Syria on agenda, Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets Vladimir Putin | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 22.01.2019
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Syria on agenda, Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets Vladimir Putin

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Their alliance is in good shape, so what's left to talk about for two men who've engineered themselves all-powerful presidencies?

Now that President Donald Trump has announced plans to withdraw US troops from Syria, countries that intend to remain involved in the multifront civil war are adapting their strategies accordingly. And Syria will certainly be on the agenda when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travels to Moscow on Wednesday to meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The leaders will discuss creating a "security zone" east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria; Erdogan's desire to launch a military operation to take the self-governed northern city of Manbij, which has been protected by Kurdish forces that drove out the Islamic State (IS) group; and the growing influence of a militia allied with al-Qaida in Idlib.   

Turkey officially opposes the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and has designated its armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG), which has close ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), as a terror group. Turkey, the European Union and the US classify the PKK as a terror organization.

The United States had worked with the YPG militia to combat IS, including training and arming fighters, which has angered Turkish officials and created tensions between the NATO members.

The PYD seeks to establish an autonomous state in northern Syria, just south of Turkey's border. Erdogan, however, wants to push YPG fighters out of this region in order to set up his security zone, where Syrians who have fled the war to Turkey could be resettled.

In an opinion article published by The New York Times, Erdogan lauded Trump's withdrawal and pledged that Turkey would install "popularly elected councils" in northern Syria that would be open to citizens "with no links to terrorist groups." Turkey's attacks on Kurdish regions have forced the YPG to halt the fight against IS.

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One possible scenario

It has been reported that Trump agrees with Erdogan's proposed security zone. The proposed corridor would be 32 kilometers (19 miles) wide. Erdogan appears prepared to insist that Turkey alone would establish and police the zone. But it is unclear whether US officials would agree to this.

The Russia analyst Kerim Has believes that Erdogan and Trump have already struck an agreement regarding the future of Kurds in Syria. He thinks that Turkey does not plan to attack YPG fighters after the US troops withdraw, and that the militia will leave the security zone of its own volition. Has said this process could culminate in the emergence of a Syrian Kurdistan, similar to the autonomous zone in northern Iraq. This, Has said, would happen with Turkey's consent and support.

But what would Russian officials think of a security zone created by the United States and Turkey? Has said the Kremlin intended to hand control over all of Syria to its dictator president, Bashar Assad. However, even Russian officials do envision a form of autonomy for Kurds, albeit of a cultural rather than political nature.

Murat Yesiltas, who specializes in security at SETA, the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, does not believe that Assad would be able to guarantee the safety and stability of the region east of the Euphrates. For that reason, he said, Russian officials could be open to political alternatives.

Trump and Erdogan

Trump (left) says the US would hit Turkey economically if Erdogan (right) attacks Kurds

Erdogan's red line  

The Euphrates had represented something of a red line for Turkish officials. For months, Erdogan has been threatening to launch a military operation to take the city of Manbij, which lies about 30 kilometers west of the river in northern Syria. YPG fighters have remained in the city since 2016, when they drove out IS alongside the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. US officials have assured Turkey that the Kurds would eventually withdraw.

Following the announcement that the United States would withdraw its troops, YPG forces called on Assad to send soldiers to prevent an attack by Turkey. The militia pulled several hundred fighters from Manbij, and Assad's troops were stationed on the outskirts of the city. Now, Russian military police officers are patrolling in the vicinity, at times alongside YPG fighters. That angers officials in Turkey.

Russian officials want to see troops loyal to Assad retake control of Manbij. Therefore, said Has, the Russia analyst, the Kremlin is unlikely to agree to plans for a military offensive by Turkish troops to take the city. Russian officials would only sign on, he said, if Erdogan would agree to immediately hand control of the city over to Assad.

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Idlib demilitarized zone

Has said Putin was eager to see progress in the Idlib region. In September, Russia and Turkey had struck a deal to transform the rebel stronghold into a demilitarized zone.

The agreement also stipulated that heavy weapons and "all radical fighters" would leave the area. The parties shared the goal of getting the al-Qaida affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to withdraw from the region. However, Turkish officials had additionally wanted to prevent Assad from launching a military camping to take Idlib, which would have sent many fleeing across the border.

Most of the conditions necessary for the demilitarized zone have not been met. HTS, which has been battling anti-government forces backed by Turkey, has even gained ground. Has said he expected Putin to urge Turkey to push HTS out of the area — or step aside and let Russia do so.

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