Erdogan vows to clear ‘terrorists’ from Manbij

Turkish tanks have been stationed near the Syrian border as part of the operation ‘Olive Branch’ that aims to oust the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia from its enclave of Afrin. (AFP)
Updated 29 January 2018
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Erdogan vows to clear ‘terrorists’ from Manbij

ANKARA: The Turkish president promised on Sunday to clear the entire Syrian border of “terrorists” after Ankara urged Washington to withdraw its military from a Kurdish-held town.
The call followed new commitments from the US to cease supplying weapons to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey has been fighting in northern Syria for more than a week.
As Turkish troops intensified the Olive Branch operation in Afrin on Sunday, Turkey continued to warn that the offensive would move eastwards to Manbij, where hundreds of US troops are based.
“The terrorists in Afrin and Manbij cannot run from the painful end that awaits them,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan told members of his party in northern Turkey.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday it was “compulsory for the US to withdraw from Manbij as soon as possible.”
Turkey says an offensive against Manbij, about 100 km from the current operation, is an extension of its plan to remove what it describes as a terror threat along its border with Syria.
But if it goes ahead, the offensive would move the Turkish operation into a new level of military and diplomatic complexity, pulling in different groups and parties in the area.
H.R. McMaster, national security adviser to US President Donald Trump, spoke with Erdogan’s chief foreign policy adviser on Saturday to attempt to rebuild broken trust between the two countries.
According to Turkish press reports, McMaster repeated that weapons will no longer be delivered to the YPG. The same commitment was given many times to Ankara in recent months by both Trump and his Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Manbij is located 30 km west of the Euphrates and was captured from Daesh by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2016. The SDF are backed by the US and dominated by the YPG.
The town, which has a mixed ethnic population including Arabs and Kurds, has been one of the main fronts for the anti-Daesh coalition’s ground war. Following its liberation, the Pentagon preferred that the YPG remained in the town to guard it against a potential Daesh counter attack.
But Ankara is concerned that the Syrian Kurdish militias want to establish a corridor to the Mediterranean coast by linking the regions they administer.
Turkey has called for the YPG to be withdrawn from Manbij and has been enraged by the US support for the group. The militia is an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is seen by Ankara and many Western countries as a terror group. The US and Turkey are suppose to be allies through their memberships of NATO.
“It is unthinkable for a strategic ally to arm and train what its decades long strong ally consider to be a terrorist organization,” Mehmet Ogutcu, a former diplomat and chairman of the Bosphorus Energy Club, told Arab News.
He said Turkey’s request for the US to withdraw from Manbij is to avoid completely rupturing ties between the two countries.
Dr. Eray Gucluer, a terror expert from Altinbas University in Istanbul and at the think tank ASAM, said: “The US is currently losing power and prestige in the region, and it wouldn’t afford keeping its soldiers in Manbij if Turkey conducts an operation.”
Ali Semin, a Middle East expert at Istanbul-based think-tank BILGESAM, thinks Turkey would prefer to resolve the Manbij situation through agreement with the US.
“There will probably be no military offensive or Turkey may use Free Syrian Army fighters to avoid any direct clash with the US if the American soldiers remain there. It was the same case when Turkey agreed with Russia before the operation to Afrin as Russian troops were deployed in the region,” he told Arab News.
As concern grows over Manbij, fighting ramped up in Afrin on Sunday, with Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters capturing a strategic hill.
AP reported that constant shelling and clashes could be heard at the Turkish border town Kilis as Turkish aircraft whizzed above and plumes of smoke rose in the distance.
The Turkish forces have been trying to capture Bursayah hill since the offensive started on Jan. 20.
The Turkish military said its soldiers and allied Syrian opposition fighters captured the hill, assisted by airstrikes, attack helicopters, armed drones and howitzers.
“In its previous cross-border operation, Turkey’s aim was to secure a safe zone to resettle the Syrians who fled war in their country, but this time Turkey wants to clear these zones completely from all kinds of terror threat until the border with Iraq,” Semin said.
“Manbij bears a strategic importance for Kurdish militia to reach the Mediterranean shores. It is exactly the establishment of such a YPG-controlled ‘terror corridor’ that Ankara wants to block along its border.”


Istanbul summit aimed at avoiding new humanitarian disaster in Idlib

Updated 22 October 2018
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Istanbul summit aimed at avoiding new humanitarian disaster in Idlib

  • The event will focus on ‘harmonizing joint efforts for finding a lasting solution to the conflict’
  • Germany and France welcomed the Turkey-Russia deal on Idlib that had set Oct. 15 as the deadline for removing all radical groups from a demilitarized zone in the province

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to attend a critical four-way summit on Syria in Istanbul next Saturday. 

They will discuss recent developments in the war-torn country as well as projections for a political settlement.

Experts have underlined the importance of this summit in providing a strong push for key EU countries to work together with regional players to end the years-long conflict in Syria as it will gather the four countries’ leaders at the highest level.

The summit will focus on the recent developments in the opposition-held northwestern province of Idlib, and the parameters of a possible political settlement.

The ways for preventing a new refugee inflow from Idlib into Europe via Turkey, which is home to about 3.5 million Syrian residents, following a possible offensive by the Assad regime will also be raised as a topic that mainly concerns France and Germany and pushes them to work more closely with Turkey and Russia.

The summit will also aim at “harmonizing joint efforts for finding a lasting solution to the conflict,” presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin announced on Friday.

Germany and France welcomed the Turkey-Russia deal on Idlib that had set Oct. 15 as the deadline for removing all radical groups from a demilitarized zone in the province. Although the withdrawal of some opposition groups from the zone has not been accomplished in due time, Ankara and Moscow have agreed to extend the deadline for Idlib, which is still a strategic area where the opposition holds out.

“Turkey and Russia want the status quo for Idlib. Although the jihadists have not withdrawn from the demilitarized zone, Russia is turning a blind eye,” said Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon II.

“Turkey will make some efforts to save face. Turkish proxies have withdrawn because Turkey pays wages, so they must obey, but for the jihadists it is more complicated,” he told Arab News.

According to Balanche, without the complicity of Turkey, the Syrian regime cannot take over the north of the country.

“In exchange, Turkey wants a buffer zone in the north, all along its border. The main objective is, of course, to eliminate the Syrian Kurdish YPG from the border as it has already done in Afrin. A secondary objective is to protect its opposition allies and the Turkmen minorities, many in the province of Idlib but also between Azaz and Jarablus,” he said.

But the summit also shows that these four countries need each other in the Syrian theater as each of them has stakes regarding the settlement of the crisis.

Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, said the main goal of the summit is to provide a major diplomatic boost to the ongoing Astana and Sochi peace processes, which have so far been led mainly by Turkey, Russia and Iran.

“A second and maybe even more important goal is to include France and Germany in the reconstruction efforts in Syria once the civil war is over,” he told Arab News.

Considering the cost of the reconstruction, estimated at about $400 billion, Ankara, Moscow and Tehran are not ready to take this enormous financial burden without the financial support of the West, Ersen said.

“Both Paris and Berlin hope that Ankara’s ongoing efforts to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Idlib can be successful. If the settlement in Idlib does not work, everybody is aware that this may lead to a big refugee crisis for both Turkey and Europe once again,” he added.

Martina Fietz, deputy spokeswoman for the German government, told a news conference in Berlin that her country is also hopeful about the forthcoming summit’s potential contribution to the stabilization of Idlib’s de-escalation zone.

“Progress in the UN-led political process, in particular the commencement of the work of the constitutional commission, will be discussed,” she said.

The chief foreign policy advisers of the quartet have met in Istanbul in recent weeks to discuss the agenda of the summit.