Turkish forces prepare for long haul on Syria frontline

A Turkish soldier stands on a tank near the Syrian border at Hassa, in Hatay province on January 24, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 27 January 2018
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Turkish forces prepare for long haul on Syria frontline

AZAZ: Only a few olive groves separate Turkish special forces and allied Syrian rebels from Kurdish militia fighters as the crash of mortar fire echoes on the frontline of Ankara’s offensive inside Syria.
“We are on alert 24 hours a day,” one Turkish special forces officer, who asked not to be named, told AFP in the Syrian town of Azaz, which is controlled by Turkish-backed opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Turkey on Saturday sent troops and tanks into northern Syria for its “Olive Branch” campaign against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish militia, which Ankara considers to be a terror group.
Some went directly toward the YPG enclave of Afrin from the north, but others made their way from the east via Azaz.
Turkey’s operation comes on the heels of the Euphrates Shield offensive, begun in August 2016, which targeted the extremist Daesh group and the YPG in an area east of Afrin.
It finished in March 2017, with Ankara declaring the mission completed.
Azaz, estimated to have a population of 300,000, was liberated from IS early in the Euphrates Shield offensive.
“I believe it will not be as easy as Euphrates Shield,” the special forces officer said.
“The opponents have been preparing for months and are more aggressive than Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
“I guess it will take more time.”

Syrian rebels

The Turkish special forces are backed by Syrian rebels, who express optimism about the operation despite the danger.
“We are on the frontline, the PKK is only one kilometer away,” said Syrian rebel Hamzeh Al-Dikk said, referring to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody war against the Turkish state since 1984. Turkey says the YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK.
“We live in a state of war here. I hope that we will get stability back, so that we can return to our villages,” said the 18-year-old, who was armed and wearing a military uniform and green cap.
Another armed Syrian fighter, Ali Yassin, who has been in the rebel force known by Turkey as the Free Syrian Army for seven years, said they were coordinating well with the Turkish army.
“Our goal is to cleanse this region of terrorists. We do not want terrorists in our country,” he stressed.

Turkish artillery

Syrian rebels control the roads in Azaz’s city center.
Children on the streets shout “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) after the sound of the Turkish artillery fire.
Some wear only slippers in the freezing winter as they play in the mud. One open barber is cutting the hair of a small child.
Ahmad, a 25-year-old carpenter, predicted the operation would not end soon.
“It will take some time,” he said. “(Afrin) cannot be taken swiftly because innocent civilians also live there.”
But Ahmad is not afraid of the sound of mortar fire.
“Nobody here is scared of the shelling because people have become used to it.”
Hassan Lahmouni, who is in his 60s, expressed relief at the Turkish operation.
“Without Turkey’s intervention we would have died.”
While there has been no dramatic breakthrough on the ground, a second Turkish special forces officer said it was a calculated operation.
“It is very well thought through. We are aiming for minimum casualties,” he said.


Iran faces ‘strongest sanctions in history’

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Updated 22 May 2018
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Iran faces ‘strongest sanctions in history’

  • US Secretary of State laid out Trump administration’s strategy for constraining Iran’s nuclear program
  • US threatens "strongest sanctions in history" if Iranian government does not change course

WASHINGTON: The US told Iran on Monday to drop its nuclear ambitions and pull out of the Syrian civil war in a list of demands that marked a new hard-line against Tehran and prompted an Iranian official to warn that Washington seeks regime change.

Weeks after US President Donald Trump pulled out of an international nuclear deal with Iran, his administration threatened to impose “the strongest sanctions in history,” setting Washington and Tehran on a deeper course of confrontation.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded sweeping changes that would force Iran effectively to reverse years of its foreign policies.

“The sting of sanctions will only grow more painful if the regime does not change course from the unacceptable and unproductive path it has chosen for itself and the people of Iran,” Pompeo said in his first major speech since becoming secretary of state.

“These will be the strongest sanctions in history by the time we are done,” he added.

Pompeo took aim at Iran’s policy of expanding its influence in the Middle East through support for proxy armed groups in countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

He warned that the US would “crush” Iranian operatives and allies abroad and told Tehran to pull out forces under its command from the Syrian civil war where they back President Bashar Assad.

Iran is unlikely to accede to the US demands. Tension between the two countries has grown notably since Trump this month withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement aimed at preventing Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Pompeo warned that if Iran fully resumed its nuclear program Washington would be ready to respond and said the administration would hold companies doing prohibited business in Iran to account.

“Our demands on Iran are not unreasonable: Give up your program,” Pompeo said, “Should they choose to go back, should they begin to enrich, we are fully prepared to respond to that as well,” he said, declining to elaborate.

Pompeo said if Iran made major changes, the US was prepared to ease sanctions, re-establish full diplomatic and commercial relations and support the country’s re-integration into the international economic system.

The speech did not explicitly call for regime change but Pompeo repeatedly urged the Iranian people not to put up with their leaders, specifically naming President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“At the end of the day the Iranian people will get to make a choice about their leadership. If they make the decision quickly, that would be wonderful, if they choose not to do so we will stay hard at this until we achieve the outcomes I set forward,” said Pompeo.