The United States and Russia call for restraint while Turkey hints at a ground operation against the Syrian Kurds

ANKARA: The United States and Russia urged Turkey to show restraint after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted at an imminent ground operation against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

Both countries remain wary about the practical implications in a region with an already fragile balance of power.

Turkey has accused the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and its Syrian offshoot, the YPG, of the November 13 bombing in Istanbul that killed six people and wounded more than 80. Authorities say a Syrian woman with alleged links to the PKK was planted for the bombing.

Ankara launched air strikes across the border early on Sunday, raising the prospect of a ground operation to help create a 30-km buffer zone pushing Kurdish fighters away from its southern border. A senior member of the People’s Protection Units, Rezan Gilo, was seriously injured in a Turkish drone strike in Qamishli, about 50 km from the border.

Meanwhile, missiles from northern Syria were recently fired at the Turkish border town of Karkamis, killing three civilians, including a teacher and a 5-year-old boy.

“We have been fighting terrorists for a few days with our planes, cannons and rifles,” Erdogan said on Tuesday. “God willing, we will eliminate them all as soon as possible.

“Our determination to close all of our southern borders with a security belt, leaving no danger of attack on our country’s territory, is greater than ever.”

The Pentagon said on Wednesday it was “deeply concerned” by any escalation it said threatened the lives of American personnel working with Kurdish allies in northern Syria.

While we call for de-escalation, we recognize Turkey’s legitimate security concerns. We will continue to discuss with Turkey and our local partners the maintenance of the ceasefire arrangements.

The US State Department warned of “recent military action that destabilizes the region, threatens our common goal to fight ISIS (ISIS), and endangers American civilians and personnel.”

After attending talks on Syria with Turkish and Iranian delegations in Kazakhstan, Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentiev said on Wednesday he hopes “the arguments of the Kremlin in Ankara will be heard and other ways to solve the problem will be found.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the day before that Russia understood Turkey’s legitimate security concerns but warned of further escalation.

Aydin Sezer, an expert on Turkish-Russian relations based in Ankara, said that Moscow will not categorically reject a Turkish ground operation in Syria. Relations between the two countries have strengthened after years of hostility.

But Russia will ask Turkey to avoid a large-scale attack in Syria. To limit the scope and duration of the operation, Russia may use the Iranian card to restrain Turkey, and will step in, as a savior, when mediation on the ground is needed.

Levent Kemal, an expert on Syrian affairs, tweeted on Thursday that “according to several SNA sources, a meeting took place between SNA commanders and Turkish officials regarding the possible ground operation against the YPG/PKK in Kilis Dialogue.”

On Wednesday, Erdogan hinted at the possibility of meeting his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad. A meeting with Leo can happen. There is no resentment in politics. Sooner or later, we can take steps.”

Sezer said Damascus also sees the YPG as a threat and has not issued any comment on the Turkish airstrikes. “Therefore, the process of rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus will not end the possibility of launching a ground operation, but the two steps will proceed in parallel,” he said.

He said that Assad’s army and the Russian military police would withdraw from northern Syria before any Turkish operation.

“I expect the first targets to cover the areas between the northwestern town of Tal Rifaat and the northeastern town of Kobani, or Ayn al-Arab and Manbij to connect the areas under Turkish control with each other,” he said.

But, if the scope of the operation expands to the southeast of the Euphrates, at this point the approval of the United States becomes important. In this case, there is a need to reach agreement between the Pentagon and the White House on the necessity of launching such a ground attack.

The United States has an alliance against ISIS with the Syrian Democratic Forces led by the People’s Protection Units. About a thousand US soldiers are deployed east of the Euphrates River.

The White House considers the YPG a strategic partner and urges Ankara to target ISIS in any operation in Syria.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar welcomed US Ambassador Jeffrey Flake for talks on Thursday. No details were given of what was discussed.

A larger ground operation could bring Erdogan more nationalist support in the run-up to next year’s elections.

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