Russia ‘moving’ military observers in Syria’s Afrin
Turkish official tells Al Jazeera Russia is moving forces away from likely conflict areas ahead of planned operation.
Russia has started moving military observers away from an area in northwestern Syria where Turkey is planning an offensive against Kurdish fighters, a Turkish official told Al Jazeera.
Moving the observers comes as Turkey’s defence minister on Friday said his country would go ahead with the offensive in the enclave of Afrin, saying Syrian Kurdish fighters there pose a “real” threat to his country.
Ahmet Berat Conkar, a ruling party MP and head of the Turkish delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, said: “Russia is taking steps to move its forces in Afrin away from the areas where there might be clashes [during Turkey’s operation].”
Earlier this week, the Turkish government announced the offensive into Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria, starting with Afrin, after reports that the US plans to create a 30,000-strong border army predominantly made up of Kurdish militias.
Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters “terrorists”.
Conkar’s remarks came after Turkish army chief Hulusi Akar met his Russian counterpart Valery Gerasimov and other military and intelligence officials in Moscow on Thursday in a gathering to discuss the looming operation.
“I believe, after the meeting between top military and intelligence officials, the gap between the views of the two sides over Turkey’s operation diminished, and the sides have come to a common perspective,” Conkar told Al Jazeera, adding that he did not expect Moscow to oppose to Turkey in Afrin.
On Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a local media channel that Ankara was in contact with Russia and Iran to coordinate the planned operation over the use of airspace and to ensure the safety of Russian observers.
Media reports published earlier this week said that the US-led coalition in northern Syria would recruit around half of the new force from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of fighters dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Turkey considers the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the YPG, “terrorist groups” with ties to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long fight inside the country.
However, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday that Washington owed Turkey an explanation over reports of the border force plans, adding that the issue has been “misportrayed”.
“That entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” he said, adding: “This is just more training and trying to block ISIS from their escape routes.”
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Thursday urged Turkey not to take any action in northern Syria.
“We would call […] on the Turks to not take any actions of that sort … We don’t want them to engage in violence, but we want them to keep focused on ISIS,” she said.
However, Turkish MP Conkar told Al Jazeera that no other country’s view could change Turkey’s decision to conduct the operation in Afrin.
“Other countries’ views can only change the technical details and the strategy of the operation,” he added.
Conker also said that his country’s cooperation with Russia in Syria was improving.
“Our cooperation with Russia in the region is far more functional than our NATO ally the US. Russia understands the sensitivities of Turkey, whereas Washington supports and delivers weapons to the terrorist group PYD/YPG,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Russia respects Turkey’s request not to have this group at the negotiation table in the Astana process.”
The Astana talks aim at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict and are organised by Russia and Iran, who support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and Turkey, which backs the moderate opposition.
Ankara reinforcing border
US President Donald Trump decided to arm YPG fighters despite Turkey’s objections and a direct appeal from Erdogan at a White House meeting in May 2017.
US arms shipments began before the launch of a months-long offensive to remove ISIL from the Syrian city of Raqqa. The YPG played a prominent role in the eventual defeat of the group later in 2017.
Tensions between the US and Turkey remain high, despite Trump saying last November that Washington would no longer supply weapons to the YPG.
Ankara has been reinforcing its southern border by sending armoured vehicles, tanks, and heavy machine guns, according to local media.
Syria and Russia made statements in line with Turkey earlier in the week, opposing the reported US plans to establish a border force in the north of Syria.
In 2016, Turkey began a military campaign called the Euphrates Shield Operation, which targeted ISIL and the YPG. That eight-month battle officially ended in March 2017.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras