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Spotlight: Turkish incursion into Syria amid U.S. pullout may damage ties with Astana partners: analysts
Last Updated: 2018-12-29 14:50 | Xinhua
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A Turkish military intervention into Syria to eliminate the Kurdish militia and the Islamic State (IS) amid U.S. pullout of troops risks creating a rift between Ankara and its Astana partners, namely Russia and Iran, analysts told Xinhua.

U.S. EXIT ROILING TIES?

"Neither Russia nor Iran would look favorably upon Turkey's increased control of Syrian territory," said Faruk Logoglu, a former senior Turkish diplomat.

Following U.S. announcement of troop withdrawal from war-torn Syria last week, the Turkish army has in particular bolstered its elements -- members of the Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army rebel group -- around Syria's northern town of Manbij held by the Kurdish militia.

Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said on Wednesday that U.S.-controlled territories should be given back to Damascus following the withdrawal.

Russia and Iran would be undoubtedly disturbed by an expansion of Turkish control over Syrian territory, remarked Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.

The Turkish military has already had Syria's al-Bab and Afrin regions under its control following past separate operations against the IS and the Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units (YPG), which is seen by Ankara as the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party outlawed for its armed struggle against the Turkish state.

The U.S. has more than a dozen military bases and several thousand troops in Manbij and the two self-declared Kurdish autonomous cantons to the east of the Euphrates River in Syria.

"The American withdrawal is likely to enhance the differentiation of interests and priorities among the three Astana partners," stated Logoglu.

Since last year, Turkey, Russia and Iran have been partners in the so-called Astana process aiming at politically settling the Syrian conflict.

The U.S. decision to exit Syria came days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to carry out another cross-border operation to eliminate the Kurdish militia along its border.

Welcoming the U.S. move, Erdogan said that Turkey would readily fight the IS as long as Washington would offer logistical support. The Turkish leader added that he and U.S. President Donald Trump saw eye to eye on many issues regarding Syria.

Russia is concerned that Turkey will increase its cooperation with the U.S. on Syria, said Cahit Armagan Dilek, director of the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute.

Particularly since last week, Turkey has sent tanks and armored vehicles as well as troops to the border near Manbij.

Noting Turkey will be left with Russia and Iran after the U.S. leaves, Ulgen said that Ankara would then be deprived of the possibility of working with both Moscow and Washington at the same time in the Syrian theater.

Russia, and Iran to a certain extent, would become less tolerant toward Turkish moves, which in turn would weaken Ankara's hand in Syria, said Ulgen.

RISKS LIE AHEAD

Idlib, the last major rebel bastion in Syria, also risks turning into a trouble spot between Ankara and its Astana partners.

Turkey still acts as the patron of the so-called moderate Islamist rebels in Idlib, while Russia and Iran have been staunch supporters of Damascus.

Upon Ankara's pressure, Moscow agreed in September to put aside an impending military offensive on Idlib and inked a deal on settling the issue politically.

However, the situation in Idlib remains delicate as Turkey has so far failed, as per the deal, in persuading all the radical rebel groups to withdraw and in stopping them from carrying out attacks on Russian and Syrian army positions.

"Idlib continues to be a sensitive spot in Turkish-Russian relations, and now Turkey faces the challenge of fighting both the IS and the YPG at the same time and the risk of confronting the Syrian armed forces in the process," cautioned Logoglu.

A Turkish attempt to capture Manbij is set to draw condemnation from Damascus and its allies, Moscow and Tehran, the analysts agreed.

"But the reaction of Russia and Iran would not be so big as to end the Astana partnership," argued Ulgen, a former diplomat.

"With its present influence in Syria, Turkey is not an actor that could be excluded from the equation," he explained, noting that Moscow is now seeking a political solution in Syria.

Turkey-backed rebels need to be part of the process for a workable political solution, he underlined.

Russia may allow the Syrian army to enter Manbij in case of a Turkish offensive, potentially pitting Syrian and Turkish armies against each other, said Dilek, a former staff officer in the Turkish military.

The YPG has been holding talks with both Damascus and Moscow to stop a potential Turkish offensive and may agree under a deal, which is widely argued, to hand over the territories that it controls to Damascus.

The Syrian army has recently reinforced troops around Manbij in coordination with the Kurdish militia.

Both Dilek and Ulgen believe that Moscow may take steps that could put Ankara in trouble in Idlib in case of a Turkish offensive against the YPG.

Under a deal signed with Russia and Iran last year, the Turkish military has established 12 observation posts around Idlib.

"Russia will try to augment its ties with the YPG at the expense of the U.S., while Iran would want to further consolidate its presence in Syria," said Logoglu.

On Tuesday, Erdogan said he would have talks, possibly face to face, with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin following a visit by a Turkish delegation to Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied later the same day that Putin was scheduled to meet with Erdogan.

Omer Celik, spokesman of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, said on Wednesday that a meeting between Erdogan and Putin would be arranged depending on the results of the Turkish delegation's visit.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin will fly to Moscow for talks on Syria on Saturday.

Despite having supported, along with Washington and Islamist rebels fighting to topple the Syrian government earlier in the war, Turkey changed partners and started in 2016 to cooperate more closely with Moscow.

"It is high time for Turkey to develop a new Syria strategy based on diplomacy for peace," Logoglu said, underlining the need for Ankara to reestablish contact with Damascus as an integral part of the effort.

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