25,000 FSA fighters ‘support Turkish force in Syria’

Turkish troops gather near the Syrian border at Hassa, in Hatay province on Sunday. (AFP)
Updated 22 January 2018
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25,000 FSA fighters ‘support Turkish force in Syria’

AMMAN: Around 25,000 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters are joining the Turkish military operation in northern Syria with the goal of recapturing Arab towns and villages seized by the YPG Kurdish militia almost two years ago, an opposition commander said on Sunday.
Major Yasser Abdul Rahim, who is also the commander of Failaq Al-Sham, a main FSA opposition group in the operations room of the campaign, said the fighters did not seek to enter the mainly Kurdish city of Afrin but encircle it and expel the YPG (people’s protection units).
“We have no interest in entering the city only the military targets inside the city and the villages around it. We aim to encircle the city and ensure the militias are evicted. We won’t fight in the city as we have no problem with civilians,” he said.
A leading goal of the military operation was to recapture Tel Rifaat, a town southeast of Afrin, and a string of Arab villages the YPG captured from rebels in February 2016, driving out tens of thousands of inhabitants, Abdul Rahim said.
“The task of the Free Syrian Army is first to regain 16 Arab towns and villages occupied by the foreign militias (YPG) with the help of the Russian air force,” Abdul Rahim told Reuters in a phone interview from inside Syria.
The fighting forced at least 150,000 residents of these villages to flee to Azaz. They are sheltering in camps at the Turkish border and rebels say they have not been allowed to go back to their homes.
The mainly Arab fighters accuse the Syrian Kurdish militia of forcibly displacing Arabs from the villages in what they say is a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. The YPG denies these allegations.
Tel Rifaat and nearby areas including the Menigh air base fell to the YPG as the rebels were trying to fend off a major assault by Syrian regime forces backed by the Russian air force and Iranian-backed militias.
It was a prelude to the rebels’ defeat in eastern Aleppo — their biggest single setback of the civil war.
Turkish troops have targeted these YPG-held Arab villages in artillery and aerial attacks on the US-backed Kurdish militia it aims to sweep from its border, the fighters said.
The capture of Tel Rifaat and the villages would allow the rebels to create a territorial link from a Turkish protected northern border strip stretching from Azaz and Jarablus on the western banks of the Euphrates to mainly rebel-held Idlib province further southwest.
Currently tens of thousands of civilians living in this de facto Turkish-backed buffer zone have to pass through Kurdish YPG-controlled border crossings, where residents and traders say they pay hefty taxes to move further south to Idlib province, the only province that is nearly fully under opposition control.
The fighters taking part in the assault are mainly the same factions that took part in the Turkey-backed operation launched in 2016 to drive Daesh from the border and to prevent further expansion of YPG influence.
Abdul Rahim, an army defector, also said reinforcements and weapons were moving to the YPG from the mainly-Arab populated city of Manbij, south of rebel controlled Jarablus and west of the Euphrates, across government controlled territory. “Their convoys are moving from Manbij to Afrin ...they are passing through regime territory,” Abdul Rahim said.
Diplomats say Syria’s government has tolerated the Kurdish militia because it focused its firepower on fighting the insurgency against President Bashar Assad’s rule. Damascus denies any support for the YPG.


Barzani makes comeback on both Kurd, Iraq fronts

Updated 16 min 8 sec ago
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Barzani makes comeback on both Kurd, Iraq fronts

  • ‘Now that he is the great heavyweight of Kurdish politics, no-one can do without him in Baghdad’

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq: A year after a disastrous independence vote he had championed in Iraqi Kurdistan, veteran leader Masoud Barzani has made a strong comeback both on the home front and in Baghdad.
While Iraq’s presidency, a ceremonial post, has gone to Barham Saleh of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) was on Sunday declared the clear winner of the September 30 parliamentary elections in the autonomous region of northern Iraq.
In the political maneuvering for ministerial posts in Baghdad, meanwhile, the KDP can also even boast it is the largest single party in Iraq. The party garnered 25 seats in Iraq’s legislative elections in May, contested mainly against party lists.
With 45 seats won in the 111-member Iraqi Kurdish parliament, Barzani’s party can form a majority without the PUK.
It can, in theory, rely solely on the 11-seat allocation reserved for the region’s minority Turkmen, Christian and Armenian communities.
“Now that he is the great heavyweight of Kurdish politics, no-one can do without him in Baghdad,” said Adel Bakawan, a research associate at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris (EHESS).
He predicted Barzani would seek the deputy premier, foreign and finance minister posts for the KDP in the federal government that is to be formed by November.
“He lost the gamble of the referendum, but the legislative (polls) in May were a tremendous moment of grace; he was courted by the Americans and the Iranians,” the two key powerbrokers in Iraq, he said.
Barzani looked down and out after the Kurdistan independence vote, which was ruled illegal by Iraq’s central government and resulted in Baghdad imposing economic penalties and retaking disputed territory.
The Iraqi Kurdish presidency has been left vacant since Barzani stepped down following the fiasco.
The appointment of a new president has been on hold, pending the drafting of a new Kurdish constitution for which no timetable has been set.
The leaders of the region’s top two political parties also took their rivalry to Baghdad, contesting the role of Iraqi president.
The PUK’s candidate Saleh won that race, maintaining a tacit accord between the two parties which sees the PUK take the federal presidency while the KDP holds the Kurdistan presidency.
Kurdistan is split politically and geographically between the KDP and the PUK, which won 21 seats in the region’s election, but unlike in the past they no longer have to work together to form a government.
According to political scientist Wathiq Al-Hashemi, the region could “see the return of two leaderships” but “regional pressures” from neighboring states are likely to rule out a return to the deadly clashes of 1994-2006 when the Kurds had rival governments.
Kurdistan’s parliamentary vote also saw the emergence of the New Generation movement, which was founded this year to channel public anger at the region’s elite.
The movement picked up eight seats in the vote, while the main opposition Goran (Change) party lost half of its seats and was left with 12 lawmakers.
Analysts put Goran’s losses down to the arrival of New Generation, whose candidates stood in opposition to the KDP and PUK.