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.


UN chief urges Lebanon’s Hezbollah to halt military wing and operations

Updated 4 min 6 sec ago
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UN chief urges Lebanon’s Hezbollah to halt military wing and operations

UNITED NATIONS: Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly criticized Hezbollah for operating as the most heavily armed militia and a political party in Lebanon and urged the militant group to halt military activities inside and outside the country, including in Syria.
In a report to the Security Council obtained Monday by The Associated Press, Guterres also called on Lebanon’s government and armed forces “to take all measures necessary to prohibit Hezbollah and other armed groups from acquiring weapons and building paramilitary capacity” outside the authority of the state.
He said Hezbollah’s military activity violates a 2004 Security Council resolution ordering all Lebanese militias to disarm and the Taif Accords that ended the country’s 1975-90 civil war. In the semi-annual report on implementation of the 2004 resolution, the secretary-general said Hezbollah’s engagement in the Syrian conflict also violates Lebanon’s official policy of “disassociation,” or neutrality in regional affairs.
Guterres said the report demonstrates Hezbollah’s failure to disarm and “its refusal to be accountable” to state institutions that the UN resolution sought to strengthen.
“In a democratic state, it remains a fundamental anomaly that a political party maintains a militia that has no accountability to the democratic, governmental institutions of the state but has the power to take that state to war,” he said.
Israel and Lebanon have been in a state of war for decades and do not have diplomatic relations. In the summer of 2006, Israel and Hezbollah militants fought a monthlong war.
The border with Israel has remained mostly quiet since then, but Guterres said an alleged increase in Hezbollah’s arsenal poses “a serious challenge” to the Lebanese government’s ability to exercise authority and sovereignty over the entire country.
“I call upon countries in the region that maintain close ties with Hezbollah to encourage the transformation of the armed group into a solely civilian political party, and its disarmament,” Guterres said.
He did not name Iran, a strong supporter of Hezbollah in Syria and elsewhere. Both are strong supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.
Guterres said Hezbollah’s military arsenal and involvement in Syria continue “to be denounced by a number of voices in Lebanon, who consider those issues to be destabilizing factors in the country and ones that undermine democracy.”
In addition, he said, “many Lebanese see the continued presence of such arms as an implicit threat that those could be used within Lebanon for political reasons.”
Hezbollah is considered a terrorist group by the United States, but its political wing has long held seats in Lebanon’s parliament and was part of Lebanon’s outgoing coalition government.
Parliamentary elections earlier this month were the first in Lebanon since war broke out in Syria in 2011 and Hezbollah made major gains. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah declared “mission accomplished.”
Nonetheless, Lebanese analysts say the next Cabinet, like the outgoing one, will likely be a unity government that includes Hezbollah.