Turkey begins Afrin operation; shells Syrian Kurds

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People wave flags during a demonstration in the opposition-held town of Azaz, northern Syria, on Friday, in support of a Turkish military operation in Afrin. (AFP)
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Syrians demonstrate in the rebel-held town of Azaz in northern Syria on January 19, 2018, in support of a joint rebel and Turkish military operation against Syrian-Kurdish forces in Afrin. (AFP)
Updated 22 January 2018

Turkey begins Afrin operation; shells Syrian Kurds

ANKARA: The Turkish military on Friday shelled several Democratic Union Party (PYD) targets in the besieged Syrian border town of Afrin.

Ankara considers the Syrian-Kurdish PYD an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is waging an insurgency against the Turkish state.

To encircle Kurdish-held Afrin, Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters were deployed to Syria’s northern Azaz region near the Turkish border on Thursday. Turkish forces and military equipment were also amassed at the border.

On Friday, about 170 Russian troops began pulling out of the region ahead of Ankara’s imminent military operation there, Turkish media reported.

The state-run Anadolu Agency reported that Russian soldiers are set to withdraw 17 km southward to the Nubul and Zehra districts, which are controlled by the Syrian regime. But there are reports that some Russian police remain in Afrin.

The reported withdrawal, which has not yet been confirmed by Russian official sources, came hours after a meeting between Turkey’s and Russia’s military and intelligence chiefs in Moscow on Thursday. Damascus has warned it could shoot down any Turkish planes in Syrian airspace.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s military has reportedly built its fourth observation post in the de-escalation zone in the Syrian province of Idlib, as part of the Astana deal that was brokered by Ankara, Moscow and Tehran last year.

Turkey was tasked with setting up 14 military observation posts around the zone to monitor de-escalation efforts, but Moscow has accused it of stalling in fulfilling its commitments.

“We are still waiting for Turkey to set up the observation posts as soon as possible,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Jan. 11.

Commentators say an increase in Ankara’s efforts in Idlib is aimed at securing Russia’s blessing for a Turkish offensive in Afrin.

“Russia is trying to play its own game in Afrin,” Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Arab News.

“Due to the fact that Moscow’s priority is to strengthen the Syrian government, Russia could be trying to influence the Afrin-based PYD to compromise with Damascus on issues of security.”

But Moscow will only give Afrin to Turkey if it gets something significant in return, he said. “Turkey and Russia may agree on a handover of the canton to the (Syrian) central government,” Akhmetov added.

Enes Ayasli, a research assistant at Sakarya University in Turkey, said Russia, with five military bases in Afrin, is the primary actor that Turkey needs to consider in terms of its operation.

“Contrary to the US, which is adopting a wait-and-see policy, Russia has been using Afrin as a trump card to promote security in western Idlib,” he told Arab News, adding that there is a trade-off between Ankara and Moscow.

But experts are cautious about the full opening of Afrin’s airspace to Turkish flights. “Turkey has missiles and howitzers that can destroy predetermined targets given Afrin’s proximity to the Turkish border,” said Ayasli.

“So it’s not a must for Ankara to wait for approval for the opening of Afrin’s airspace. The operation could be carried out under any circumstances,” he added.

“Turkey’s military plans not only include Afrin but also (the Arab-majority town of) Manbij, where there’s a US military base. The increasing US sphere of influence in Syria is a threat (to Ankara),” he said.

“Properly managing the conflict of interests between Russia and the US will strengthen Turkey’s position in Syria.”

Divided Arab economic summit: We must help suffering refugees

Updated 21 January 2019

Divided Arab economic summit: We must help suffering refugees

  • Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil called for 'effective solutions' for the return of Syrian refugees to their country
  • Summit also called for dialogue over growing tensions between Israel and Palestine

BEIRUT: The fourth Arab Economic and Social Development Summit was held in Beirut on Sunday, in an effort to, among other things, find ways to alleviate the suffering of refugees in the Middle East.

The summit, though attended by representatives from 20 Arab nations, was soured by the absence of most Arab heads of state, and was divided over several issues, including the absence of Syrian delegates, and a boycott by Libya.

The summit did, though, call for dialogue with the international community over growing tensions between Israel and Palestine.

Delegates expressed their support for the Palestinian people, and cited the “collective responsibility” of all parties towards maintaining the city of Jerusalem’s “Islamic and Christian identity.”

In a statement, the summit declared: “We reiterate Palestinian refugees’ rights of return and compensation, according to the UN General Assembly’s resolution 194 of 1948.”

Delegates also discussed at great length the need for international cooperation to support the growing digital economy across the region. They emphasized “the importance of building the necessary capacity” to benefit from the digital economy, and praised the initiative launched by the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, to create a sovereign investment fund to support the development of technology in the Gulf and the Middle East.

They urged all Arab nations to “support this initiative to strengthen the joint Arab economy,” and called on other Arab banks and funds to invest in it.

The summit also praised the role of small and medium businesses across the Arab world for their contribution to flourishing Arab economies, as well as the implementation of the Pan-Arab Renewable Energy Strategy 2030, to ensure power across the region becomes cleaner and more sustainable.

The summit was far from harmonious, though, with the Lebanese foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, addressing the hall to ask the international community “to assume its responsibilities by finding effective solutions for the return of Syrian refugees to their country.”

Bassil called on Arab nations and others to “shoulder the burden, honor their commitments and meet the refugees’ needs.”

There were also disputes over the attendance of the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, as well as the boycott by Libyan delegates.

“I am saddened because of the absence of the Libyan delegation, and by the circumstances that led to this point,” Arab League president, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said.

Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, echoed the words of his foreign minister, calling on the international community “to exert all efforts to provide the safe return of Syrian refugees to their country, and to present incentives so they can contribute to their country’s reconstruction.”

He proposed the establishment of an international Arab bank to help affected countries overcome the crisis, and invited established Arab funds to Beirut to discuss his proposals.

“I deplore the absence of other Arab presidents and kings, but each of them has his reason. Our union remains of great importance given that we will not be able to address the challenges facing our region and peoples, unless we agree on key issues,” Aoun said.

The next Arab Economic and Social Development Summit will be held in Mauritania in 2023.