Afrin offensive could risk Turkey’s relations with Russia

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan listens to cheering supporters as he addresses his lawmakers at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (AP)
Updated 16 January 2018

Afrin offensive could risk Turkey’s relations with Russia

ANKARA: Turkey’s preparation for an imminent military operation in the Syrian Kurd province of Afrin could raise the complex and delicate question of who are Ankara’s partners and who are its rivals?
The operation against a US-backed Kurdish militia, which Turkey considers a terrorist group, will take place amid escalating tensions between Ankara and Washington over their Syria policies.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday said the offensive against the “nests” of terror in Afrin and Manbij towns would begin on Wednesday or Thursday. The attack will take place in partnership with Syrian opposition fighters allied to Turkey.
But the ever-changing dynamics in the nearly seven year conflict may oblige Turkey to go it alone in terms of its international allies — a risky option given the uncertainty as to how regional actors will react.
For now, Russia seems muted but would prefer Turkey to increase its presence in the de-escalation zone in Idlib by launching more observation posts to monitor a cease-fire. People’s Protection Units
The northwestern Afrin province, which borders Turkey, is currently under the control of the US-backed Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units (YPG) seen as a terrorist organization by Turkey because of its links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), that has waged a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey.
Moreover, the US-led international coalition against Daesh announced on Sunday that it is training a new border security force in Syria to protect the Turkish-Syrian border.
The surprise initiative infuriated Turkey and Erdogan vowed on Monday to “kill such a terrorist army before it is born.”
On Tuesday, he called on NATO, of which both Turkey and the US are members, to stand with Ankara “in the “event of any border aggression.”
Likewise, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that with this move the US showed that it is treating Turkey as its “enemy”.
Crucially, it will be how Moscow reacts that could determine how Turkey emerges from the offensive.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned on Monday that any formation of a zone under the control of Kurdish militants could lead to the partition of Syria and may impede finding an end to the conflict Syria.
“We are talking about an extremely complicated geopolitical picture here,” Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, told Arab News.
“Although it is true that the PYD (the YPG’s political wing) has built closer links with the US, it has not refrained from developing special relations with Russia particularly in the last couple of years.”
Ersen said that despite Moscow’s move to improve relations with Turkey, “Russia still believes the PYD can be eventually convinced to make a deal with the Assad regime.”
Russia is unlikely to be easily persuaded by Turkey to abandon its plans for the PYD’s role in Syria. An agreement between the Kurdish group and the Syrian regime was one of the main goals of Moscow’s Syrian National Dialogue Congress proposal.
Ersen thinks the US announcement of a new border army in Syria is perceived by Moscow as a major challenge to the rising Russian political and military influence in the Middle East.
“Therefore, this development will probably bring Turkey and Russia closer in Syria, although they recently hasd some important disagreements regarding the situation in Idlib,” he said.
There has been speculation that Turkey made a deal with Russia over its increased presence in Idlib in exchange for Moscow’s consent for its military operation in Afrin.
When Turkey staged its previous offensive into Syria to clear the border of YPG and Daesh threats, Russia did not initially oppose Ankara’s military aircraft using Syrian airspace.
This gave implicit support to the seven-month Operation Euphrates Shield, which ended in March 2017, and Russia even provided Turkey with some air support of its own.
Russia now controls the airspace over Idlib and Afrin, and without its approval Ankara will not be able to support its fighters in their operation – a key factor that will determine the success of the offensive.
“It will be extremely difficult for the Turkish forces to achieve the goals of the Afrin operation without Russia’s implicit or explicit support,” Ersen said. “On the other hand, any kind of Turkish-Russian cooperation in Afrin will most probably alienate the PYD from Moscow, which contradicts Russia’s long-term plans in Syria.”
Syria’s Afrin has been in Turkey’s sights. The south of the province is monitored by Turkey’s observation posts in Idlib, and the eastern part was sealed during the Euphrates Shield.
On Tuesday, Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar attended a NATO meeting of defense chiefs in Brussels, and during his speech he said, “NATO should not make discrimination between terror groups in the fight against terrorism.”
Erol Bural, a former military officer and terrorism expert at the 21st Century Turkey Institute, said it is time for Turkey to use more efficient diplomacy at NATO and the UN to prevent the escalation of this crisis and to strengthen its hand.
“The US-led border security initiative intends to monitor the Turkey-Syria border, which means NATO’s own borders are under a serious threat,” Bural told Arab News.
Bural thinks that an operation into Afrin against the PKK-linked YPG terror group may trigger domestic security threats inside Turkey.
“For the moment Turkey has not announced any exit strategy from such an operation. We don’t know how long Turkish soldiers will stay there,” he said. “it seems that the political objectives are the same with military and state: clearing the area from terrorist threat.
But, Bural warned that if the operation extends to the east of the Euphrates River, it may lead to direct combat with the US, which controls that zone.


Family backs Tlaib’s decision not to visit Israel

Updated 18 August 2019

Family backs Tlaib’s decision not to visit Israel

  • Israel said a humanitarian travel request by Tlaib would be considered as long as she promised not to promote a boycott against Israel

RAMALLAH: Relatives of a US congresswoman say they support her decision to decline Israel’s offer allowing her to visit them in the West Bank because the “right to travel should be provided to all without any conditions.”

Rashida Tlaib said she would not see her family, even after Israel lifted a ban on her entry, because the government had imposed restrictions on her trip.

“We totally understand her position and support her in her efforts. The right to travel should be provided to all without any conditions,” her uncle Bassam Tlaib told Arab News.

He was speaking from the family home in Beit Ur Al-Fuka, which is 3 km from the West Bank city of Ramallah, and was flanked by his elderly mother.

He said his niece had visited them many times in the past, but there had never been any conditions attached to her travel.

“She said we will meet when she can come without conditions,” Tlaib said. “One idea has been floated of flying the grandmother to the US or finding a way to have the two meetings in a third country. You know my mother is nearing 90 and it is not easy for her to travel but we are checking out all options.”

Tlaib, a Democrat, has criticized Israel’s policy toward Palestinians and had planned to make an official visit to the country.

Israel said a humanitarian travel request by Tlaib would be considered as long as she promised not to promote a boycott against Israel, local media reported.

But the congresswoman, who is Palestinian-American, lashed out on social media.

“I can’t allow the State of Israel to take away that light by humiliating me & use my love for my sity to bow down to their oppressive & racist policies,” she tweeted, using the word sity to refer to her grandmother. “Silencing me & treating me like a criminal is not what she wants for me. It would kill a piece of me. I have decided that visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions stands against everything I believe in — fighting against racism, oppression & injustice.”

The NGO hosting and organizing the trip, Miftah, has been criticized by supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Hanan Ashrawi, the NGO’s founder, said her staff had organized other congressional trips. “This was the third trip we have organized, and we try to do our work professionally and seriously,” Ashrawi told Arab News. “Our very mission is to promote global dialogue and democracy.”

Ashrawi said the attacks on Miftah were unwarranted.  “Miftah has been targeted with the expressed goal of trying to discredit us even though our record is clear. We believe that they are trying to keep organizing congressional delegations within the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) monopoly, while we are trying to provide visitors with an opportunity to learn about Palestinian life under occupation and to understand the Palestinian narrative by providing opportunities for delegations to see and engage with Palestinians of all walks of life.” 

Ashrawi said Miftah had been “vetted” by the US Congress’ ethics committee. “We might not be able to bring hundreds of congress people like AIPAC, but we can bring a few and have them see, hear and interact with Palestinians.”

US President Donald Trump had called on Israel not to allow Tlaib and fellow congresswoman Ilhan Omar into Israel as admitting the two “would show great weakness.”

He tweeted that the pair “hate Israel and all Jewish people, and there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace.”