One week on, Operation Olive Branch helps Turkey seize many initiatives

A Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighter stops a armed man near the frontline on January 26, 2018 at the Syrian town of Azaz. (AFP)
Updated 27 January 2018
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One week on, Operation Olive Branch helps Turkey seize many initiatives

ANKARA: As Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch entered its second week on Saturday, Ankara said military action against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia and its political wing the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria’s Afrin would continue until the threat is “neutralized.”
But despite Ankara’s claims that it has no wish to take territory from another country, and that control of Afrin will be handed over to the Syrian regime at the end of the operation, the offensive has inevitably complicated the already chaotic regional dynamics still further.
The official aim of Olive Branch is to establish stability along Turkey’s border with Syria and to remove not only the YPG/PYD ­— regarded by Ankara as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state for more than three decades — but also Daesh from the area.
Turkey’s military reported that 343 terrorists have so far surrendered, or been killed or captured, and that 333 targets have been destroyed. The operation’s scope now extends around 7.5 kilometers into Syria, with 11 villages captured.
Turkey has lost three soldiers so far, while one Syrian refugee was killed and 13 others wounded as two rockets launched from Afrin hit the Turkish border city of Kilis on Wednesday.
No casualties were reported after another rocket struck a marketplace in the border town of Reyhanli on Friday.
Overall, the operation has garnered the approval of the Turkish public and the support of the international community, with NATO recognizing Turkey’s “right to self-defense like all other countries.”
Washington, too, has released sympathetic statements recognizing “Turkey’s security concerns about the PKK, a US-designated foreign terrorist organization.”
Russia has supported the operation by allowing Turkey access to Afrin’s airspace, although it is not yet clear whether Russia’s will allow unlimited access or whether it will impose similar restrictions to those applied during Turkey’s cross-border Euphrates Shield Operation, which ran from August 2016 to March 2017.
Washington’s offer to Ankara this week to establish a 30 km safe zone in Syria, along with an increased number of meetings between US and Turkish officials, have been seen by many experts as a move by Western powers to re-establish ties with their longtime NATO ally. But the Turkish regime remains skeptical of US offers — a sign of the current distrust between the two countries.
However, the Syrian regime considers Turkey’s operation to be an invasion and an attack to Syrian sovereignty. In an interview with the BBC on Thursday, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said Syria will “act accordingly” to defend itself, explaining that could involve the use of its aerial defense systems.
Also on Thursday, the PYD/YPG-led administration of Afrin canton released a statement calling on Bashar Assad and his regime to protect the city.
Erol Bural, a former military officer and a terrorism expert at the 21st Century Turkey Institute, said the Turkish military, with the assistance of Free Syrian Army fighters, had encircled Afrin by opening multiple front lines.
“Barseya mountain, in the north of Azaz, is a primary target for Turkey because of its critical location overlooking Afrin’s urban center. The PKK/PYD used it as a major hideout for years, with fortifications against aerial and ground attacks,” Bural told Arab News.
Bural expects an effective siege on Afrin’s urban center once this mountain has been cleared of any terrorist threat, which will also prevent the YPG from targeting Turkey’s border towns with rockets and mortars.
“I don’t expect the Syrian regime to react positively to the YPG’s call, considering that Assad previously called the US-backed Kurdish fighters traitors, and considering the regime also wants the PYD presence cleaned out from this region,” he said.
At the end of the operation’s first week, the expansion of Olive Branch to Manbij, a city captured from Daesh in 2016 by the Kurdish militias, is still on the table. But the presence of American forces there complicates the situation.
“I think the main focus for now should be to wind up the military operation and hand complete control to local forces, while conducting diplomacy with regional actors,” Bural said.
According to Bural, the US is holding Manbij as its “trump card” against Turkey, in an attempt to weaken Russia’s influence on Ankara and to protect the “PKK statelet” America has established on the western flank of the River Euphrates.
“Now Turkey has two options: Either launch an operation on Manbij regardless of the US military presence, or conduct diplomatic maneuvers to convince the US to withdraw their soldiers,” he said.
According to Galip Dalay, research director at Al-Sharq Forum in Istanbul, “Operationally, the Afrin operation is progressing slowly but smoothly.”
Dalay thinks Operation Olive Branch is unlikely to progress at the same speed as Euphrates Shield, “at least in its early phases.”
“Nevertheless, Turkey hasn’t incurred many casualties,” he told Arab News.
On the diplomatic front, despite US concerns, the international community has so far been supportive of the operation, he said, adding that the objections it has faced thus far are “manageable.”
On the political front, though, Dalay said the goal of the operation “is still opaque.”
He explained: “It isn’t clear yet what will be acceptable to Turkey in Syria. If Turkey keeps the pressure on the YPG for too long, the YPG will invite the Assad regime to Afrin.
“Despite Turkey’s public discourse, Turkey doesn’t have much objection to such an outcome,” he continued. “Nevertheless, that would bode ill for Turkey, as well as the Syrian opposition’s image, as their actions will appear to play into the hands of the regime. This is one of the major dilemmas of this operation.”


Iraq’s Al-Sadr, promising reform, is constrained by Iran

Updated 20 May 2018
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Iraq’s Al-Sadr, promising reform, is constrained by Iran

  • Al-Sadr has said he wants the militias absorbed into the national security forces, a move Iran would find difficult to accept
  • It is unlikely Al-Sadr can pull together a governing coalition without Iran-aligned political groups

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr, the maverick Shiite cleric whose political coalition beat out Iran’s favored candidates to come in first in national elections, says he wants to form a government that puts Iraqis first.
The electoral commission announced early Saturday that the militant-turned-populist preacher, who has long spoken out against both Iranian and US influence in Iraq, had defeated his establishment rivals.
Al-Sadr — who is remembered for leading an insurgency against US forces after the 2003 invasion — did not run for a seat himself and is unlikely to become prime minister, but will command a significant number of seats and has already begun informal talks about government formation.
Salah Al-Obeidi, a spokesman for Al-Sadr’s Sa’eroun political bloc, told The Associated Press that Iraq’s sovereignty was going to be the new government’s “guiding principle.”
“We warn any other country that wants to involve itself in Iraqi politics not to cross the Iraqi people,” he said.
However, even as Al-Sadr is in position to nominate a prime minister and set the political agenda for the next four years, he will find his choices limited by Iran.
The Middle East’s pre-eminent Shiite power has a direct line with some of Iraq’s most powerful politicians, and it is trying to rally them as a bloc to undercut Al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr’s rise threatens Iran’s claim to speak on behalf of Iraq’s Shiite majority, a precedent that could fuel independent Shiite movements elsewhere. Also at stake are top ministerial posts — political appointments that are a source of patronage and police and military power.
Al-Sadr himself has kept a relatively low public profile. But in a public relations move that appeared to be directed at Iran, he appeared on Thursday with rival cleric Ammar Al-Hakim, who has drifted away from Iran’s orbit in recent years, to say the two men share similar visions for the next government.
Tehran has dispatched its top regional military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to pull together a coalition to counterbalance Al-Sadr, according to an Iraqi Shiite militia commander who is familiar with the meetings.
“Iran won’t accept the creation of a Shiite bloc that is a threat to its interests. It’s a red line,” said the commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
Al-Sadr’s relationship with Iran is a complicated one. Though he has maintained close ties with Iran’s political and religious leadership, in recent years he has denounced the flow of Iranian munitions to Shiite militias in Iraq, all the while maintaining his own so-called Peace Brigades in the holy city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.
Al-Sadr’s former Mehdi Army militia, which spearheaded an insurgency against the US, clashed violently with the Iran-backed Badr Organization last decade.
The militias plugged the gaps left by Iraq’s army as soldiers deserted their posts in the face of the Daesh group’s lightning campaign in the summer of 2014. With direction from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, they turned the tide against the initial advance. In the years that followed, the militias — coordinating with US-backed Iraqi ground forces — slowly pushed IS fighters back. Iraq declared victory over the group last year.
Al-Sadr has said he wants the militias absorbed into the national security forces, a move Iran would find difficult to accept.
Iran is also rankled by Al-Sadr’s recent overtures to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are locked in proxy wars with Tehran in Syria and Yemen. Al-Sadr met with the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in August, leading Iran’s hard-line Keyhan newspaper to accuse Al-Sadr of “selling himself” to the house of Saud.
It is unlikely Al-Sadr can pull together a governing coalition without Iran-aligned political groups, which have the votes to form their own alliance that could challenge Al-Sadr’s right to name a prime minister.
An electoral alliance of the militias called Fatah, headed by Hadi Al-Amiri, the commander of the Badr Organization, won just seven seats fewer than Al-Sadr’s bloc. Sa’eroun won 54 seats in Iraq’s 329-seat national assembly, a far cry from the 165 required to claim a majority.
The militias control the powerful Interior Ministry in the outgoing government and will expect a similar position of influence in the new one.
Al-Sadr seems inclined to woo incumbent Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, who is seen as a centrist when it comes to Iranian and US interests, and who appears to be wavering between Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri.
But Tehran still holds considerable sway with Al-Abadi’s Al-Nasr bloc, which includes several Iran-aligned figures, including one newly minted deputy who has come under US sanctions for allegedly financing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Iran’s political allies in Iraq will try to pressure those figures into deserting Al-Abadi and collapsing an Al-Sadr alliance if the formulation is not to Tehran’s liking, said a Western diplomat who has been speaking to the sides involved. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because of media regulations.
That gives Iran — and Al-Abadi — leverage over Al-Sadr to moderate his positions on the militias and Iran.
Hanging above the talks is the implied threat by all sides to mobilize their followers — and militias — if they feel they are being shortchanged. The collective effect could be to push Al-Sadr’s bloc toward a broader governing coalition that would dilute his reform agenda.
His top showing at the ballot box means the next prime minister will have to introduce a civil service law that Al-Sadr has championed as an antidote to Iraq’s endemic corruption, said Kirk Sowell, the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political and security newsletter. But that doesn’t mean the Cabinet or parliament will sign off on it.
“There’s not going to be a functioning majority,” said Sowell. “It’ll be a hodge-podge, coalition government, and it’s not going to be any more stable than the last one.”