Erdogan plans Syrian ‘safe zone’ as military campaign widens

Bloomberg reports: Turkey announced plans to create a safe zone in Syria the size of the Grand Canyon, a campaign that could be one of the biggest foreign military interventions in its modern history.

The Turkish military, which entered Syria last month to push Islamic State and Kurdish separatists from the border area, will expand its offensive to clear a 5,000-square-kilometer (1,931-square-mile) sanctuary, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday. The operation is liable to escalate its conflict with both of those armed groups and is set to be Turkey’s largest incursion since it poured troops into northern Iraq in the 1990s to attack strongholds of its own autonomy-seeking militants.

Turkey’s goal “is likely to require the deployment of thousands of Turkish soldiers in Syria for years and increase risks of a possible military confrontation with Syrian forces,” Nihat Ali Ozcan, a strategist at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara, said by telephone on Monday. [Continue reading…]

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Here’s why Turkey’s Syria intervention is a huge gamble

Borzou Daragahi reports: Abu Mostafa was elated. Backed by Turkey’s armed forces, his Free Syrian Army unit racked up a series of rare victories against ISIS fighters in northern Syria this week, retaking five villages from the jihadi group on Tuesday.

Turkey’s intervention in Syria is meant to push ISIS and Kurdish militants away from a narrow strip of the northern Aleppo province along its southern borders. But Abu Mostafa, a nom de guerre, and the fighters from his Abu Bakir al-Sadeeq brigade already harbor grander ambitions.

“We are aiming for more than those areas, hopefully even the liberation of all of Syria and not only Aleppo,” he told BuzzFeed News this week over a spotty internet connection. “The Turks do not command us.”

A few weeks after a surprise ground incursion, dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkish armed forces and allied Syrian rebel groups managed to carve out a long-sought buffer zone along Syrian territory to prevent cross-border infiltrations by jihadi and Kurdish militant organizations, while designating a potential safe zone for civilians fleeing the conflict. The Turks launched a ground operation, backed by Turkish and US air support, after reassuring Russia and Iran that their aims were solely to roll back the territories under the control of ISIS fighters and Kurdish-led fighting groups with separatist agendas.

But Turkey’s calibrated strategy depends in part on both limiting its own involvement and reining in the ambitions of its FSA partners, whose battles against ISIS and Kurdish-led militias in northern Syria are secondary to their goal of bringing down the regime of Bashar al-Assad. [Continue reading…]

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In northern Syria, outside powers have exploited Arab-Kurdish tensions to consolidate counter-revolutionary interests

Michael Karadjis writes: A week after the United States rushed to defend its Kurdish allies, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), against the Assad regime in Hassakeh, Washington supported the intervention of the Kurds’ Turkish nemesis to expel IS from the border town of Jarabulus.

These events suggest the outlines of a regional understanding over a reactionary solution in northern Syria.

It follows the recent diplomatic back-flips by Turkey’s Erdogan government – including Ankara’s reconciliation with Russia and Israel (who themselves have formed a very close alliance over the past year), the further strengthening of relations with Iran (which have remained strong despite Tehran’s backing of Assad), and the declaration by Prime Minister Yildirim that Turkey was no longer opposed to a role for Assad in a “transitional” government consisting of elements drawn from both the regime and opposition.

The YPG – connected to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – has had a long-term, pragmatic non-aggression pact with Assad, sometimes leading to minor conflict, while at other times collaborating more closely – including during the recent siege of rebel-held Aleppo.

However, Hassakeh was the first time Assad launched his airforce against the YPG, possibly in response to Turkey’s feelers. An official from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) recently noted that Assad “does not support Kurdish autonomy… we’re backing the same policy”. Despite YPG pragmatism, Assad has forcefully rejected Kurdish autonomy, while the rise in the Kurdish struggle in Iran suggests recent Turkish-Iranian meetings are likely anti-Kurdish in content.

Both Russia and the US have been key backers of the YPG. Russian airstrikes helped the Afrin YPG in February seize Arab-majority towns from the rebels in northern Aleppo, including Tal Rifaat. But Putin’s reconciliation with Erdogan suggests that Russia has dropped the YPG. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s intervention in Syria, with tacit Russian backing, has raised tensions with Washington

The Daily Beast reports: Russia and Iran have raised no serious objections to Turkey’s intervention. The Political Directorate of the Syrian Arab Army now speaks of the Kurdish guerrilla force [the YPG] as the “PKK.”

As Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center observes, “Over the past five years, Damascus has more often referred to the pro-PKK factions in Syria by simply using their official names (such as YPG, Asayish, and so on) or by some quaintly patriotic workaround, such as ‘loyal Kurdish citizens.’ It is rare for them to employ the ‘PKK’ term and even rarer to blast it across state media.” The shift is obviously meant as much for Turkish ears as for Syrian ones.

Also remarkable is how Russia’s English-language propaganda outlet Sputnik has unblinkingly about-faced on who’s who in this war.

This week, it took the unprecedented step of referring to the Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army as having “liberated” villages in Aleppo from “terrorists,” citing the Turkish General Staff’s press release. As for the terrorists, Sputnik left it an open question as to whether or not these were ISIS militants or the YPG.

Washington, meanwhile, appears to have been outflanked. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the U.S. and Turkey had been discussing a joint intervention in Syria but that President Obama had delayed approving Pentagon plans.[Continue reading…]

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Kurds carve out a home in Syria, testing U.S. ties with Turkey

The Wall Street Journal reports: Amid the chaos of Syria’s war, the Kurds have carved out a semiautonomous region called Rojava that is home to about four million people, is as big as Belgium and stretches nearly the full length of the 565-mile border between Syria and Turkey.

The emergence of Rojava also has added complexity to a region in turmoil, bringing resistance from outside and dissent from within.

Rojava’s continuing territorial expansion has alarmed Turkey, which is battling Kurdish separatists within its own borders and has pushed deeper into Syria to attack Islamic State forces and rein in the Syrian Kurds. The U.S. is stuck uncomfortably in the middle because it relies on Syrian Kurds to fight Islamic State yet considers Turkey a crucial ally.

And as Rojava gets mightier and realizes long-held ambitions of self-rule for Kurds, some of its own people feel alienated by what they claim are heavy-handed tactics that feel reminiscent of the Syrian regime.

Instead of helping Jude Hamo finish his junior year of college, his parents sold the family car and borrowed money to smuggle the 23-year-old to Germany so he wouldn’t be drafted into the Kurdish armed forces fighting Islamic State. “We chose the lesser of two evils,” says Jude’s father, Radwan.

Since late 2014, at least 6,000 young Syrian Kurds have been compelled to serve in the military, according to the regional administration’s military ministry. More than two dozen died in battle. [Continue reading…]

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A revolution is not a dinner party

Meredith Tax writes: In the 20th century, it was clear what people meant when they used the word “revolution”. Mao Zedong said it as well as anyone: “A revolution is not a dinner party…it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another”.

The founders of Turkey’s PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) had this definition in mind in 1978 when they laid out a strategy of people’s war leading to an independent Kurdish state. They initially focused on “propaganda of the deed” and military training, building what eventually became an extremely capable force, as ISIS discovered in Syria. But their vision of revolution expanded enormously during the nineties, when a civil resistance movement called the Serhildan took off in the Kurdish areas of Turkey, along with efforts to build a parliamentary party that could combine electoral and advocacy work.

This wasn’t easy since every time the Kurds founded a parliamentary party and ran people for office, the Turkish state made their party illegal — this happened in 1993, 1994, 2003, and 2009 and is now happening to the HDP (Peoples Democratic Party), despite (or because of) the fact that it won 13.1% of the national vote in the parliamentary election of May 2015. Erdogan’s response to this election was to call another election, and at the same time begin an all out military assault on Kurdish cities in southeastern Turkey, where civilians were subjected to bombardment, depopulation, and massive war crimes, their homes and neighborhoods destroyed. This was in the name of fighting PKK terrorism.

In fact, the PKK rejected terrorism over twenty years ago, at their Fifth Congress in 1995, when they publicly swore to abide by the Geneva Convention and laws of war, disallowing crimes against civilians while maintaining the right of armed self-defense against the Turkish government. At the same Congress, they founded a separate women’s army to build women’s capacity for leadership in the struggle. Co-mayor of Diyarbakir Gültan Kişanak talked about the way the PKK transformed itself in a recent interview, saying that in the early days the perspective was to make a revolution first and then do something about women, but that changed in the nineties because of the influence of the international movement for women’s rights:

Within this new environment, women began to assume important roles and created their own separate branches, not just following what the general political movement says, but also creating alternative policies, which the party must follow…. These changes were not easy and the rights were not just given by men: Kurdish women have fought at all levels and achieved these changes despite barriers within patriarchal society and despite the resistance of some of our male comrades.

The Rojava Kurds follow the same political philosophy as those in the Turkish movement. Thus, despite the newness of Rojava, which became autonomous in 2012, the movement there draws on forty years of accumulated political experience, the last twenty of which have emphasized the development of local democracy, community organizing, and women’s leadership. [Continue reading…]

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‘Everyone is pursuing their own interests, not Syria’s’

The New York Times reports: The rebel fighter, a former major in the Syrian Army, thought he had finally found what he was looking for: a group with strong international backing that was gearing up for an offensive against his two most hated enemies, the Syrian government and the Islamic State militant group.

But within days of crossing into Syria, backed by Turkish planes, tanks and special forces troops and American warplanes, the fighter, Saadeddine Somaa, found himself fighting Kurdish militias that, like him, counted the Islamic State and the government of President Bashar al-Assad among their foes.

That was because the Turks, who supplied the weapons and the cash, were calling the shots, and they considered the Kurds enemy No. 1. The Kurds, for their part, consider Turkey an enemy, and so as the Turkish-led troops advanced, the Kurdish militias attacked.

For all the hope the new offensive had inspired in Mr. Somaa and other Syrian insurgents, it showed once again how even rebels fighting against the Islamic State and Mr. Assad — both targets for defeat under stated American policy — remain dependent on backers who only partly share their goals.

“Everyone is pursuing their own interests, not Syria’s,” he said in a long telephone interview from Jarabulus, the border town the Turkish-led force took from Islamic State, known also as ISIS or ISIL, on the first day of the offensive. “The problem is the same everywhere in Syria.” [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: The U.S. on Monday urged Turkish troops and Kurdish forces in northern Syria to halt their fighting, saying it hinders efforts to defeat the Islamic State group. But Turkey’s president vowed to press ahead with the military operation until the IS and Kurdish Syrian fighters no longer pose a security threat to Ankara.

It was the first U.S. criticism of its NATO ally since it launched a U.S.-backed incursion into northern Syria to help Syrian rebels seize the town of Jarablus from the Islamic State group. They have been clashing with Kurdish Syrian forces around the town to try to halt their advance.

The battle now pits Turkey against the Kurdish-led force known as the Syria Democratic Forces— a U.S.-backed proxy that is the most effective ground force battling IS militants in Syria’s 5-year-old civil war. It puts Washington in the difficult spot of having to choose between two allies, and it is likely to divert resources from the fight against IS. [Continue reading…]

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Syria à la carte: Turkish invasion highlights rapidly shifting alliances

Der Spiegel reports: One common description of chaos theory holds that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can trigger a tornado. And it could very well be that the theory is the best tool we currently have available to describe the complex situation in Syria. The butterfly wings in this case was the late July decision by the Syrian regime to recruit new tribal militia fighters in a remote northeastern province. The tornado it triggered four weeks later was threefold: the invasion of northern Syria by the Turkish army; the sudden expulsion of Islamic State from the border town of Jarabulus; and the US military suddenly finding itself on both sides of a new front in Syria — that between the Turks and the Kurds.

“It is 3:30 p.m. and we have almost reached the center of Jarabulus and have suffered almost no casualties. But we only just crossed the border this morning!” Saif Abu Bakr, a defected lieutenant and commander with the rebel group Hamza Division, sounded on Wednesday as though he couldn’t believe what had just happened. “We set off with 20 Turkish tanks and 100 Turkish troops from Karkamis” — the border town in Turkey — “and headed through the villages west of the city and then on to Jarabulus.”

More than two-and-a-half years after Islamic State (IS) conquered the border city, displaying the heads of its adversaries on fence posts in the process, the jihadist tumor was removed in mere hours. Jarabulus was one of the last IS bastions on the Turkish border and the group had long been able to use the border crossing there unchallenged, allowing them to funnel both men and materiel into the parts of Syria under their control. “Almost all of them fled three days ago, except for a few local followers and a couple of foreigners,” Umm Chalid, a widow from the city, said of the IS fighters. “All the residents left too. We knew that something would happen.”

The invasion in the north is a turning point in the Syrian war, marking the first time that Turkey has become directly involved in the conflict. At the same time, many of the complicated alliances in the region are suddenly shifting, with some allies becoming estranged and some enemies discovering common interests. [Continue reading…]

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The Great Game in northern Syria

Hassan Hassan writes: Almost exactly a year after Russia intervened militarily to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Turkish tanks rolled into the Syrian border city of Jarablus on Tuesday to help anti-government rebels expel the Islamic State from one of its most strategic strongholds. The operation, which drove out the militants eight hours after the battle began, is part of a new Turkish policy in northern Syria, the most complex military and political terrain in the country.

The scale and nature of the Turkish intervention remain unclear. Top Turkish officials, including President Recept Tayyip Erdogan, say the purpose of the intervention is to clear the region surrounding Jarablus from both the Islamic State and the Kurdish forces who are also fighting the terrorist group. Indeed, two days after the liberation of Jarablus, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) announced their withdrawal from Manbij, another Islamic State stronghold that was liberated two weeks ago.

Notwithstanding the immediate objectives of the Turkish campaign, the development demonstrates a new state of play in the northern parts of the country. The YPG’s withdrawal from Manbij two days after the Turkish entry into Syria has bitter symbolism for the Kurdish group, since the battle in Manbij was the second-deadliest battle for Kurdish forces since Kobane. That iconic battle in 2014 consummated Washington’s relationship with the YPG in the global war against IS in Syria, to the dismay of Turkey, long an American NATO ally. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s military advance into Syria

The New York Times reports: Turkey sent tanks, warplanes and special operations forces into northern Syria on Wednesday in its biggest plunge yet into the Syrian conflict, enabling Syrian rebels to take control of an important Islamic State stronghold within hours.

The operation, assisted by American airstrikes, is a significant escalation of Turkey’s role in the fight against the Islamic State, the militant extremist group ensconced in parts of Syria and Iraq that has increasingly been targeting Turkey.

By evening, Syrian rebels backed by the United States and Turkey declared that they had seized the town of Jarabulus and its surroundings, which had been the Islamic State’s last major redoubt near the Turkish border. Numerous fighters posted photographs and videos of themselves online with the green, black and white flag adopted by the Syrian opposition as they walked through empty streets where the black flag of Islamic State still flew; it appeared that most of the militants had fled without a fight. [Continue reading…]

Michael Weiss writes: Turkey’s main motivation for invading Syria is to stop the YPG from connecting two Kurdish cantons Kobane and Afrin, which its political leadership refers to as the contiguous region of Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan.

The YPG has made no secret of its plans to carve out a semiautonomous statelet in Syria’s north in line with a century-old ambition of eventually linking this territory to other Kurdistan regions in southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq and western Iran.

The problem is that the YPG’s political branch, the Democratic Union Party, is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a U.S.- and Turkish-designated terror organization.

Turkey therefore sees such a breakaway project as a graver national security threat than it does ISIS and its resentment toward America’s connivance in exacerbating that threat through fire and steel has been palpable, not to mention dangerous.

In the past, Turkish artillery has shelled YPG positions when the paramilitaries got too close to the border or moved too far west of the Euphrates River—deemed by Ankara to be a “red line” for Kurdish advancement. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: The Obama administration will cut all U.S. support for its Syrian Kurdish allies, considered the most competent rebel force fighting the Islamic State, if they do not comply with Turkish demands that they withdraw to the east of the Euphrates River, Vice President Biden said here Wednesday.

Biden said the Kurds, who Turkey claims intend to establish a separate state along a border corridor in conjunction with Turkey’s own Kurdish population, “cannot, will not, and under no circumstances will get American support if they do not keep” what he said was a commitment to return to the east.

The primary goal of Biden’s day-long visit here was to convince Turkey that the United States had no role in, and did not condone, a July 15 coup attempt that has sent the country into a whirlwind of conspiracy theories, mass arrests and estrangement from Washington at a key moment in the campaign against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian advance raises fear of race for Raqqa

Financial Times reports: An advance by Syrian troops into Raqqa province has raised the prospect of a race to the Isis stronghold between the US-backed opposition and regime forces supported by Moscow.

Supported by Russian air power, Syrian government troops have moved to within 65km to the south-west of the city after clashes with Isis fighters that began over the weekend, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The fighting comes two weeks after US-backed opposition forces, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), began an offensive north of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Isis in Syria, which has also been the centre of its self-styled caliphate since 2014.

Isis now finds itself battling on four different fronts at once: to the north and south-west of Raqqa; around Manbij near the Turkish border with Syria; and in Fallujah in Iraq, where government forces and allied militia are attempting to retake the city. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military special forces pictured aiding Kurdish fighters in Syria

The Guardian reports: Elite US military forces have been photographed for the first time in Syria as they join largely Kurdish forces on an advance toward, Raqqa, the Islamic State terror group’s capital.

A photographer with Agence France-Presse captured US special operations forces with Kurdish forces known as the YPG, part of the US-mentored Syrian Democratic Forces, in a rural village less than 40 miles from Raqqa. Some US troops wear the insignia of the YPG in an apparent show of support.

Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, resisted commenting on the photographs and would only describe the US special operations forces’ mission in generic terms.

“Our special operations forces in the past have, yes, worn insignias and other identifying marks with their partner forces,” Cook told reporters on Thursday. [Continue reading…]

BBC News reports: Turkey has hit out at the US over images said to show US special forces in Syria wearing insignia of Kurdish militia, during joint operations against so-called Islamic State (IS).

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called the US “two-faced” and said the practice was “unacceptable”.

The images appear to show a US special forces soldier wearing the patch of the YPJ – a Kurdish militia group.

A Pentagon spokesman said troops often blended in with partners for safety. [Continue reading…]

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Behind the barricades of Turkey’s hidden war against the Kurds

The New York Times reports: On the morning of Oct. 29, 2014, a long convoy of armored vehicles and trucks rolled northward in the shadow of Iraq’s Zagros Mountains and crossed a bridge over the Khabur River, which marks the border with Turkey. As the convoy rumbled past the border gate, the road for miles ahead was lined with thousands of ecstatic Kurds, who clapped, cheered and waved the Kurdish flag. Many had tears in their eyes. Some even kissed the tanks and trucks as they passed. The soldiers, Iraqi Kurds, were on their way through Turkey to help defend Kobani, a Syrian border city, against ISIS. Their route that day traced an arc from northern Iraq through southeastern Turkey and onward into northern Syria: the historical heartland of the Kurdish people. For the bystanders who cheered them on under a hazy autumn sky, the date was deliciously symbolic. It was Turkey’s Republic Day. What had long been a grim annual reminder of Turkish rule over the Kurds was transformed into rapture, as they watched Kurdish soldiers parade through three countries where they have long dreamed of founding their own republic.

Some who stood on the roadside that day have told me it changed their lives. The battle against the Islamic State had made the downtrodden Kurds into heroes. In the weeks and months that followed, the Kurds watched in amazement as fighters aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K. — long branded a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States — became the central protagonists in the defense of Kobani. The P.K.K.’s Syrian affiliate worked closely with the American military, identifying ISIS targets for airstrikes.

By the time ISIS withdrew from Kobani in January 2015, the Kurdish militants had paid a heavy price in blood. But they gained admirers all over the world. The Pentagon, impressed by their skill at guerrilla warfare, saw an essential new ally against ISIS. There was renewed talk in Europe of removing the P.K.K. from terrorism lists, often in news articles accompanied by images of beautiful female Kurdish soldiers in combat gear. For many Turkish Kurds, the lesson was unmistakable: Their time had come. I met a 27-year-old P.K.K. activist in Turkey, who asked not to be named, fearing reprisals from the government, and who first went to Kobani in 2012, when the Kurds began carving out a state for themselves in Syria called Rojava. “I remember talking to P.K.K. fighters, and I thought, They’re crazy to think they can do this,” she said. “Now I look back and think, If they can do it there, we can do it here.”

Nineteen months after that convoy passed, the feelings it inspired have helped to start a renewed war between Turkey and its Kurdish rebels. Turkish tanks are now blasting the ancient cities of the Kurdish southeast, where young P.K.K.-supported rebels have built barricades and declared “liberated zones.” More than a thousand people have been killed and as many as 350,000 displaced, according to figures from the International Crisis Group. The fighting, which intensified last fall, has spread to Ankara, the Turkish capital, where two suicide bombings by Kurdish militants in February and March killed 66 people. Another sharp escalation came in mid-May, when P.K.K. supporters released a video online seeming to show one of the group’s fighters bringing down a Turkish attack helicopter with a shoulder-fired missile, a weapon to which the Kurds have rarely had access. Yet much of the violence has been hidden from public view by state censorship and military “curfews” — a government word that scarcely conveys the reality of tanks encircling a Kurdish town and drilling it with shellfire for weeks or months on end.

The conflict has revived and in some ways exceeded the worst days of the P.K.K.’s war with the Turkish state in the 1990s. The fighting then was brutal, but it was mostly confined to remote mountains and villages. Now it is devastating cities as well and threatening to cripple an economy already burdened by ISIS bombings and waves of refugees from Syria. In Diyarbakir, the capital of a largely Kurdish province, artillery and bombs have destroyed much of the historic district, which contains Unesco world heritage sites. Churches, mosques and khans that have stood for centuries lie in ruins. Tourism has collapsed. Images of shattered houses and dead children are stirring outrage in other countries where Kurds live: Iraq, Syria and Iran. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-backed offensive in Syria targets ISIS’s capital

The Washington Post reports: A Kurdish-led force backed by U.S. airstrikes launched an offensive on Tuesday to seize territory around the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the first ground attack to directly challenge the Islamic State’s control of its self-proclaimed capital.

Although the operation appears to have relatively limited goals, it will serve as an early test of a coalition being forged with U.S. help between local Arab fighters and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, to take on the militant group in its most symbolically significant stronghold.

A few thousand Kurdish and Arab fighters — grouped under the umbrella of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes — began moving south from the existing front line about 30 miles north of Raqqa, according to a statement from the SDF and the U.S. military.

The operation aims to secure control of a stretch of territory in the mostly desert terrain north of Raqqa, said Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S. military, speaking by telephone from Baghdad. [Continue reading…]

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Kurdish tensions undermine the war against ISIS

Hassan Hassan writes: Amnesty International has in seven months issued two major reports highlighting allegations of war crimes by rebel and Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The two reports are related to a secondary conflict brewing between Arabs and Kurds from Hasakah to Qamashli to Aleppo, which could easily spin out of control and add to the many conflicts that already plague the country.

The United States has an unintentional hand in this new conflict, and de-escalation hinges largely on whether Washington is willing to review its strategy in northern Syria, which sometimes privileges the appearance of success in the battle against ISIL over sustainable policies.

On Friday, Amnesty published a damning new report accusing rebel factions in Aleppo, organised under the Army of Conquest, of committing acts that may amount to war crimes. The rights group said it gathered strong evidence of indiscriminate attacks that killed at least 83 civilians, including 30 children, in the Kurdish-dominated Sheikh Maqsoud between February and April.

On October 13 last year, Amnesty issued a report, Forced Displacement and Demolitions in Northern Syria, accusing the Kurdish political party PYD, the Democratic Union Party, of carrying out a wave of forced displacement and home demolitions that it also said may amount to war crimes. The shelling of civilians by rebel forces cannot be justified, and perpetrators must be punished and restrained by their regional backers. The attacks on Sheikh Maqsoud were encouraged by some supporters of the opposition living abroad, after the PYD’s military wing, the YPG, attacked the rebels in February. Worse, such calls continue to be heard and more indiscriminate attacks can be expected. [Continue reading…]

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Syria peace talks — democracy left out in the cold

Saleh M. Mohamed writes: This week, United Nations talks meant to chart a path toward a peaceful, democratic future for Syria are set to resume in Geneva. But, in an absurd twist, the legitimate representatives of a large, democratically governed area in the country will not be invited to attend.

This area is called Rojava, in the northern part of Syria, and despite its frequent description as “Kurdish,” it is governed inclusively by Kurds, Arabs, and the area’s other ethnic groups. Furthermore, its self-defense forces are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the United States that have advanced toward Raqqa, the center of the Islamic State’s power in Syria.

Both in strategic and moral terms, Rojava’s existence is a rare bright spot in this conflict. So the exclusion of its representatives from the U.N. process is not only unfair, but makes no sense if the aim of the talks is to establish a viable path to democracy in Syria.

The primary reason for this injustice is that Turkey opposes Rojava’s military force, the People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G., claiming it is one and the same with the P.K.K., a Kurdish group with a long history of armed conflict with the Turkish government.

This is not true. Both groups are Kurdish, but the Syrian Kurds, with their Arab allies and international support, are locked in a difficult, but thus far successful, battle against the Islamic State. The Y.P.G.’s fight is about Syria, not Turkey. Its role is to defend the institutions of self-government in Northern Syria (the party of which I am co-president, the Democratic Union Party, is part of this political coalition, along with other parties and civil society organizations).

It’s a fair question to ask what kind of democracy this is. Its central philosophy is that people should govern themselves from the bottom up, and so as much decision making as possible is left to local assemblies. These assemblies, furthermore, are designed to ensure a voice for non-Kurdish minorities and for women. This is real and genuinely inclusive democracy, and it deserves to be supported, not ignored. [Continue reading…]

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Is the Kurdish plan foolhardy or first-rate?

Hassan Hassan writes: The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, made history last week when it announced a federal system in northern Syria. The declaration is both symbolic and catalytic, and there are reasons to believe it is not as foolhardy as many think. Although Syrian and Iraqi Kurds differ on many issues, the move has linked the adjoining territories controlled by Kurds, who prevail over a combined territory the size of Sri Lanka.

In Syria, the PYD controls approximately 10,000 square miles, roughly two-thirds of the territory ruled by Iraqi Kurds. In October, the party seized more territory after gains against ISIL in northern Syria. Since then, the group’s military wing, the YPG, drove out ISIL from southern Hasaka. This has galvanised Kurdish activists who dream of statehood for “the world’s largest stateless nation”.

On the other hand, the news agitated almost everyone else involved in the conflict in Syria, including putative Kurdish allies such as Haitham Mannaa, a Syrian opposition figure who has distanced himself from mainstream rebels. The US too stated it would not recognise the federacy. Turkey, unsurprisingly, rejected it.

Local populations in northeastern Syria also fear the YPG’s nationalist project, particularly after incidents, documented by Amnesty International, of home demolition and forced displacement by the Kurdish militia against Arab families.

From the outside, the project appears to be a fool’s errand. In Iraq, Kurds carved out a semi-autonomous region after the US-led coalition forces declared a safe haven inside Iraq in 1991. In Syria, the Kurds are outnumbered and surrounded by hostile Arab demographics and armed groups, not to mention Turkey. Kurdish-majority areas are also scattered throughout northern Syria. [Continue reading…]

Shiar Neyo writes: I do support the right of Kurds and other minorities in Syria to self-determination, and I do believe that federalism is better than a centralist state. However, federalism by definition requires all concerned units or parts to agree to this system of governance because they believe it is better for all of them.

Not only were other parts of Syria and other Syrian political and military forces not consulted and not involved, even people and political parties within the so-called self-administration areas were not involved in the process.

There should have been a long process of consultation and negotiation followed by a general referendum, which are clearly not possible at the moment, rather than a hasty two-day conference clearly dominated by the PYD to ‘discuss’ and agree an equally badly written and quite confused founding document deciding important issues that affect all Syrians. It was clearly a politically motivated move.

The declaration came soon after the PYD forces attacked Syrian opposition factions and took over some areas in north Syria with the support of Russian air strikes and Iranian-led ground assaults. It is indeed telling that the founding document dedicates a whole section to the “historical development of the societal problems in the Middle East and Syria and the current situation,” tracing them back to Mesopotamia. (!) Yet it does not even mention the ongoing Syrian revolution. It only talks about war and Islamist forces backed by regional powers. [Continue reading…]

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