Friend or foe? Assad quietly aids Syrian Kurds against Turkey

Syrian-Kurds attend an impromptu parade in Afrin as civilians enlist to fight an assault by Turkish troops and allied rebels on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria’s border region on January 28, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 13 February 2018
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Friend or foe? Assad quietly aids Syrian Kurds against Turkey

ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT: Syria’s US-backed Kurds are getting indirect help from an unlikely source in their war against Turkey in the northwestern region of Afrin: President Bashar Assad.
Pro-government forces and Kurdish-led forces have fought each other elsewhere in Syria and Damascus opposes the Kurds’ demands for autonomy. But in Afrin they have a common enemy and a mutual interest in blocking Turkish advances.
Turkey, which regards the Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin as a threat on its southern border, launched an assault on the region last month. Seeking to shield Afrin, the Kurds asked Damascus to send forces into action to defend the border.
The government shows no sign of doing so, but it is providing indirect help by allowing Kurdish fighters, civilians and politicians to reach Afrin through territory it holds, representatives of both sides told Reuters.
Assad stands to gain while doing little.
The arrival of reinforcements is likely to sustain Kurdish resistance, bog down the Turkish forces and prolong a conflict that is sapping the resources of military powers that rival him for control of Syrian territory.
For the United States, it is yet another complication in Syria’s seven-year-old war, and a reminder of how its Syrian Kurdish ally must at times make deals with Assad even as it builds military ties with the United States.
Lacking international protection, the Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria say they have reached agreements with Damascus to allow reinforcements to be sent to Afrin from other Kurdish-dominated areas — Kobani and the Jazeera region.
“There are different ways to get reinforcements to Afrin but the fundamental route is via regime forces. There are understandings between the two forces ... for the sake of delivering reinforcements to Afrin,” Kino Gabriel, spokesman for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said.
While the Kurds depend on Assad to reach Afrin, Kurdish sources say they also enjoy leverage over Damascus because it needs their cooperation to source grain and oil from areas of the northeast under Kurdish control.
A commander in the military alliance fighting in support of Assad said “the Kurds have no option but coordination with the regime” to defend Afrin.
“The Syrian regime is helping the Kurds with humanitarian support and some logistics, like turning a blind eye and allowing Kurdish support to reach some fronts,” said the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Turkish campaign moves slowly
The Turkish military is making slow gains nearly three weeks into the operation it calls “Olive Branch.”
Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency in Turkey and is regarded as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.
The United States has relied on the YPG as a vital ground component of its war against Daesh, and has backed the group in other Kurdish-run regions in northern Syria along the border with Turkey.
But US forces are not in Afrin, so have been unable to shield Afrin from the attack by Turkey, its NATO ally.
The Kurds meanwhile accuse Russia of giving a green light for the Turkish attack by withdrawing observers it deployed in Afrin last year.
The Afrin war marks another twist in the complicated story of relations between Assad and the Syrian Kurdish groups, spearheaded by the YPG, that have carved out autonomous regions in northern Syria since the war began in 2011.
The YPG controls nearly all of Syria’s frontier with Turkey. But Afrin is separated from the bigger Kurdish-controlled region further east by a 100 km-wide zone controlled by the Turkish military and its Syrian militia allies.
For much of the war, Damascus and the YPG have avoided confrontation, at times fighting common enemies, including the rebel groups that are now helping Turkey attack Afrin.
But tensions have mounted in recent months, with Damascus threatening to march into parts of eastern and northern Syria captured by the SDF with support from the US-led coalition.
Underlining that, pro-Syrian government forces attacked the SDF in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, drawing coalition air strikes overnight that killed more than 100 of the attackers, the coalition said.
“The regime has allowed the YPG to bring people into Afrin, while attacking it east of Euphrates (River). I think that is indicative of the state of relations right,” said Noah Bonsey, International Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst on Syria.
He added: “There is still a significant gap between the YPG and regime positions on the future of northeastern Syria.”
Fighting for Afrin
The main Syrian Kurdish groups remain wedded to their vision of a Syria where they enjoy autonomy in a form of federalism that is at odds with Assad’s determination to recover all Syria.
Each side has allowed the other to maintain footholds in its territory. In Kurdish-held Qamishli, the government still controls the airport. In the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo, a government city, Kurdish security forces patrol the streets.
Scores of Kurds from Sheikh Maqsoud have gone to Afrin to support the fight, Kurdish officials there said. The short journey requires movement through areas held by the government or its Iran-backed Shiite militia allies.
“Of course people went from Sheikh Maqsoud — in the hundreds — to bear arms and defend Afrin,” said Badran Himo, a Kurdish official from Sheikh Maqsoud.
“Around 10 of them were martyred (killed),” he told Reuters as Kurdish security forces held a rally to commemorate one of the dead.
Earlier this week, witnesses say a civilian convoy of hundreds of cars drove to Afrin from other Kurdish-held areas in a show of solidarity.
The Syrian government has ignored appeals by the Kurdish authorities to guard the Syrian border at Afrin.
“We tried to convince them, via the Russians, to at least protect the borders, to take a position, but we did not reach (get?) a result,” Aldar Khalil, a top Kurdish politician, told Reuters.
“If they don’t protect the borders, then at least they don’t have the right to block the way for Syrian patriots who are protecting these borders, regardless of other domestic issues.”


Egyptians hope foreign university campuses will boost higher education

Updated 49 min 3 sec ago
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Egyptians hope foreign university campuses will boost higher education

  • The law to allow foreign campuses was approved by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi this month
  • Experts say the move will help improve Egyptian universities

CAIRO: A new law approved by the Egyptian president that allows foreign universities to establish campuses in Egypt, aims to boost the development of higher education and scientific research in the country.

The architects of the new law also hope it will build links with other countries to provide more and better educational opportunities, and preserving the national identity of Egyptian students.

Applications from foreign universities will be examined by a committee formed and headed by the minister of higher education, which will include representatives from other ministries and relevant authorities. 

The minister will have the right to close the campus of a foreign university if it violates Egyptian laws or decisions by the authorities, and to prevent the university from accepting new students.

The law was approved by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi this month after passing through parliament in July.

Experts and university professors have differing opinions on the likely effects of foreign universities setting up in Egypt. While many suggest that Egyptian universities will develop and improve to compete, some fear the opposite will happen.

Youssef Rashid, acting secretary of the Supreme Council of Universities, said he believes the new law is good and will increase competition among universities, as a result improving the quality of education everywhere.

Abdullah Sorour, founder of the Union of Egyptian scientists, said: “A partnership between foreign universities and Egyptian universities is the best way forward.” He added that existing foreign education institutes in Egypt do not have a clear identity.

The proposal was first raised more than a year ago but gained traction in June 2018 after Dr. Khalid Abdul Ghaffar, the current minister of higher education, signed a cooperation agreement with the University of Liverpool in England. He described the agreement as “a sign of confidence in the Egyptian education system” and “evidence of the stability of the country.” He added that the British university will “soon” establish a campus in Egypt, and that there are further plans for cooperation with universities in the United States and Canada.

The new law stipulates that foreign universities in Egypt will be free to set their own tuition fees, but that Egyptian students must be allowed to pay in Egyptian pounds. The fees cannot be increased after enrollment. Some people expressed a hope that the increased competition would drive down the cost of tuition fees.

“We want these universities to be cheaper that their Egyptian counterparts,” said Ahmad Al-Lundi, who works at a bank. He said he pays 50,000 Egyptian pounds a year in tuition fees for his son, who is studying in the Faculty of Pharmacy at Al-Ahram Canadian University, and EGP 41,500 for his daughter, who attends Future University.

The cost of tuition at private universities in Egypt varies wildly. The annual fees at the Egyptian Russian University — which has only three faculties: oral medicine, engineering and pharmacy — range from EGP 33,000 to EGP 58,000, while the British University charges about EGP 80,000 for its dentistry faculty, EGP 60,000 for business administration, economics and political science, and EGP 75,000 EGP for engineering and pharmacy. The October University of Modern Sciences and Literature (MSA), which has nine faculties, charges a tuition fee of EGP 87,500 a year for dentistry and EGP 63,500 for pharmacy, in addition to the cost of a British certificate, which is 325 euros.