syria has threatened to shoot down any Turkish aircraft carrying out attacks on Syrian soil. Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad noted that any Turkish incursion into Afrin would be “no picnic” and that Syria’s air force was “ready to destroy Turkish air targets in the skies of the Syrian Arab Republic.”

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