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Turkish attacks on Kurds are also fueling tensions with Syria


BEIRUT – Russia has been pushing for years for reconciliation between its ally, the Syrian government, and Turkey, which faced off against each other in the Syrian civil war. In recent weeks we have seen the first small signs of possible progress.

But that could be threatened by the flare-up of tensions between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds who control much of northern and eastern Syria this weekend. Turkish airstrikes have hit positions in Syria and Iraq held by suspected Kurdish militants whom Turkey blames for a deadly Nov. 13 bomb attack in Istanbul.

The attacks also hit Syrian army positions, killing and wounding a number of soldiers. Further troubling for Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated warnings that his army could launch another ground incursion into Syria, something US-backed Kurdish forces have vowed to fight.

Russian presidential envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentyev on Tuesday urged Turkey to exercise restraint. He said he hopes it will be “possible to convince our Turkish partners to refrain from excessive force on Syrian territory”.

The warnings underscore the danger of a new escalation of violence in a Syria that has been relatively calm for several years but continues to be torn apart by multiple powers over 11 years of conflict, from the long civil war to the rise and fall of the Islamic State. group.

Turkey and the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad are both against the Syrian Kurds: Ankara for accusing them of links to Kurdish militants on its territory, Damascus for its Kurdish hold on nearly a third of Syria’s territory, including the oil-rich east . Another complication is that US forces in northeastern Syria are collaborating with Kurdish-led forces there.

But sharing an adversary has so far not been enough to overcome other reasons for enmity. Damascus denounces Turkey’s grip on long swathes of northern Syria along the shared border, seized during Turkey’s previous military incursions against the Kurds since 2016. During the civil war, Turkey also supported rebels trying to oust Assad, and it still protects the last fighters of the opposition. territorial enclave in northwestern Syria.

The deaths of Syrian soldiers during the weekend strikes further raise the temperature. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war watcher monitoring the conflict in the country, reported that 18 Syrian soldiers were killed.

“Syria considers what happened as aggression, and this affects any Iranian or Russian mediation that could open the closed doors between Ankara and Damascus,” said Muhannad Haj Ali, a former Syrian legislator and commander of the armed wing of Syria. the ruling Baath party in Syria. . “This undermines all political efforts and therefore the Turks will have to apologise.”

Before the strikes, there were hopeful signs in the reconciliation effort. Talks took place in Moscow in July between Syrian National Security Council head Ali Mamluk and Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, according to Ibrahim Hamidi, senior diplomatic editor for Syrian affairs at London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

In October, Erdogan said low-level talks were underway. Speaking to reporters at a European summit in Prague, he said that while a meeting with Assad is not currently on the table, when the time comes “we can hit the road to meet the president of Syria”.

A Syrian-linked Lebanese politician who regularly meets with Syrian officials said the Iranians, another close ally of Moscow, recently relayed a message from Erdogan to Assad. In it, Erdogan called for the return of the Syrian army to areas now controlled by the Kurds, for action to prevent Kurdish fighters from using Syrian gas and oil, and for Syrian refugees in Turkey to return to Syria.

Erdogan is under intense pressure at home to return Syrian refugees. Anti-refugee sentiment is rising in Turkey amid an economic crisis, with presidential and parliamentary elections set for next year.

For Russia, a deal between Damascus and Ankara would help strengthen its ally Assad and further advance Moscow’s influence over Turkey, a NATO member increasingly sympathetic to Russia.

In the message relayed by the Iranians, Erdogan also said he was ready to send Turkish officials to Damascus, but Assad refused, saying they could meet in a third country, the Lebanese politician said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t. authorized to speak publicly on sensitive Syrian matters.

A senior Turkish government official denied any Iranian mediation, arguing that Tehran was “antagonistic” to Turkey in Syria. The official said it was Russia that pushed Turkey towards reconciliation, but there was “no progress at all”. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss backroom diplomacy.

Turkey’s hand in Syria is a major obstacle for Damascus.

Haj Ali called Turkey an occupying force and said it should end “terrorism”, referring to its support for Syrian opposition fighters.

Mais Kreidi, a Syria-based member of the committee tasked with drafting a new constitution for Syria, said Syria will accept no less than full Turkish withdrawal to restore ties.

“In Syria, we have red lines and that includes liberating our country,” Kreidi said.

Still, Abdurrahman of the Syrian Observatory said he doubts the talks will be harmed by the deaths of the Syrian soldiers in Turkey’s attacks, given their common interest against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

“The SDF is the enemy of both sides,” said Abdurrahman.

Progress in the talks was enough to worry Syrian Kurds.

Kurdish fighters “are taking this issue seriously and are taking measures to address it,” SDF commander Mazloum Abdi told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. Any deal, he said, “will be aimed at the will of our people.”

Speaking to The Associated Press in Northern Syria on Tuesday, Abdi said there is no basis for an agreement between Turkey and Syria.

“If this happens, it will be a major national crime as it paves the way for the occupation of parts of Syria,” said Abdi. “This is not acceptable.”

On Monday, the SDF offered its condolences to the families of Syrian soldiers killed in the Turkish airstrikes and said Syrians should remember the “plans of the Turkish occupation and its mercenaries” – a sign of how the Kurds have also tried to build a common cause with to promote Damascus.

Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Hogir Al Abdo in Qamishli, Syria contributed to this report.

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