Turkish attack highlights Syrian Kurds’ isolation

A picture shows the Kurdish-majority town of Afrin in northern Syria, on January 23, 2018, as Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies pressed an assault on the border enclave. (AFP)
Updated 24 January 2018
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Turkish attack highlights Syrian Kurds’ isolation

WASHINGTON: After Turkey assaulted a relatively peaceful Kurdish enclave of northern Syria, regional leaders fear the world will abandon them even though they provided the ground troops who beat Daesh.
For the past four days, Turkish troops and allied Arab Islamist fighters have been battling their way into Syria’s Afrin canton, which is defended by the American-backed Kurdish YPG militia.
US leaders from President Donald Trump on down have appealed for restraint, but appear to have little influence over their NATO ally when it comes to its battle against the Kurds.
Now the Kurds, whose unofficial national motto admits they have “no friends but the mountains,” fear they will be the forgotten victims as Turkey, Russia and the United States maneuver for influence.
And this despite providing the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who gifted Trump his first military victory — the fall of the Daesh capital, Raqqa.
Sinam Mohamed, chief envoy of the “Rojava self-ruled Democratic Administration” which runs several cantons in the Kurdish-majority north of Syria, said she fears for her family in Afrin.
“For us, the United States has a moral obligation to protect the democracy in this area,” Mohamed told reporters in Washington.
For local leaders, the self-ruled Rojava area is an experiment in democratic federalism that could serve as an example for the rest of Syria to follow as it emerges from civil war.
But Turkey sees the Kurdish-led regions of northern Syria as a supply corridor for “terrorists” and a rear base for the banned PKK movement, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in the Turkish southeast and is blacklisted as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.
Mohamed insisted “not a single bullet” had been fired from Afrin toward Turkey and that if Turkey has a problem with the PKK it is a domestic issue and not a cross-border one.
More than 2,000 US special forces backed by air power work with the Kurdish YPG, under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) east of the Euphrates to fight the Islamic State jihadist group.
But the YPG in Afrin, an isolated pocket west of the river, have no overt US military backing and — after Syria’s ally Russia apparently gave Turkey the green light to attack — they are under siege.
In the YPG-controlled area on the other bank of the Euphrates but still exposed to the long Turkish frontier, fighters are increasingly bitter about the US role.
“The Kurds fought Daesh, to defend the whole world, they coordinated with the US-led coalition,” said Omar Mahmoud, a 35-year-old YPG fighter.
“Now the US is silent, and it’s disappointing.”
Another fighter, 34-year-old Massoud Baravi, and many of his comrades fear Turkey will be emboldened to attack Kurdish areas east of the Euphrates, where the YPG has routed Daesh.
“We fought Daesh from the beginning, it was us who liberated the land from Daesh and now we’re the target of Turkish injustice,” he said.
“Now Turkish planes are bombarding Afrin, killing women and children on the pretext that we’re separatists, but we’re part of Syria! We can see the international silence. No one speaks for the Kurds.”
In Washington, there is some sympathy for the Kurdish plight.
Trump was scheduled to call Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday to express concern, officials said, and State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert spoke out for Afrin.
Nauert said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had a series of “serious and frank” conversations with his Turkish counterpart Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
“This area that we’re talking about was relatively stable given that was Syria,” she said of Afrin, dismissing Turkish claims that Daesh fighters were there and urging “de-escalation.”
But whatever diplomatic noises Washington makes now that an apparently long-planned Turkish offensive is underway, Erdogan’s decision to go ahead underlines the limits of US influence.
Turkey may not have heeded the counsel of its NATO ally, but it could not have acted without the go-ahead from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, chief backer of Syria’s Bashar Assad.
Russia, which has its own forces in Syria alongside Assad’s remaining loyalists and Iranian-led Shiite militia, has lured Turkey into a Moscow-led effort to end Syria’s civil war, now entering its eighth year.
This is running in parallel to — and arguably fatally undermining — US-backed United Nations peace talks in Geneva aimed at agreeing on a political transition that could see Assad fall.
But Turkey and Erdogan have a role in the Russian effort, and are resentful of US ties to the Kurds, and Erdogan appears to have entered into a deal with Putin to take Afrin.
Kurdish leaders told AFP that Moscow had offered to protect them from Turkey if they returned their area to the control of the Assad regime and when they refused, Russian forces withdrew air cover.
“Turkey has essentially the whole Geneva process working with the US and even the Western bloc on Syria,” analyst Merve Tahiroglu of the Foundation of Defense of Democracies told AFP.
Despite working with Russia’s “Astana process” to retain influence in Syria, Turkey has clashed with Russia over the role of the Kurds — which Moscow hoped to win over to Assad’s fold.
Turkey’s price, therefore, for supporting the process was dropping the Kurds, Tahiroglu believes, and Russia gave the green light for the Afrin operation after striking a deal.
This deal will likely involve some kind of a de-escalation agreement between the Syrian regime and Turkish-backed rebels in the Idlib area, which in turn will free up Arab fighters to battle the Kurds.


Daesh terrorists in Syria face two choices: Surrender or death

Updated 19 February 2019
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Daesh terrorists in Syria face two choices: Surrender or death

  • UN expresses concern over safety of 200 families
  • Thousands of people have streamed out of Daesh turf in recent weeks

OMAR OIL FIELD, SYRIA: Militants defending their last dreg of territory in Syria will be “killed in battle” if they do not surrender, a Kurdish-led force said on Tuesday ahead of a final showdown.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they are trying to evacuate civilians trapped in the last half-a-square km of Daesh’s once-sprawling “caliphate” before storming the terrorist holdout.

“We are working on secluding and evacuating civilians and then we will attack. This could happen soon,” spokesman Mustafa Bali said, declining to provide more details on the operation.

Daesh militants “have only two options, either they surrender or they will be killed in battle,” he said. Daesh declared a “caliphate” across large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014.

A small hamlet of buildings in the village of Baghouz is all that is left of the proto-state, which at its height spanned an area the size of the UK.

The UN on Tuesday expressed concern over “the situation of some 200 families, including many women and children, who are reportedly trapped” in the Daesh holdout.

“Many of them are apparently being actively prevented from leaving by Daesh,” the UN said in a statement. The frontline in Baghouz was quiet on Monday afternoon. Tattered buildings and the twisted skeletons of cars dotted the side of the road.

At the entrance of the village, the SDF had turned an embattled building into a temporary base.

Thousands of people have streamed out of Daesh turf in recent weeks, but no civilians have made it out in the past three days.

Those that managed to escape have been ferried on trucks to Kurdish-held camps for the displaced to the north.

The International Rescue Committee said on Monday that 62 people, mostly children, had died on the way to the Al-Hol camp or shortly after arriving in past weeks.

Beyond Baghouz, Daesh still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells scattered across several countries.

In Syria, it retains a presence in the vast Badia desert, and the terrorists have claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.

An SDF official on Monday said that an announcement will be made this week.

“In a few days we will announce a great victory over the largest terrorist organization that waged war on the world and wreaked chaos and death everywhere,” Zeidan Al-Assi said in a statement.

Trucks entered Baghouz to evacuate remaining civilians on Tuesday, Reuters quoted an SDF source as saying. A Reuters witness in a location near Baghouz saw dozens of trucks moving along a road toward the village.