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Turkey and Russia negotiate small-scale military operation in northern Syria

Ankara in talks with Moscow to stage small-scale operation near Turkish border to remove Syrian Kurdish militants
A Turkish soldier (C) looks on as he stands near Russian soldiers during a joint Russian-Turkish military patrol in the countryside near Syrian town Darbasiyah along the border with Turkey on 30 November 2020 (AFP)
A Turkish soldier (C) looks on as he stands near Russian soldiers during a joint Russian-Turkish military patrol in the countryside near Syrian town Darbasiyah along the border with Turkey on 30 November 2020 (AFP)

Turkish and Russian officials are negotiating a small-scale Turkish military operation to remove Syrian Kurdish fighters from the west of the Euphrates river in the coming weeks, two sources familiar with the issue told Middle East Eye. 

Earlier this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) with a ground operation in response to the deadly 13 November Istanbul bombing that Ankara believes was perpetrated by YPG-linked suspects. 

Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar told his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu in a phone call on Thursday that Ankara would continue to respond to attacks that target civilian settlements in Turkey, according to the Turkish readout. 

Ankara has been conducting a series of fighter jet and drone attacks throughout northern Syria against YPG targets since the Istanbul bombing, inflicting fatalities among both fighters and civilians. This has drawn American criticism over the proximity of strikes to nearby coalition bases, where US soldiers are stationed. 

“[We] pointed out that permanently preventing the terrorist threat and corridor, and neutralising terrorist organisations, is our top priority,” said the Turkish statement about Akar's call with Shoigu.

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“It was once again emphasised that it is of great importance to comply with the agreements previously reached on this issue.”

Fourth offensive since 2016

Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist group, due to its direct links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and EU.

Ankara and Moscow signed a deal in 2019 whereby Russia committed to withdrawing YPG forces from the 30km-deep border area. Russia has military bases in YPG-controlled territories, but it is a promise yet to be upheld by Moscow, according to Turkish officials. 

Turkish and Russian officials also met on the sidelines of Syrian negotiations conducted in Astana, Kazakhstan, earlier this week.

Following the meeting, Russian officials said that they tried to dissuade Turkey from conducting an offensive. But observers believe that Russian statements have so far not been forceful enough.

In June, Erdogan threatened another offensive against Tal Rifaat and Manbij, cities in the Aleppo province, which was slowed down due to Russian mediation between Ankara and Damascus. Sources familiar with the negotiations say Tal Rifaat might be among the targeted sites in an upcoming offensive. 

The operation, if it goes forward, would be the fourth of its kind mounted by Ankara in northern Syria since 2016. It would be conducted with the declared purpose of combating threats to Turkey from the Islamic State (IS) group and PKK-allied Syrian Kurdish groups, as well as enabling the resettlement of internally displaced Syrians.

Earlier operations - namely Euphrates Shield in 2016-17, Olive Branch in 2018 and Peace Spring in 2019 - saw Turkey and its Syrian allies seize border territory previously controlled by the YPG.

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Tal Rifaat is significant due to its strategic position, sandwiched between Turkish and Syrian government forces, and has at times become a point of frustration for Ankara due to repeated deadly attacks on its positions by the YPG in the area.

“The YPG has conducted at least 100 attacks on Syrian rebel-held territories and Turkish military bases in the form of rockets, anti-tank missiles, cannon fire and multiple rocket launchers,” a military source told MEE in June. 

The source added that the YPG-held Menagh airbase, which the Kurdish group captured in 2016 with the help of Russian air strikes, has also been a strategic location for enemy forces from which they can target the Turkish city of Kilis.

Ankara claims that since the YPG captured the area from Syrian rebels in 2016, 250,000 Syrian Arabs have fled Tal Rifaat for the Turkish-controlled Syrian city of Azaz.

It is not immediately clear what Iran's reaction towards a Turkish operation in northern Syria would be, since Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-allied militias are actively participating in Syrian government efforts to guard northern Aleppo and Tal Rifaat. 

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