Russia using Turkey to force Kurds back to Assad - Kurdish leaders

Syrian Kurdish leaders said Russia had asked them to hand over the northwestern enclave of Afrin to Syrian President Bashar Assad to prevent the Turkish military offensive now underway to seize the territory.

Turkish forces, backed by their Syrian rebel allies, began an operation to clear Kurdish fighters from Afrin on Saturday, despite calls for restraint from the United States, which has backed the Kurdish militia in its battle to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.

Russia, together with Iran, is the main backer of the Assad government, but has also maintained good relations with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish militia and has a number of troops in the Afrin canton. Assad has also allowed the YPG to send reinforcements to the area through government-held territory.

“Russia proposed to the Afrin administration that if Afrin was ruled by the Syrian regime, Turkey wouldn’t attack it,” Aldar Xelil, a leading member of the political movement governing Kurdish-held regions of Syria, told Kurdish channel Sterk TV in an interview. “The Afrin canton administration refused the proposal.”

Since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, the YPG has fought Assad’s forces, as well as Islamist anti-government forces and ISIS across Syria, but has also concluded a number of local ceasefires with government troops.

Still Kurdish leaders said they would not accept allowing the Syrian government to retake control of Afrin as the price for staving off a Turkish takeover.

“We kicked the regime out of here six years ago and we sacrificed many martyrs to change the regime to a free regime throughout Syria and northern Syria regions,” Hevi Mustafa, the co-chair of the Afrin canton, told Ahval.

The Russian goal in allowing Turkey to use the air space over Afrin and standing aside as Turkish troops and their Syrian allies launch ground operations, Kurdish leaders said, was not to allow a Turkish takeover, but to force the Kurds into the arms of the Assad government.

“The desire is for complete submission to Assad. The Turkish stick is a tool to achieve that goal,” Farhad Patiev, the co-chairman of the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of Kurds of the Russian Federation, told Ahval.

“The loss of Afrin will mean further pressure and the gradual withdrawal from other territories until the complete destruction of Rojava,” he said.

Timur Akhmetov, an analyst with the Russian International Affairs Council told Ahval that there were talks about transferring control of Afrin to the Assad government.

“Transfer to Assad is the most acceptable scenario for all parties. Turkey will not fight Assad as it is a guarantor state and it recognised Assad de jure in agreements,” he said.

A power transfer in Afrin is crucial for Russia, he said, in order to show the Kurds elsewhere in Syria “that they can have formal self-rule while keeping the Syrian government in charge of security and borders”, and that without Damascus, the Kurds are vulnerable.

As the operation proceeds, Russia would continue to check with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political arm of the YPG, to see if it changes its mind to allow the Syrian government to take formal control of Afrin, Akhmetov said.

“I doubt Russia agreed to let Turkey occupy the whole canton. The operation will proceed gradually, Russia will check the pulse of the PYD and its views on power transfer to Damascus,” he said.

Russia still keeps a military monitoring mission in Tel Rifaat, a town in the Afrin area close to government-controlled territory.

“The zone will be spared Turkish shelling and attacks. Tel Rifaat is part of a safe corridor to be used to transfer Syrian government forces to Afrin in case the PYD makes a request to Damascus,” Akhmetov said.