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Turkey 'gives Russia time to broker a deal' on Syria's Tal Rifaat

Ankara has asked Moscow to remove Syrian government and Kurdish forces from the strategic northern area
A rebel fighter takes aim from a murder hole in a make-shift fortified position near Azaz along the frontlines with areas under control by Syrian government forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), on 26 November (AFP)
A rebel fighter takes aim from a murder hole in a make-shift fortified position near Azaz along the frontlines with areas under control by Syrian government forces and the SDF, on 26 November (AFP)

Russian officials are trying to convince Damascus and Kurdish fighters to withdraw from the northern Syrian city of Tal Rifaat to prevent a Turkish ground offensive, according to Al Jazeera and al-Araby al-Jadeed. 

Turkish officials told Al Jazeera that the Russian side is making efforts to meet Turkey's demands in northern Syria as an alternative to the military operation, adding that Ankara stipulated the withdrawal of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia from the cities of Manbij, Kobane (known as Ain al-Arab in Arabic) and Tal Rifaat.

'It could be tomorrow, next week, or anytime. Operations can be done in different ways'

- Ibrahim Kalin, Turkish presidential spokesman

Turkey is also open to the return of Syrian government administration in some border areas as an alternative to YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed militia. 

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 in the area that Ankara blames on the YPG.

Middle East Eye on Friday reported that Turkey was seeking a deal with Russia to remove the YPG from Tal Rifaat in a ground offensive in the coming days. 

Moscow has been given time to meet Ankara's conditions, according to Al Jazeera's sources. The alternative would be a military operation.

Al-Araby al-Jadeed reported that the Turkish military operation in northern Syria will be conducted in stages, the first of which may start within days and include the Tal Rifaat region.

The offensive would then move to Kobane, a majority Kurdish city, and Manbij, which historically has a higher Arab population.

According to al-Araby al-Jadeed, Turkish forces are continuing to prepare for an attack on Tal Rifaat, while also consulting with Russia, a key backer of the Syrian government.

Though predominantly controlled by the YPG and its political arm, the PYD, the Syrian government maintains some presence in Tal Rifaat.

According to the newspaper's sources, the Syrian government's forces are expected to withdraw from the area if Turkish-Russian understandings on Tal Rifaat are completed. Similarly, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have been told to prepare to take control of the area.

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Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened the YPG with a ground operation in response to the deadly 13 November Istanbul bombing, which Ankara says was perpetrated by YPG-linked suspects. The YPG denied involvement in the attack.

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

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin on Tuesday said Turkey wouldn’t reveal a date for its ground operation. 

“It could be tomorrow, next week, or anytime,” he said. “Operations can be done in different ways. These operations can be done at any time. As it has been done before, it will continue to be done in the future.” 

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

Ankara and Moscow signed a deal in 2019 whereby Russia committed to forcing the YPG to withdraw its forces from a 30km-deep border area. Russia has military bases in YPG-controlled territories, but Turkish officials complain Moscow has not held up that side of the bargain.

The operation, if it goes forward, would be the fifth of its kind mounted by Ankara in northern Syria since 2016. 

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