Tag Archive: Kurds in Syria


February 26, 2018

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey has submitted documents to the Czech authorities formally requesting the extradition of the former leader of a Syrian Kurdish party, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said Monday.

Salih Muslim, former co-chair of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, was detained in the Czech capital of Prague on Saturday under an Interpol red notice based on a Turkish request for his arrest. Turkey considers the PYD a “terrorist group” linked to outlawed Kurdish insurgents fighting within Turkey’s own borders.

Muslim was put on Turkey’s most-wanted list earlier in February with a $1 million reward. On Monday, Turkish prosecutors issued a new warrant for his detention, accusing Muslim and about 30 other people of being behind a bomb attack on a tax office in Ankara earlier this month.

Nine people — suspected Kurdish militants — were detained in connection with the attack, which caused damage to the tax office but no casualties. Bozdag said during a live television interview Monday that Turkey’s Justice Ministry had sent a “file” formally requesting his extradition.

Muslim was expected to appear before a Prague court on Tuesday, which would then decide if he will remain in detention, Turkish Ambassador in Prague Ahmet Necati Bigali told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.

The PYD is the leading political Kurdish force in northern Syria, and Muslim remains highly influential in the party, even after stepping down as co-chair last year. On Jan. 20, Turkey launched an incursion into northern Syria, seeking to rout the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, from the enclave of Afrin. The YPG is the armed wing of the PYD.

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24.01.2018

By Adham Kako and Muhammed Misto

AZAZ / ANKARA

The Kurdish fighters of the Free Syrian Army say they are defending their own land against the PYD/PKK terrorist organization, vowing to free Afrin from their occupation.

In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency in the northwestern Syrian town of Azaz, Abu Fayad, one of the Kurdish fighters, who vigorously make the case that the PYD/PKK can never represent the Kurds living in the region, said they were Kurds speaking Kurdish and had nothing to do with the PKK.

“We’ve been defending our villages, our land for a long time. What do they [the PKK] want from us? They are terrorists whereas we are a free army,” Fayad said.

“The PKK has no religion and they came from some place far away. In order to do what? Of course, to steal our land. So what kind of relationship can we possibly have with them? We won’t let them get anywhere near us,” Abu Fayad said.

He stressed that Turkey was a Muslim country that would never harm them.

“If our people here think that Turkey would harm them, they are wrong. Turkey wants our well-being. They won’t harm us,” he said.

As regards the recent situation in Afrin, where the Free Syrian Army and the Turkish Armed Forces have launched Operation Olive Branch, Abu Fayad reiterated:

“Turkey has our best interests at heart in this region, and it is hand in hand with us, working with us. God bless the people and government of Turkey,” Abu Fayad added.

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launched Operation Olive Branch on Saturday to remove all PYD/PKK and Daesh terrorists from Afrin, establish security and stability along Turkish borders and the region as well as to protect the Syrian people from the oppression and cruelty of terrorists, according to a statement issued the same day.

The military notes that the operation is being carried out under the framework of Turkey’s rights based on international law, UN Security Council’s decisions, self-defense rights under the UN charter and respect to Syria’s territorial integrity.

It is also frequently emphasized that “utmost care” is being shown not to harm any civilians.

Afrin has been a major hideout for the PYD/PKK since July 2012 when the Assad regime in Syria left the city to the terror group without putting up a fight.

Source: Anadolu Agency.

Link: http://aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/turkey-defends-our-interests-kurdish-fsa-fighter/1041160.

January 14, 2018

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s president said Sunday the country will launch a military assault on a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria “in the coming days,” and urged the U.S. to support its efforts. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the operation against the Afrin enclave aims to “purge terror” from his country’s southern border.

Afrin is controlled by a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG. Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has waged a bloody insurgency within its borders.

A YPG spokesman in Afrin said clashes erupted after midnight between his unit and Turkish troops near the border with Turkey. Rojhat Roj said the shelling of areas in Afrin district, in Aleppo province, killed one YPG fighter and injured a couple of civilians on Sunday.

Turkey and its Western allies, including the U.S., consider the PKK a terrorist organization. But the U.S. has been arming some of Syria’s Kurds to defeat the Islamic State group in Syria — a sore point in already tense U.S.-Turkish relations.

The Turkish president said “despite it all” he wants to work with the U.S. in the region and hopes it will not side with the YPG during the upcoming Afrin operation. “It’s time is to support Turkey in its legitimate efforts” to combat terror, said Erdogan.

He added that the new operation would be an extension of Turkey’s 2016 incursion into northern Syria, which aimed to combat IS and stem the advance of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. Turkish troops are stationed in rebel-held territory on both sides of Afrin.

Roj said the Kurdish militia will fight to “defend our gains, our territories.” Senior Kurdish official Hediye Yusuf wrote on Twitter that the Turkish operation against Afrin is a “violation” of the Syrian people and undermines international efforts to reach a political solution in Syria.

The Turkey-PKK conflict has killed an estimated 40,000 people since 1984 and the resumption of hostilities in July 2015 killed more than 3,300 people, including state security forces, militants and civilians.

February 25, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — Czech authorities detained a former leader of a Syrian Kurdish political party under an Interpol red notice that was based on Turkey’s request for his arrest, Turkish and Syrian Kurdish officials said Sunday.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Salih Muslim, former co-chair of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, was “caught.” Speaking in Sanliurfa Sunday, Erdogan said, “Our hope, God willing, is that the Czech Republic will hand him over to Turkey.”

Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said Turkey requested Muslim’s detention for extradition after locating him in a Prague hotel. Bozdag called Muslim the “terrorist head.” A Kurdish official close to Muslim, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the former PYD leader was in Prague attending a conference. After a Turkish participant took a photograph of him, Czech police detained the Syrian politician Saturday, following a request by Turkey.

Czech police say that have arrested and placed in detention a 67-year-old foreigner at the request of Turkey’s Interpol. No further details were immediately released by Czech police. Muslim was put on Turkey’s most-wanted list earlier in February with a $1 million reward.

The Turkish justice ministry said Muslim was being tried in absentia for his alleged involvement in a March 2016 car bomb attack on Turkey’s capital, which killed 36 people and injured 125. Turkey considers the PYD a “terrorist group” linked to outlawed Kurdish insurgents fighting within Turkey’s own borders for more than three decades.

The party is the leading political Kurdish force in northern Syria, and Muslim remains highly influential even after stepping down as co-chair last year. The PYD condemned in a statement Muslim’s detention, saying the move is an “illegal and immoral act by Czech authorities” and calling for his immediate release.

The group also accused Turkey of adopting “dirty methods in chasing personalities that are playing a role in the fight against terrorism,” highlighting Muslim’s major role in mobilizing international opinion in the fight against the Islamic State group.

The United States has been backing the PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units or YPG, in combating the extremist IS. The alliance has tensed relations between Washington and Ankara, who are NATO allies.

On Jan. 20, Turkey launched an incursion into northern Syria, seeking to rout the YPG from the enclave of Afrin. The Kurdish official said the former PYD leader was invited to Prague to take part in a conference held once every six months to discuss issues linked to the Middle East such as the Syrian crisis, Turkey, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The justice ministry said it was submitting an extradition request for Muslim. An extradition request would have to be approved by a Czech court and by the justice minister. Muslim is a Syrian citizen.

Turkey shares a 911-kilometer border with Syria. The YPG controls much of the territory along the border.

Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.

February 01, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s Kurdish militia is growing frustrated with its patron, the United States, and is pressing it to do more to stop Turkey’s assault on a key stronghold in Syria. The issue reflects a deeper concern among the Kurds over their alliance with the Americans, which proved vital to defeating the Islamic State group in Syria. The Kurds fear that ultimately they and their dream of self-rule will be the losers in the big powers’ play over influence in Syria. Already the U.S. is in a tough spot, juggling between the interests of the Kurds, its only ally in war-torn Syria, and its relations with Turkey, a key NATO ally.

The Kurdish militia views defending the Kurdish enclave of Afrin as an existential fight to preserve their territory. Afrin has major significance — it’s one of the first Kurdish areas to rise up against President Bashar Assad and back self-rule, a base for senior fighters who pioneered the alliance with the Americans and a key link in their efforts to form a contiguous entity along Turkey’s border. The offensive, which began Jan. 20, has so far killed more than 60 civilians and dozens of fighters on both sides, and displaced thousands.

“How can they stand by and watch?” Aldar Khalil, a senior Kurdish politician said of the U.S.-led coalition against IS. “They should meet their obligations toward this force that participated with them (in the fight against terrorism.) We consider their unclear and indecisive positions as a source of concern.”

Khalil, one of the architects of the Kurds’ self-administration, and three other senior Kurdish officials told The Associated Press that they have conveyed their frustration over what they consider a lack of decisive action to stop the Afrin assault to U.S. and other Western officials. They said U.S. officials have made confusing statements in public. One of the officials who agreed to discuss private meetings on condition of anonymity said some U.S. comments even amounted to tacit support for the assault.

The fight for Afrin puts Washington in a bind with few good options. The Americans have little leverage and no troops in Afrin, which is located in a pocket of Kurdish control at the western edge of Syria’s border with Turkey and is cut off from the rest of Kurdish-held territory by a Turkish-held enclave. The area is also crowded with other players. Russian troops were based there to prevent friction with Turkey until they withdrew ahead of the offensive, and the area — home to more than 300,000 civilians — is surrounded by territory held by Syrian government forces or al-Qaida-linked militants.

The Americans’ priority for the YPG — the main Kurdish militia that forms the backbone of forces allied to the U.S. — is for them to govern the large swath of territory wrested from the Islamic State group in northern and eastern Syria, including the city of Raqqa. Washington wants to prevent IS from resurging and keep Damascus’ ally, Iran, out of the area.

Afrin is not central to those American goals and U.S. officials say it will distract from the war on IS. The U.S-led coalition has distanced itself from the Kurdish forces in Afrin, saying they have not received American training and were not part of the war against the Islamic State group in eastern Syria. But it also implicitly criticized the Turkish assault as unhelpful.

“Increased violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria. Furthermore, it distracts from efforts to ensure the lasting defeat of Daesh and could be exploited by Daesh for resupply and safe haven,” the coalition said in an emailed statement to the AP, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

For its part, Turkey views the YPG as an extension of its own Kurdish insurgent groups and has vowed to “purge” them from its borders. While the U.S. may distance itself from the fighting in Afrin, it can’t sit by silently if Turkey goes ahead with its threat to expand the fight to Manbij, a Syrian town to the east where American troops are deployed alongside Kurdish forces that took the town from IS in 2016.

One option is a proposal by the Kurds to persuade Assad to deploy his troops as a buffer between the Kurds and Turks in Afrin. Nobohar Mustafa, a Kurdish envoy to Washington, said the Americans appear open to that proposal. However, so far Assad’s government has refused; they want full control of the area.

Another option could be to seek a compromise with Turkey by withdrawing U.S. and Kurdish forces from Manbij, said Elizabeth Teoman, a Turkey specialist with the Institute for the Study of War. “The Turks may accept that as an intermediate step, but the U.S. will consistently face threats of escalation from Turkey as long as we maintain our partnership with the Syrian Kurdish YPG,” Teoman said.

U.S. officials have reportedly said recently that they have no intention of pulling out of Manbij. Kurdish officials say they don’t expect the Americans to go to war with Turkey or send troops to fight with them in Afrin.

But “this doesn’t mean the U.S. doesn’t have a role in stopping the war on Afrin,” said Mustafa, the Kurdish envoy to Washington. She said Kurdish officials weren’t surprised the Americans have distanced themselves from the Afrin dispute “but we didn’t expect their stance to be that low.”

She and Khalil have lobbied Washington and Europe for a more aggressive stance against Turkey’s advances. Other than the proposal to allow Syrian border guards to deploy, they have suggested international observers along a narrow buffer zone. Mustafa said the U.S. could argue that the YPG presence in northwestern Syria, where al-Qaida-linked militants have their stronghold, is necessary to fight terrorism. Khalil said he has pressed other NATO members to urge Turkey to stop airstrikes.

Meanwhile, a heated media campaign has been launched to “Save Afrin,” while Kurdish supporters in Europe have staged regular protests and a senior YPG official wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. In Washington, U.S. officials rejected the notion that the United States hasn’t tried hard enough to rein in Turkey. In addition to publicly urging Turkey to limit its operation and avoid expanding further east, they noted that President Donald Trump spoke about it directly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The White House said that Trump used that call to urge Turkey to “deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced persons and refugees.”

They say that since Turkey has proceeded, the U.S. has been left with only bad options. Although the U.S. doesn’t want to see Assad’s government return to the area between Afrin and Turkey, it may be the “least worst situation,” said a U.S. official involved in Syria policy.

The United States has less ability to influence negotiations about how to secure the border than Russia, whose forces have long had a strong presence in the area, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private diplomatic discussions.

The Trump administration has also quietly acknowledged that ultimately, the Kurds may be disappointed if they are expecting loyalty even on matters where U.S. and Kurdish interests diverge. Turkey, after all, is a NATO ally. Asked recently if Washington had a moral obligation to stick with the Kurds, senior Trump administration officials said Trump’s “America first” doctrine dictated that the U.S. must always prioritize its own interests.

From the Kurdish perspective, “the Americans are missing the whole point. If Erdogan is not stopped at Afrin, he will turn eastward and will not stop until he has destroyed the entire edifice” built by the Kurds in eastern Syria, said Nicholas Heras, of the Center for a New American Security.

“The challenge for the YPG is that it has power only so long as it continues to act as the key, local proxy for the U.S. mission in Syria,” Heras said.

Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

OCTOBER 31, 2017

BEIRUT (Reuters) – With Islamic State near defeat in Syria, Damascus is setting its sights on territory held by Kurdish-led forces including eastern oil fields, risking a new confrontation that could draw the United States in more deeply and complicate Russian diplomacy.

President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian allies appear to have been emboldened by events in Iraq, where Kurdish authorities have suffered a major blow since regional states mobilized against their independence referendum, analysts say.

Rivalry between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by the United States, and the Syrian government backed by Iran and Russia is emerging as a fault line with their common enemy – Islamic State – close to collapse in Syria.

Syria’s main Kurdish groups hope for a new phase of negotiations that will shore up their autonomy in northern Syria. Assad’s government, however, is asserting its claim to areas captured by the SDF from the jihadist group, known in Arabic by its enemies as Daesh, in more forceful terms.

On Sunday, Damascus declared Islamic State’s former capital at Raqqa would be considered “occupied” until the Syrian army took control – a challenge to Washington which helped the SDF capture the city in months of fighting.

And the eastern oil fields seized by the SDF in October, including Syria’s largest, will be a target for the government as it tries to recover resources needed for reconstructing areas it controls, according to a Syrian official and a non-Syrian commander in the alliance fighting in support of Assad.

“The message is very clear to the SDF militants and their backers in the coalition, headed by America: the lands they took from Daesh are rightfully the Syrian state‘s,” said the non-Syrian commander, who requested that his name and nationality be withheld.

“Regarding the resources of the Syrian people in the east – oil and so on – we will not allow anyone to continue to control the country’s resources and to create cantons or to think about self government,” added the commander, who is part of a military alliance that includes numerous Iran-backed Shi‘ite militias from across the region.

The Syrian official said the SDF could not keep control of oil resources. “We won’t permit it,” said the official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity as he was giving a personal view.

The United States has not spelt out how military support for the SDF will evolve after Islamic State’s defeat, a sensitive point due to the concerns of its NATO ally Turkey.

Ankara regards Syrian Kurdish power as a threat its national security as its forces are fighting Kurdish PKK rebels over the border in Turkey.

The U.S.-led coalition, which has established several military bases in northern Syria, has been helping the SDF shore up control of the recently captured al-Omar oil field in Deir al-Zor province.

“Many people will say that will help them with (political) negotiations, but only if the United States remains with them, otherwise they are going to get clobbered,” said Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria and head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“I think the Syrian government is going to push on some of these oil wells, in the same way as Iraq just pushed to get Kirkuk oil, and in the same way the Iraqi push is going to embolden the Syrian army,” he said.

KIRKUK “LESSON”

Iraqi Kurds took control of large areas outside their autonomous region during the fight against Islamic State. However, last month’s independence referendum prompted Western opposition and fierce resistance from Baghdad, Ankara and Assad’s Iranian allies, and the Kurdish authorities have since lost much territory to Baghdad, including oil producing areas around the city of Kirkuk.

The Syrian official said this should serve “as a lesson for the Kurds in Syria, so they think about the future”.

Regional sources say the U.S. unwillingness to stop Iraqi government forces, backed by Shi‘ite militias, from recapturing Kirkuk sent an encouraging message to Assad and his Iranian allies to retake the SDF-held oil areas in Syria.

With critical military support from Russia and the Iran-backed militias, Assad has recovered swathes of central and eastern Syria from Islamic State this year, having defeated many anti-Assad rebel factions in western Syria.

The Kurdish YPG militia, the dominant force in the SDF, controls the second largest chunk of Syrian territory – around a quarter of the country. Syrian Kurdish leaders say they are not seeking secession.

The YPG and Damascus have mostly avoided conflict during the Syrian civil war, setting aside historic enmity to fight shared foes. Kurdish-led regions of northern Syria have meanwhile focused on establishing an autonomous government which they aim to safeguard.

Moscow has called for a new “congress” of Syrian groups that may start work on a new constitution. The Russian Foreign Ministry published on Tuesday a list of 33 groups and political parties invited to a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Nov. 18.

A Syrian Kurdish official told Reuters the administration in northern Syria had been invited to the congress. Kurdish officials said they discussed their political demands with the Russians as recently as last month.

A senior Kurdish politician said government statements directed at the Kurdish-led regions of northern Syria were contradictory, noting that the Syrian foreign minister had said in September that Kurdish autonomy demands were negotiable.

“One day they say we are willing to negotiate and then someone else denies this or puts out an opposing statement,” Fawza Youssef said in a telephone interview with Reuters. “One of them declares war and the other wants to come negotiate. What is the regime’s strategy? Dialogue or war?”

After the final defeat of Islamic State in Deir al-Zor, “the situation will drive all the political sides and the combatants to start the stage of negotiations”, Youssef said.

The SDF has also pushed into Arab majority areas, including Raqqa and parts of Deir al-Zor, where it is working to establish its model of multi-ethnic local governance.

Analysts believe the Syrian Kurdish groups could use the SDF-held Arab areas as bargaining chips in negotiations with Damascus.

“There is no other option than to negotiate,” Youssef said. “Either a new stage of tensions and attrition will start – which we are 100 percent against – or a stage of dialogue and negotiations will start.”

Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Washington; Writing by Tom Perry; editing by David Stamp

Source: Reuters.

Link: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-kurds-analysis/assad-sets-sights-on-kurdish-areas-risking-new-syria-conflict-idUSKBN1D02CN.

April 29, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s leader on Saturday urged the United States to stop supporting Syrian Kurdish militants as local media reported the Turkish military has moved armored vehicles and personnel carriers to a base near the Syrian border.

The relocation comes a day after U.S. troops were seen patrolling the tense border in Syria. The Syrian Kurdish militia is Washington’s main ally in combating Islamic State militants in Syria. But Turkey views Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as YPG, as a terrorist organization and an extension of the Kurdish militants who have been waging a three-decade-long insurgency against Turkey.

“The YPG, and you know who’s supporting them, is attacking us with mortars. But we will make those places their grave, there is no stopping,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. Footage shot Friday night showed a long line of trucks carrying military vehicles driving to the border area. The private Ihlas news agency IHA reported the convoy was heading to southeastern Sanliurfa province from Kilis in the west. The base in the area is 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Syria’s Tal Abyad, a town controlled by the Kurdish militia.

The agency said the relocation comes after Turkish officials announced the completion of a phase of Turkey’s cross-border operation of Euphrates Shield in Syria, adding that the force may be used against Syrian Kurdish militants “if needed.”

Turkish officials announced the conclusion of the operation in March but have said they would continue combating terror to make its borders safe and rid of IS and Kurdish militants. Tensions in the border area rose this week when Turkey conducted airstrikes against bases for YPG group in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday. The Turkish military said it killed at least 90 militants and wounded scores.

The Kurdish group in Syria said 20 of its fighters and media activists were killed in the strike, which was followed by cross-border clashes between the two sides. The military said the YPG has targeted the Turkish border from Tal Abyad and further west in Afrin. Turkey’s military responded with howitzers.

Erdogan hinted his country is also ready to repeat it attacks in Sinjar, Iraq, to prevent it from turning into a base for the Kurdish militia. Kurdish officials said the U.S. patrols are monitoring the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent an increase in tensions with Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally.

Ankara sent its troops into Syria last August in a military operation triggered in large part by the Kurdish group’s expansion along its borders. The issue has been a source of tension between Ankara and Washington that threatens to hamper the fight against IS. Instead of working with the Syrian Kurds, Turkey is pressing the U.S. to let its army join the campaign for Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of IS.

Erdogan is due in Washington on May 16 for his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. Stating that his country is leading the most effective campaign against IS, Erdogan said: “Let us, huge America, all these coalition powers and Turkey, let us join hands and turn Raqqa to Daesh’s grave,” using the Arabic acronym for IS.

The YPG forms the backbone of the U.S-backed Syria Democratic Forces. Redur Khalil, the spokesman for the YPG in Syria, said his group has information that Turkey is reinforcing its border posts opposite Tal Abyad as well as other border posts. He said the purpose of the military reinforcement was not clear.

“We hope that this military mobilization is not meant to provoke our forces or for another purpose linked to entering Syrian territories. We don’t want any military confrontation between us, since our priority is to fight Daesh in Raqqa and Tabqa,” Khalil told The Associated Press in text messages.

Khalil said his forces are not building up in the area and added that the international coalition is now “monitoring” the border.

Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed from Beirut.

2017-04-26

AL-MALIKIYAH – The toll in Turkish air raids on Kurdish positions in northeastern Syria rose to 28 killed, a monitor said Wednesday, a day after Ankara said it had targeted “terrorist havens” near its border.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of those killed were members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is battling the Islamic State group in northern Syria.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said 19 others were wounded in the Tuesday raids on a media center and other buildings in Al-Malikiyah, a town in Hasakeh province.

YPG spokesman Redur Khalil on Tuesday said 20 fighters were killed and 18 wounded in the Turkish strikes, which the United States said were carried out without the knowledge of a Washington-led international coalition fighting IS in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Abdel Rahman said a female Kurdish fighter was among the dead.

Turkey, which backs Syrian rebel groups and which launched a ground operation in northern Syria last year, vowed to continue acting against groups it links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

It also killed six Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq on Tuesday in an apparent accident.

The strikes underlined the complexities of the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, where twin US-backed offensives are seeking to dislodge IS from its last major urban strongholds.

They could also exacerbate tensions between Ankara and its NATO ally Washington, which sees the Kurds as instrumental in the fight against IS.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82784.

2017-03-01

DAMASCUS – Worried over Turkish advances in Syria’s north, the Damascus regime has formed an alliance of convenience with the country’s Kurds to prevent their common enemy from gaining ground.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has repeatedly criticized Turkey’s operation in Syria, which saw Ankara in late August send troops across the border where they are working with local rebels.

Turkey’s invasion has also been fiercely opposed by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which is dominated by Kurdish fighters.

“For the government, just as for the Syrian Kurds, the enemy is (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan. They want to counter his project of invading the border territory,” said Waddah Abed Rabbo, editor-in-chief of Syria’s Al-Watan daily.

“It’s completely normal that the forces present on the ground would ally with each other to block any Turkish advance in Syrian territory. Now, Turkish forces are totally encircled,” said Abed Rabbo, whose paper is close to the government.

With help from Turkish air strikes, artillery, and soldiers, Syrian rebels last week overran the town of Al-Bab, the Islamic State group’s last bastion in the northern province of Aleppo.

Syrian troops had advanced to the southern edges of the town, but had been ordered by their ally Russia not to enter Al-Bab after Moscow struck a deal with Ankara.

Instead, regime fighters headed east, sweeping across previously IS-held villages to link up with the SDF south of its stronghold in Manbij.

– ‘Surrounded on all sides’ –

In just 15 days, Assad’s army seized nearly two dozen villages, including Taduf south of Al-Bab, gaining approximately 600 square kilometers (230 square miles) of territory in Aleppo province.

The advance brought Syrian troops to territory just southwest of Manbij and adjacent to SDF forces there, said US-based Middle East expert Fabrice Balanche.

By sealing off that territory, Balanche added, the regime has stemmed Turkish ambitions of heading further east.

“The road to Raqa via Al-Bab is now cut for the Turks. They also can’t attack Manbij from the south,” Balanche added.

Erdogan has insisted that Ankara wants to work with its allies to capture Raqa, the de facto Syrian capital of IS’s so-called “caliphate”, without the SDF.

Turkey considers the SDF’s biggest component — the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — as “terrorists” because of their links to an outlawed Kurdish militia in southeast Turkey.

But the SDF has a head start. Since November, it has been battling to encircle Raqa with the help of US-led coalition air strikes and is much closer to the city than the Turkish-backed fighters.

The regime’s recent advance has boxed Turkey in, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

“They’re surrounded on all sides. The Kurds are to the east, southeast, and west. The regime is south,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

“They don’t have a single road to Raqa except via territory controlled by the Kurds or the Syrian army,” Abdel Rahman said.

– ‘Regime has not changed’ –

“If they really want to go, they only have two options: opening up a front with the army or the Kurds, or striking a deal with them.”

Such a deal would require the mediation of either Russia — who has long backed the Syrian regime and has recently developed closer cooperation with Turkey on Syria — or the United States, an ally to Ankara and SDF backer.

“The risk of confrontation is there. But if the Turkish army heads towards Raqa, it will only be after a deal with the United States,” said Sinan Ulgan, who heads the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy (EDAM) in Istanbul.

While the SDF and Syria’s regime have a shared interest in countering Ankara’s influence, the alliance is not foolproof.

Regime forces and Kurdish fighters have clashed several times across the northeastern province of Hasakeh, and government officials frequently criticize a Kurdish announcement last year of a “federal system” to run affairs in northern Syria.

“The regime is against Kurdish independence, but it doesn’t have the means to retake Kurdish territory,” Balanche said.

A high-level security source in Damascus insisted that “Syria does not recognize the SDF because the constitution stipulates that the only military presence in Syria is the Syrian army.”

“But really, there are several legitimate and illegitimate organisations involved in the Syrian conflict,” the source conceded.

Leading SDF adviser Nasser al-Hajj Mansour denied that his group had struck a deal with the regime, but acknowledged that the current situation is an incentive for cooperation over confrontation.

“The regime has not changed. When it can, it will attack us. But today, local and international dynamics will not allow it to do so,” he said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81768.

November 06, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Kurdish-led Syrian forces backed by the U.S. said they have begun a military campaign to liberate the Islamic State group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, urging civilians to avoid “enemy gatherings” in the Syrian city and warning Turkey not to interfere in the operation.

The announcement by a coalition of Kurds and Arabs known as the Syria Democratic Forces came at a news conference in Ein Issa, north of Raqqa, and was attended by senior commanders and representatives of the group. But it lacked specific details on how they plan to oust the militants from the city, which is home to nearly 200,000 mostly Sunni Arabs and an estimated 5,000 militants.

Islamic State forces already are under attack by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces on the eastern edges of the city of Mosul, which the militant group seized in 2014 when it captured territory across Iraq and Syria for its self-proclaimed caliphate. The Iraqi forces, who began their operation Oct. 17, are trying to push deeper into the city, which is the militants’ last urban bastion in Iraq.

Kurdish officials said the two anti-IS campaigns are not coordinated but simply a matter of “good timing.” “We call on our heroic steadfast people in Raqqa and surrounding areas to stay away from enemy gatherings which will be a target for the liberating forces and the coalition forces, and to head to areas that will be liberated,” said Cihan Ehmed, an SDF fighter reading the statement.

She said 30,000 fighters will take part in the operation, dubbed “Euphrates Rage,” and that a joint operations command had been set up to coordinate various factions on all fronts. The SDF is dominated by the main Syrian Kurdish fighting force known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The United States considers the group to be the most effective force against the IS, but Turkey views it as a terrorist organization and claims it’s linked to Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish group. Turkish officials including President Recep Tayip Erdogan have said they will not accept a role for the Kurds in the liberation of Raqqa.

Turkey’s defense minister last week suggested that instead of the Kurds, Turkish-backed forces can present an “alternative.” But Kurdish officials have rejected any role in the Raqqa campaign for Turkey or the opposition forces it backs inside Syria, and U.S. officials have also acknowledged that the YPG will be a major part of any Raqqa offensive.

“Our hope is that the Turkish state will not interfere in the internal affairs of Syria,” Ahmad said at the news conference, suggesting SDF forces would defend themselves if it did. “Raqqa will be free by its own sons.”

There was no immediate comment from Turkey, the U.S. or the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad on the Kurdish announcement. SDF spokesman Talal Sillo told The Associated Press that the Raqqa campaign will occur on several fronts.

“We want to liberate the surrounding countryside, then encircle the city, then we will assault and liberate it,” he said. Asked whether he had assurances from the U.S. that Turkey or other forces will not interfere, he replied: “Of course, to begin the operation, we have made sure there will be no other forces but the SDF in the operation.”

Another SDF official, Rezan Hiddo, said Turkey has been an “obstacle” to the Raqqa campaign all along. He said the SDF has informed the international coalition that Turkey could spoil the campaign if it decides to strike at Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria. This would force the Kurds to stop their campaign toward Raqqa to protect their areas, he said.

“We cannot extinguish the fire in our neighbor’s house if our home is burning,” he added. U.S. officials have acknowledged that ousting IS from Raqqa poses tougher political challenges than the Mosul offensive, and have suggested the initial stage would involve isolating the city before any forces try to move in.

The commander of anti-IS coalition forces, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, said last week that U.S. intelligence has detected signs that Islamic State attacks against Western targets are being plotted from Raqqa, adding urgency to coalition plans to encircle and eventually assault the city.

“We know this plot-and-planning is emanating from Raqqa. We think we’ve got to get to Raqqa pretty soon.” But coalition leaders have been struggling with the timing for the Raqqa campaign, not only because of the demands of the large Iraqi-led Mosul operation but also because the political and military landscape in Syria is more complicated amid a civil war that has lasted more than five years and has devastated much of the country.

Townsend said more Syrian opposition fighters need to be recruited, trained and equipped for the Raqqa battle, but he and other officials have said in recent days that the Mosul and Raqqa operations will overlap.

Unlike in Iraq, where the coalition has a coherent government to work with, the U.S. and its coalition partners in Syria are relying on a hodgepodge of local Arab and Kurdish opposition groups, some of which are fierce rivals. The tensions are exacerbated by the presence of Russian and Syrian forces on one side and Turkish forces on another.

Townsend said, however, that the YPG will necessarily be part of the offensive. “The facts are these: The only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion,” he said.