How Turkish ground forces, backed by NATO, could lead a humanitarian intervention in Syria

David Owen writes: The argument that diplomacy has failed in Syria and that the best thing to bring the suffering to an end in Aleppo would be a quick victory for Bashar al-Assad is too pessimistic. We need to recognise that the diplomacy has never faced up to the need for an initial partition or zones of influence involving neighbouring states on the path to an eventual unified settlement in Syria.

Between 2012 and 2014, Turkey was ready to create a protected area in Syria for refugees, but for various reasons this was never supported by Nato. Turkey was understandably very reluctant to move militarily across the border into Syria on its own. When Russia extended an airfield close to Latakia, not far from the naval port it has had in Syria since 1971, and put sophisticated aeroplanes in to protect Assad’s forces, everything changed. Turkey shot down a Russian plane and felt threatened by Kurdish forces pushing along its border with Syria. Turkish relations also became very strained within Nato, particularly with the US over strategies for dealing with Islamic State and the EU over refugee policies and human rights. Turkey responded perfectly reasonably by defusing tensions with Russia.

In this period the Russians militarily achieved their objective, reinforced by Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and Iranian forces, of winning back control of the key roads linking Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea for Assad. These forces, as a consequence, are back in control of this area, including Hama, which has become a Russian zone of influence.

Only Turkey is in a political and military position to intervene on the ground over Aleppo and it is demonstrating this at present by attacking Isis. Turkey can now, because of changed circumstances, create a crucial balancing factor in Syria by taking urgent humanitarian action with its troops and air power in relieving the siege of Aleppo. Under the UN charter, even if the security council is blocked by a Russian veto, Turkey has a regional locus and a measure of legitimacy, having taken large numbers of Syrian refugees. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s post-coup crackdown hits Kurds

The Wall Street Journal reports: A post-coup crackdown in Turkey has expanded into the restive Kurdish minority’s heartland, exacerbating tensions after a rare show of solidarity by Kurdish lawmakers with the democratically elected government.

Turkey’s Education Ministry suspended 11,285 teachers this month for allegedly supporting Kurdish separatists. The government also removed by decree 24 elected mayors from pro-Kurdish parties accused of aiding the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the moves are part of a campaign against Kurdish terror groups, billing it as the biggest operation yet against the PKK. But the fresh crackdown worries some in Turkey and its Western allies that the policies are stoking ethnic rivalries, rather than capitalizing on a brief sense of national unity to negotiate an end to the PKK’s three-decade uprising.

As F-16s attacked the national assembly during the July 15 coup attempt, Kurdish lawmakers stood there in solidarity with other lawmakers and joined an extraordinary parliament session to adopt a resolution in defense of democracy.

But even as Mr. Erdogan has warmed relations with two other opposition parties, he has ignored Kurdish overtures and the government has ruled out peace talks.

Prosecutors have pressed on with PKK-related terrorism charges against dozens of lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, while Mr. Erdogan dropped some 1,500 charges against other opposition lawmakers for insulting the president.

“There is a systematic embargo against us,” said Figen Yuksekdag, co-chair of the HDP. “If the HDP is ostracized, that will raise the risk of a coup and civil war.” [Continue reading…]

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Turkey wants to join U.S.-led operation against ISIS in Raqqa

Reuters reports: Turkey wants to join the United States in a military operation to push Islamic State from its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, as long as it excludes Kurdish rebel forces, President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying on Sunday.

NATO member Turkey, part of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State, is backing Arab and Turkmen Syrian rebels who seized the Syrian town of Jarablus from the jihadists a month ago in an operation it has dubbed “Euphrates Shield.”

But Ankara is wary of the U.S.-allied People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Syrian Kurdish groups it sees as extensions of Kurdish militants who have waged a three-decade insurgency on its own soil. [Continue reading…]

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Hellish Greek refugee camp becomes an inferno

The Daily Beast reports: The Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos is a living hell even during the best of times. Last April, on the eve of Pope Francis’s historic visit, refugees complained to The Daily Beast through the barbed-wire fence that they had no hot water, no toilets and no information about how long they would have to stay. Many aid agencies long ago abandoned the camp to protest the way the refugees were being treated, which only served to make the conditions worse.

On Monday night, around the time diplomats in New York were signing a multi-national declaration to make life better for the world’s 21 million refugees, Moria’s hell became a literal inferno.

More than 4,000 refugees had to flee a fire that swept through the camp and raged late into the night, destroying more than a third of the shelters. The fire allegedly was set during a protest to mark a six-month anniversary of their detention in a camp that was built to house perhaps half the number of people there. Nine migrants and refugees were arrested on suspicion of starting the blaze.

Everything changed drastically on Lesbos and many other Greek islands last March when the European Union signed a deal with Turkey to trade illegal migrants or refugees for vetted ones. Since then, almost no one’s applications has been processed and the only people who have left the island are those deported back to Turkey. [Continue reading…]

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Silencing Kurdish voices

Diego Cupolo reports: Earlier this month, as he watched crew workers dismantle his television studio, Barış Barıştıran, chief broadcasting manager at Özgür Gün TV, told me that running a Kurdish news channel has never been easy in Turkey — but it’s never been this hard.

“In the 1990s, they would bomb our building, they would harass us, but they wouldn’t shut down our channel,” he said. “We would get punished and that was it.”

A week earlier, Barıştıran received a text message from the station’s satellite service provider saying they would stop broadcasting Özgür Gün TV, downgrading the channel from a national network to a local station reliant on landlines. With the station’s audience now diminished, advertisers dropped their contracts, and Baristiran, no longer able to afford the rent on the TV studio, was forced to move operations to another location.

“They told us thirty minutes before cutting the satellite service,” he said. “It was purely a political decision coming from above.”

Özgür Gün TV has been broadcasting from Diyarbakır, Turkey’s largest Kurdish-majority city, in one form or another since 1995. As with all other Kurdish media in the country, the station has long confronted obstacles in its coverage. It’s been penalized for broadcasting interviews with Kurdish politicians, and had its websites and social media accounts blocked repeatedly by telecommunications authorities.

In October 2015, a plainclothes police officer put a gun to the head of one of its reporters while he was covering military operations in the southeastern city of Silvan. This too was nothing new for Kurdish journalists. What mattered was that the TV crew was able to continue broadcasting afterwards.

“As you see, that’s not the case anymore,” Barıştıran said, as workers laid down a world map printed on composite board that, moments earlier, had served as the backdrop for the news studio. [Continue reading…]

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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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Turkey plans to build 174 new jails after post-coup crackdown

The Washington Post reports: Authorities in Turkey plan to construct 174 prisons over the next five years to “meet the unanticipated increase in the number of convicts,” according to a Justice Ministry statement. Though not explicitly stated, the move is most probably linked to the strain placed on Turkey’s penal system amid a nationwide purge launched in response to a coup attempt on July 15.

In the weeks since, authorities have rounded up and jailed tens of thousands of people suspected to be connected to a movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in the United States who Ankara claims was behind the coup plot.

Some of the plans for the new facilities were already in place before the failed putsch, in which a mutinous faction of the military attempted to seize institutions of the state, bomb parliament and turn their weapons on protesting civilians before being quashed by loyalist forces. In March, reports suggested that Turkish jails were already at capacity.

But the sweeping purge, which has netted a vast number of journalists, lawyers, teachers and other members of civil society, has accelerated the need for new facilities. According to statistics from officials last month, about 35,000 people have been detained as part of the crackdown, and about 17,000 of them have been formally arrested. [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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ISIS loses all territory along Syria-Turkey border

The Associated Press reports: Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels expelled the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group from the last strip of territory it controlled along the Syrian-Turkish border on Sunday, effectively sealing the extremists’ self-styled caliphate off from the outside world, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported.

Also on Sunday, Syrian pro-government forces backed by airstrikes launched a wide offensive in the northern city of Aleppo, capturing areas they lost last month and besieging rebel-held neighbourhoods, state media and opposition activists said.

Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army rebels have cleared the area between the northern Syrian border towns of Azaz and Jarablus, the Anadolu news agency reported. It said the advance “has removed terror organization Daesh’s physical contact with the Turkish border in northern Syria.” Daesh is an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

The FSA’s advance shut down key supply lines used by ISIS to bring in foreign fighters, weapons and ammunition. [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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