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‘Land swap’ between Turkey & Syria – an option to avoid standoff over Manbij?

‘Land swap’ between Turkey & Syria – an option to avoid standoff over Manbij?
The Kurdish-held city of Manbij is a huge conundrum for Damascus, Ankara and Moscow as no one wants to lose lands, troops or allies. To stop a northern Syria standoff, it all could be sliced into areas of influence, analysts say.

A high-ranking Turkish delegation arrived in Moscow on Saturday, only a day after international media broke news on Kurdish militias inviting Syrian forces to enter Manbij – a strategic hub in the north of the country – before the Turks do. Syria’s military proclaimed they raised the flag over Manbij, but there have been no independent reports confirming the moving of troops into the city.

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In the meantime, Turkish-backed militants also went on the move – but they too stopped short of marching into Manbij. All the while Ankara has been threatening to crush the Kurdish resistance in the area where the Americans – who are in the process of pulling out – and the French have their outposts.

The Saturday Moscow meeting was key to preventing all actors of the Syrian war from locking horns over the Kurdish enclave, Middle East experts believe.

“Obviously, Turkey will insist that it is their forces that should enter Manbij, Russia, will of course insist the city should be handed over to Assad’s forces,” Kirill Semenov, an Islamic studies expert with Russia’s Institute for Innovative Development, told RT.

Manbij wasn’t the only issue discussed by Russian and Turkish strategists during the meeting, he noted, as it was essential for them to understand “what will happen to territories east of the Euphrates River.”

Realpolitik, of course, plays a role here as various locations across Syria might be used as a bargaining chip by all parties to the conflict. Semenov suggested the Turks may agree on Syrian forces taking some parts of Idlib province in exchange for Damascus’ consent for a Turkish offensive towards Manbij or Kobane.

Syrian troops and Kurdish forces occasionally clashed during the civil war, and the overall relations between the Kurds and Damascus “have never been smooth.” On the other hand, it never reached levels of hostility between the Syrian government and the militants of the Western-backed Syrian opposition.

Meanwhile, tensions are mounting in northern Syria. Shortly after Damascus announced sending troops there, Turkish APCs crossed into Syria and US helicopters were filmed flying in Manbij area. Ankara has also amassed tanks on its southern border with Syria.

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But Moscow is ready to throw its weight to resolve the Manbij standoff, said Marianna Belenkaya, a Middle East expert and commentator at Russia’s Kommersant daily. Russia had previously agreed that Turkey control a small area in the east of Idlib province, “but it’s yet to be seen if Russia would agree to a Turkish zone being extended to the entire north of Syria.”

Moscow and Ankara are to “define certain areas of influence and understand who will control what.” There are residual groupings of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) fighters who are ready to exploit any no power vacuum in northern Syria, she explained.

Turkish ambitions to reinstate full control over the northern Syria may not be an option for Damascus, but “it is also important for Russia to not lose Turkey as an ally.”

“There’s a possibility that some kind of a land swap will be discussed,” Belenkaya offered. “What is happening around Manbij is similar to what Russia has suggested a year ago in Afrin,” she noted. At this time, Moscow was ready to guarantee that the Turks will not invade the Kurdish-populated canton if the Kurds agree to be under Damascus jurisdiction, but they rejected the offer.

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