US gives boost to Turkey’s fight against Daesh

F-16 Fighting Falcons parked on the tarmac at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey on Aug. 9, 2015. The jets support operations against Daesh. (AFP)
Updated 13 January 2017
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US gives boost to Turkey’s fight against Daesh

ANKARA: Turkey’s threat to close its strategic southern Incirlik Air Base to US-led international coalition flights seem to have paid off, according to analysts.
The US recently announced its decision to provide regular aerial intelligence to support Turkey in its military operation against Daesh around the Syrian town of Al-Bab.
Incirlik does not belong to NATO, but is a Turkish base that remains open to the operations of NATO forces due to Ankara’s responsibilities under the alliance.
The US move came after calls, made for more than a month, by Turkey’s top officials — Ibrahim Kalin, the top aide of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Mevlut Cavusoglu, the minister of foreign affairs — for Washington to support Turkish forces in their fighting against Daesh.
There was also questioning over the use of Incirlik airbase by coalition forces that were perceived as not standing by Turkey as the country faced ever-mounting casualties in its Operation Euphrates Shield at Al-Bab, a critical location in the fight against Daesh.
Washington’s close cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in the fight against Daesh also disappointed Turkey, which emphasizes the need to enclose Kurds to the east of the Euphrates and to end the cooperation with them.
Ankara also considers YPG to be an offshoot of the Kurdish PKK, which is deemed a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and EU, and which has been carrying out a three-decade-old insurgency in Turkey’s southeastern provinces.
The Incirlik airbase since July 2015 has been used by anti-Daesh coalition forces in their joint operations against militants in Syria, while manned and unmanned US warplanes deployed at the base carry out strikes against Daesh from Turkey.
Since February, Incirlik has also been used by Saudi fighter jets to target Daesh with airstrikes. Turkey is also part of the Saudi-led military alliance against terrorism launched in 2015.
Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim traveled to Baghdad on Jan. 7 and held talks with his Iraqi counterpart, Haider Al-Abadi, concerning Turkish troops deployed in northern Iraq’s Bashiqa camp. Although considered an “occupying force,” by Baghdad, Ankara claims that it trains Sunni forces in this camp in their bid to liberate Mosul.
Turkey’s Defense Minister Fikri Isik, who said on Jan. 4 that “the lack of coalition assistance for Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation raises questions about the mission of the Incirlik airbase,” announced Wednesday that Turkish forces will not withdraw from Bashiqa camp until Daesh is eliminated.
Iraq’s Ambassador to Ankara Hisham Al-Alawi said Wednesday Turkey would withdraw from Bashiqa after the Mosul operation, hopefully within three months.
A boost to Turkey’s operation
Michael Stephens, research fellow for Middle East studies and head of the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) Qatar, considers the US support to Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation a positive step.
“It should add a level of precision and increased effectiveness to Turkish military operations, and certainly have beneficial effects, which include lowering the risk of civilian casualties and disabling Daesh activity quicker and with greater impact,” Stephens told Arab News.
However, for the moment, Stephens said he does not believe this will benefit Turkish military activity with Syrian Kurds involved in the fight against Daesh, and as such will be subject to some protection as a result.

The new Trump era
With the incoming Trump presidency on Jan. 20, Turkey is expecting that a new page will turn with the US in terms of regional cooperation.
“The unknown of course is how a Trump administration might change policy on this particular issue, but if all things remain constant US weaponry and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) will not be used to target the YPG,” Stephens noted.
According to Stephens, Turkey’s rhetoric over a potential closure of its most strategic airbase to coalition partners was partially influential in the recent decision by the US; but the decision to help was primarily strategic.
“The US also realized it needed to do more to help Turkey, and that the Al-Bab operation was crucial to preventing the uniting of the cantons of northern Syria, which would have triggered a war between Turkey and the Democratic Union Party (PYD, which is seen by Turkey as the Syrian affiliate of the PKK),” he said.
“Nevertheless, the US wishes to keep Turkey very firmly within the NATO family and the use of the base is important to this sense of shared security goals and understanding,” he added.
Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who now chairs the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), said he believes that the US air intelligence support would be welcomed by Turkey during the ongoing and difficult Al-Bab operation where this additional facility can help to limit casualties.
“It is not likely to change Turkey’s outlook on the PYD and will not also affect any potential decision to move against the PYD positions in and around Manbij as the next stage of the cross border military campaign,” Ulgen told Arab News.
Ulgen also noted that the implications around the use of Incirlik airbase were conceived as a demonstration over the unease in Ankara over the US reluctance to end its support of the PYD.


Iran-backed militias accused of reign of fear in Iraqi Basra

Iraqi activist Hajjar Youssif hands out masks to protesters for a demonstration last week in Basra. (AP)
Updated 20 min 36 sec ago
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Iran-backed militias accused of reign of fear in Iraqi Basra

  • Angry Basra residents have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest failing government services, including water contamination that sent thousands to hospitals

BASRA: Hajjar Youssif was on her daily commute to work, staring at her phone and flicking through her Instagram account when she looked up to find herself in an unusual location. The taxi driver had turned into an alley. When she questioned the driver, he sped up.
“I started to feel uneasy and knew that something bad was going to happen,” said the 24-year-old office administrator, who had taken part in protests over lack of clean water, frequent power cuts and soaring unemployment in her hometown of Basra, Iraq’s oil capital and main port.
She yelled and tried to open the door, but the driver had locked it. The taxi swerved into a courtyard where three masked men were waiting.
“They immediately told me, ‘We’ll teach you a lesson. Let it be a warning to other protesters’,” Youssif said in an interview several days after the incident.
The men slapped and beat her and pulled off her Islamic headscarf, she said. “At the end, they grabbed me by my hair and warned me not to take part in the protests before blindfolding me and dumping me on the streets,” she said, her cheeks still bruised.
Youssif believes the attack was part of what she and other activists describe as a campaign of intimidation and arbitrary detentions by powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias and political groups that control Basra, a city of more than 2 million people in southern Iraq’s Shiite Muslim heartland.
Angry Basra residents have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest failing government services, including water contamination that sent thousands to hospitals.
Earlier this month, protests turned violent when demonstrators attacked and torched government offices, the headquarters of the Iranian-backed militias and the Iranian Consulate in Basra — in a show of anger over what many residents perceive as Iran’s outsized control over local affairs.
The events in Basra reflect the growing influence of the militias, which played a major role in retaking Iraqi territory from Daesh militants, who are Sunni Muslims.
Shortly after IS militants captured much of northern and western Iraq in 2014, tens of thousands of Shiite men answered a call-to-arms by the top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.
Many volunteers were members of Iran-backed militias active since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, while others formed new groups. These fighters are credited with helping government forces defeat the extremists. But during the war, the militiamen were also accused by Sunnis and rights groups of abuses against the Sunni community, including killings, torture and destruction of homes.
Buoyed by victory against IS, some of the most feared Shiite militias took part in the May national elections and their list — Fatah — won 48 seats in the 329-seat Parliament.
Fatah and other factions formed a wider Iran-backed coalition in Parliament earlier this month and will likely be tasked with forming the new government.
In Basra, some alleged the militias were working with local authorities to quell the protests — a charge denied by Bassem Al-Khafaji, head of Sayyed Al-Shuhada, one of several Basra militias.
He said threats and intimidation of protesters were “individual acts,” but not the result of a central directive.
“Our order for all the factions in Basra ... is not to confront the protesters who burned down the offices of the militias,” Al-Khafaji said, arguing that the militias are trying to prevent more bloodshed.
He accused infiltrators of turning the protests violent and said the alleged saboteurs must be dealt with by the security agencies.
Some militia leaders in Basra accused protesters of colluding with the US, which has long worked to curb Iranian influence in Iraq.
A local leader of a prominent militia vowed to retaliate.
“We have pictures of those who burned down our headquarters and they will pay dearly,” he said on condition of anonymity in line with his group’s rules for speaking to the media. “We will not let them attack us again and if they do we’ll open fire. That’s what we’ve agreed on, all of us.”
The government has said protesters’ demands are legitimate, but claims infiltrators were behind the violence.
A senior official in the Interior Ministry’s intelligence service said dozens have been arrested since the protests began. He acknowledged that others may be held by political parties and their militias, but said his office has no way of tracking that. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.