Turkey Signals Readiness for Talks to Avoid Clash With Syria

Updated on
  • Pro-Assad fighters seek to join Kurds battling Turkish forces
  • Russian officials call for compromise between Turkey, Syria

Ibrahim Kalin in Ankara on Feb. 21. 

Photographer: Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Turkey signaled it’s ready for communication with Syria as Russia sought to avert a direct clash between the two countries over a Turkish military offensive against a Kurdish enclave.

Turkish intelligence officials “may establish direct or indirect contact when it is required to solve certain problems under extraordinary conditions,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said in televised remarks on Wednesday. This wouldn’t amount to official contacts with the “Syrian regime,” Kalin said.

He spoke a day after Syrian pro-government fighters moved to join Kurdish forces in the northwestern border town of Afrin, where they are battling a Turkish incursion. With Syrian flags plastered on their armored vehicles, the forces left Aleppo in what state-run Syrian TV said was an initiative to help “defend our people against the Turkish aggression.” More pro-government forces arrived in Afrin on Wednesday, the official SANA news service said.

The deployment raised the specter of military conflict between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey, which is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. While Assad has managed to reassert control over a large part of his country after seven years of war, the Syrian conflict is entering a dangerous new phase amid spiraling tensions between outside powers including Russia, the U.S., Iran and Israel.

U.S. strikes may have killed more than 200 Russian mercenaries attacking American-backed forces in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor region earlier this month. Israel also in February launched its biggest strikes in Syria since the 1982 Lebanon war after one of its warplanes was shot down in the wake of the destruction of an apparent Iranian spy drone over Israeli territory.

Turkish Offensive

The Turkish campaign in Syria aimed at expelling Kurdish fighters from the border area is in its second month. Turkish officials view Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria as an extension of the Kurdish PKK separatists that the government’s fought in eastern Turkey for decades. While the Kurds in Syria have inflicted some losses on the Turks, hundreds of people have been killed in punishing aerial and artillery bombardments, according to officials in Moscow.

Turkey should enter into negotiations with Syria to resolve the issue, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday. “I am certain that Turkey’s legitimate security concerns can be fully addressed and satisfied through direct dialogue with the Syrian government,” he told reporters in Moscow.

“Turkey is doing what is necessary for its national interests,” Kalin said. “Our response to calls that the Afrin offensive should stop is that ‘we don’t owe an explanation to anyone.”’

Security Belt

Russia’s mediation may be the only way for Erdogan to get out of a “difficult situation,” said Elena Suponina, a Middle East expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Affairs, which advises the Kremlin. “Turkey is unlikely to pull out completely from northern Syria but we’re talking about an end to the military operation in Afrin.”

Turkey may be offered a small security belt that prevents Kurds in Afrin from linking up with another Kurdish area in Syria’s northeast, said Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.

In return, Syria will expect Turkey to turn a “blind eye” to the government assault on the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, one of the last major rebel-held areas along with Idlib in the northwest, he said.

At least 250 civilians, including 58 children, have been killed by bombardments and air strikes in the past 48 hours in Eastern Ghouta, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian war through activists on the ground. Indiscriminate shelling of Damascus by anti-Assad fighters has killed 112 people, including 17 children, since Nov. 16, according to the observatory.

Accusations of Russian involvement in attacks on Eastern Ghouta are “groundless,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.

The Turkish lira rebounded from a one-week low against the dollar to trade at 3.7884 at 6 p.m. in Ankara on Wednesday, recouping some of its losses spurred by fears of a clash between Turkey and Syria.

— With assistance by Cagan Koc, Ilya Arkhipov, and Dana Khraiche

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