Turkey begins Afrin operation; shells Syrian Kurds

1 / 2
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)
2 / 2
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.”

Erdogan’s ‘vile’ comments on Christchurch mosques shootings dismissed as not representative of Muslims

Updated 21 March 2019

Erdogan’s ‘vile’ comments on Christchurch mosques shootings dismissed as not representative of Muslims

  • Turkish president has threatened to ‘send home in coffins’ visitors from Australia, New Zealand
  • Aussie and NZ leaders want Turkey to explain the ‘vile’ and ‘offensive’ remarks

JEDDAH: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was condemned on Wednesday for “vile, offensive and reckless” comments after last week’s Christchurch mosque terrorist attacks.

Australia summoned the Turkish ambassador in Canberra to explain the remarks, and New Zealand dispatched its foreign minister to Ankara to “set the record straight, face to face.”

Brenton Tarrant, 28, an Australian white supremacist, was charged with murder on Saturday after he shot dead 50 people during Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Erdogan, in election campaign rallies for his AK Party, urged New Zealand to restore the death penalty and said Turkey would make the killer pay if New Zealand did not.

He said anti-Muslim Australians who came to Turkey would be “sent back in coffins, like their grandfathers at Gallipoli,” and he accused Australian and New Zealand forces of invading Turkey during the First World War “because it is Muslim land.”

But an international affairs scholar in Riyadh said Erdogan’s comments should not be taken as representative of Muslims. 

"He is a propagandist and an unpredictable politician,” Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News. “He keeps saying these things and then he issues an apology. Right now, he is making these incendiary comments to win elections.”

It was inappropriate behavior for a head of state, Al-Shehri said. “Which president would use such language and issue these kind of comments?”

In his speech, Erdogan said that the Gallipoli peninsula campaign in 1915 was in fact an attempt by British colonial forces to relieve their Russian allies. The attack was a military disaster, and more than 11,000 Australian and New Zealand forces were killed. Thousands of people from both countries travel each year to Turkey for war memorial services, and the anniversary is marked on Anzac Day every April 25.

“Remarks have been made by the Turkish President Erdogan that I consider highly offensive to Australians and highly reckless in this very sensitive environment,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said after summoning the Turkish ambassador and dismissing the “excuses” offered.

“I am expecting, and I have asked, for these comments to be clarified, to be withdrawn.” Morrison described claims about Australia and New Zealand’s response to the white supremacist attack as “vile.” He accused Erdogan of betraying the promise of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to forge peace between the two countries.

A memorial at Gallipoli carries Ataturk’s words: “There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets ... after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

“Ataturk sought to transform his country into a modern nation and an embracing nation, and I think these comments are at odds with that spirit,” Morrison said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her deputy, Foreign Minister Winston Peters, would travel to Turkey to seek clarification of Erdogan’s comments. “He is going there to set the record straight, face-to-face,” she said.