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US, Russia call for restraint as Turkey hints at ground operation against Syrian Kurds

ANKARA: The US and Russia have urged restraint from Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted at an imminent ground operation against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

Both countries remain cautious about the fallout of an operation in a region with an already fragile power balance.

Turkey accused the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and its Syrian YPG offshoot of a Nov. 13 Istanbul bombing that killed six people and injured more than 80.  Authorities say a Syrian woman with alleged links to the PKK planted to bomb. 

Ankara launched cross-border air raids early on Sunday, heightening the prospect of a ground operation to help create a 30 km buffer zone that would push Kurdish fighters away from its southern border. A senior member of the YPG, Rezan Gelo, was seriously injured in a Turkish drone strike in Qamishli, about 50 km from the border.

Meanwhile, rockets fired from northern Syria recently hit the Turkish border town of Karkamis and killed three civilians, including a teacher and a 5-year-old boy. 

“We have been bearing down on terrorists for a few days with our planes, cannons and guns,” Erdogan said on Tuesday. “God willing, we will eradicate all of them as soon as possible. 

“Our determination to seal all of our southern borders with a security belt, leaving no risk of attack on our country’s territories, is greater than ever.”

The Pentagon said on Wednesday that it was “deeply concerned” by any escalation, which it said threatened the lives of US personnel working with Kurdish allies in northern Syria.

“As we call for de-escalation, we recognize Turkey’s legitimate security concerns. We will continue to discuss with Turkey and our local partners maintaining ceasefire arrangements,” it said.

The US State Department warned against “recent military action that destabilizes the region, threatens our shared goal to fight ISIS (Daesh), and endangers civilians and US personnel.”

After attending talks on Syria with Turkish and Iranian delegations in Kazakhstan, Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev said on Wednesday that he hoped that the Kremlin’s “arguments will be heard in Ankara and other ways of resolving the problem will be found.” 

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said a day earlier that Russia understood Turkey’s legitimate security concerns but warned against further escalation.  

Aydin Sezer, an Ankara-based expert on Turkey-Russia relations, said that Moscow would not categorically reject a Turkish ground operation in Syria. Ties have grown closer between the two countries after years of hostility.

“But, Russia would ask Turkey to avoid a full-scale Syria offensive. To restrict the scope and the duration of the operation, Russia may use the Iran card to put brakes on Turkiye, and will intervene, as a savior, when there is a need for intermediation on the ground,” he told Arab News.

Levent Kemal, a Syria expert, tweeted on Thursday that, “according to several Syrian National Army sources, a meeting was held between SNA commanders and Turkish officials on the possible ground operation against YPG/PKK in Hawar Kilis.” 

Erdogan on Wednesday hinted at the possibility of a meeting with his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad. “A meeting with Assad can take place. There is no resentment in politics. Sooner or later, we can take steps,” he said.

Sezer said that Damascus also sees the YPG as a threat and passed no comment on Turkey’s air attacks. “Therefore, the rapprochement process between Ankara and Damascus will not end the possibility of a ground operation, but both moves will proceed in parallel,” he said. 

He said that Assad’s army and Russian military police would be withdrawn from areas of northern Syria before any Turkish operation.

“I anticipate that the first targets will cover the areas between the northwestern town of Tal Rifat and the northeastern town of Kobani, or Ayn Al-Arab and Manbij to connect Turkish-controlled areas together,” he said.

“But, if the operation’s scope expands to the south of the eastern Euphrates, at that point the approval of the US gains importance. In that case, there is a need to deliver an agreement between the Pentagon and the White House over the necessity of such a ground offensive,” Sezer said. 

The US has an alliance against Daesh with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are led by the YPG. There are about 1,000 US troops stationed in the east of the Euphrates river.   

The White House considers the YPG a strategic partner and urges Ankara to target Daesh in any operation in Syria.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar received US Ambassador Jeffry Flake for talks on Thursday. No details were given of what was discussed. 

A larger ground operation may also bring Erdogan further nationalist support in the run up to next year’s elections.

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