Turkey faces diplomatic minefield over new Syria operation

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (AP)
Updated 18 January 2018
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Turkey faces diplomatic minefield over new Syria operation

ISTANBUL: Turkey has ramped up its rhetoric to threaten an imminent cross-border incursion against Kurdish militia in Syria but the attitude of Russia and to a lesser extent the US will determine the nature of the operation, analysts say.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia controls key northern Syrian towns including Manbij and Afrin, and is an ally of the US but Ankara accuses the group of being a terror organization.
Tensions have risen to a new peak in the last days after the US announced plans for a new 30,000-strong border security force in northern Syria that would be composed partly of YPG fighters.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to destroy the force, describing it as an “army of terror.”
“The preparations have been completed, the operation could start at any moment,” Erdogan said this week, as the Turkish army sent dozens of military vehicles and hundreds of additional personnel to the border area.
Yet executing the operation on the ground — especially against a well-populated urban center such as Afrin — could prove much harder than making threats in fiery language.
Crucial will be the attitude of Russia, which has worked increasingly closely with Turkey on Syria in the last year but has a military presence in the area where it cooperates with the YPG.
“Can Ankara dare to attack Afrin without getting a green light from Russia? It’s a sure ‘no’ for me,” said Metin Gurcan, security analyst at Istanbul Policy Center and Al Monitor columnist.
He said that despite the increasingly inflammatory language from Erdogan, a full operation would require that Russia open Afrin’s air space to Turkey and withdraw its soldiers from the area.
Tensions between Moscow and Ankara have grown in the last days as Russia seeks wide attendance at a peace conference on Syria at the end of the month. But Turkey insists it will not attend if the YPG is there.
In a potentially decisive meeting, Turkey’s Army Chief Gen. Hulusi Akar and spy supremo Hakan Fidan held talks in Moscow on Thursday with Russian counterparts on Syria.
“The only external power that can stop an invasion at this point is Russia,” said Aaron Stein, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center.
He said Erdogan had threatened incursions inside Syria “once a week, every week” for the past year since the Euphrates Shield incursion Turkey launched in August 2016, which ended the following spring.
“What makes this different is that the rhetoric is far more specific, pointed and hostile toward the US. I assume that he will carry out his threat, but the scale of the operation is still an unanswered question,” he said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu insisted Thursday that Russia would not oppose an Afrin operation, saying that Ankara needed to coordinate with Moscow to ensure its military observers on the ground were not harmed.
Aaron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation, said that “it would be hard for Erdogan to back down at this point” following such “loud and persistent” threats.
He said if the operation turned into full-out combat, much of the actual fighting would be done by Turkey-backed Syrian rebel forces like in the Euphrates Shield operation.
But he added that Afrin has tough terrain and was well fortified while the “YPG is a disciplined and effective force.”
Moreover, any Turkish intervention may not find the warmest of receptions in Washington, which has closely cooperated with the YPG as its main ally on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State extremist group.
Yet Afrin — which lies to the west of the main Kurdish zone of influence in Syria — may not be a prime concern of Washington which is more interested in the Kurdish-controlled areas stretching east to the Iraqi border.
“As far as I can tell, the Americans do not view Afrin as being their problem,” said Lund, saying the American military was in Syria on a “fairly narrow counter-terrorism mandate.”
“That said, they must be worried that this could create trouble for them” especially if Turkey fired on YPG-controlled areas to the east with a US presence, he said.
Stein said there was a “recognition in Washington that this is a Turkish show” and “little to be done to dissuade Erdogan” if he chooses to go ahead with the incursion.


New Iraqi coalition ‘in three days’

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, left, meets with Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr in Baghdad early Sunday. Al-Sadr, whose coalition won the largest number of seats in Iraq's parliamentary elections, says the next government will be "inclusive." (Iraqi government via AP)
Updated 49 min 11 sec ago
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New Iraqi coalition ‘in three days’

  • The Sairoon alliance led by the powerful Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr won the May 12 election with 54 parliamentary seats.
  • While Al-Sadr can not become prime minister, he is playing a key role in the talks.

BAGHDAD: Iraqi political forces have made “remarkable” progress in talks to form the largest parliamentary bloc in preparation for a new government, politicians involved in the negotiations told Arab News.

The Sairoon alliance led by the powerful Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr won the May 12 election with 54 parliamentary seats.

Talks aimed at forming a new government started immediately after the official results were announced late on Friday.

The parliamentary alliance is expected to be announced in the next few days, and while Al-Sadr can not become prime minister, he is playing a key role in the talks.

Dhiyaa Al-Assadi, the head of Sadrist Parliamentary bloc, told Arab News they have initial agreements with several key political players including the current prime minister Haider Al-Abadi and his Al-Nassir coalition and the prominent Shiite cleric Ammar Al-Hakim and his list Al-Hikma.

He added they also have basic agreements with Vice President Ayad Allawi and his Al-Wattiniya alliance along with several Kurdish parties.

“The post of prime minister is not our main goal,” Al-Assadi said. “Our goal is to make the required reforms and correct the mistakes that dominated the political process since 2003.”

Shiite politicians involved in the talks said the nucleus of the alliance is Sairoon and Hikma and negotiations are underway with Al-Abadi and the pro-Iranian Al-Fattah list to join.

“The details are supposed to be settled soon and the coalition supposed to be announced within 72 hours,” Hikma spokesman Mohammed Al-Maiyahi told Arab News. 

The talks have focussed on deciding the form of the next government, its principles and program, sources involved said. 

Abandoning the power sharing government, which has been adopted by political parties since 2003, is the most prominent issue agreed by the negotiators.

“We have agreed to form a national majority government. A government that represents all of Iraq's contents (Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds) but does not include all the winning parliamentary blocs,” a senior Shiite politician told Arab News.

Rejecting foreign intervention in Iraqi affairs, writing a clear government program and pledging to implement it according to certain time limits, are also principles agreed between negotiators.

They decided not to nominate anyone for a ministerial position considered to have failed in previous posts or who has been involved in corruption. 

“The government program is initial and the nominated prime minister has to be committed to its details and its time limits,” the politician said. 

“He (the nominated PM) would be fired after a year, if he fails to meet the items of the government program and its time limits.”

The victory by Sairoon, an alliance of candidates from various affiliations, came amid low voter turnout with many Iraqis jaded by corruption and the lack of progress under recent governments.

Al-Fattah, which is headed by Hadi Al-Amiri, the commander of Badr Organization, one of the most prominent paramilitary groups, won 47 seats and came second. Al-Nassir came third with 44 seats, but its leader, Prime Minister Al-Abadi is still in a strong position to keep his job.

The negotiations need to form an alliance that consists of no less than 166 seats - half of the total in parliament plus one.