Syrian forces prepare to back rebels against Turkish offensive

Addressing a press conference in Amman along with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country is ready to battle Syrian regime troops if they enter Afrin in northern Syria to protect Syrian Kurdish fighters. (Reuters)
Updated 20 February 2018

Syrian forces prepare to back rebels against Turkish offensive

ANKARA: The Syrian regime is on the verge of deploying pro-government forces to help Kurdish rebels caught up in a Turkish offensive in the north of the country, opening a new front in a conflict that is threatening to escalate across the wider region.
Syrian state media reported yesterday that militias backed by the regime of President Bashar Assad will soon be sent to the district of Afrin, near Aleppo, in an attempt to counter Turkey’s assault on the area.
News of the plan brought an immediate reaction from Ankara, which warned that any attempt to protect the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, would fail.
The deployment of the pro-Assad forces comes at a particularly delicate time, with much of the region balanced on a knife edge as outside powers including Israel, Iran, Russia and the US all compete for leverage in the Syrian civil war
Turkey’s offensive, “Operation Olive Branch,” began on Jan. 20, with the aim of targeting Kurdish militants, including members of the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Turkey views both groups as terrorist organizations and threats to its sovereignty, but Washington has provided the YPG with military and logistical support in the fight against Daesh.
Analysts told Arab News that any alliance between Damascus and the Kurds in Afrin would add a further layer of complexity to an already complicated situation.
Middle East researcher Mete Sohtaoglu, who predicted this latest development in an interview with Arab News last month, said Ankara would not be pressured into ending its offensive early.
“Throughout the operation, Turkey has always set up observation and military posts in the areas it has captured so it cannot be expected to withdraw immediately,” he said.
Damascus has traditionally regarded Kurdish rebels in the country warily and the two sides have often clashed since the Syrian civil war began on the back of a wave of peaceful civil unrest against the Assad regime in 2011.
But they have also shown a willingness to work together when it suits their mutual interests and Sohtaoglu claimed the YPG recently agreed to hand over its heavy weapons to the Syrian government in exchange for military support. This could assuage Ankara’s fears that the arms would otherwise end up in the hands of the PKK, he said.
On a visit to Jordan, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, told journalists in Amman on Monday that Ankara was still assessing the intentions of the Assad regime.
“If the regime is entering (Afrin) to oust the PKK, YPG, there is no problem,” he said. “But if they are entering to protect the YPG, then no one can stop us and Turkish soldiers.”
Also on Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed the situation in Afrin in a phone conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani.
Turkey claims that more than 1,600 YPG and Daesh fighters have either been killed, captured or surrendered since “Operation Olive Branch” began. However, the US has warned Ankara not to expand the offensive against its Kurdish allies.
Sohtaoglu told Arab News that a direct military confrontation between Turkish forces and the Assad regime would probably be avoided with the help of mediation from Moscow.
He predicted that “Russian soldiers may be deployed” around Afrin to create a buffer zone between the two sides. Any such move would be yet another sign that the Syrian conflict has degenerated into a proxy war for competing regional powers.
Earlier this month, Iranian militias killed one Turkish soldier and injured five others in an attack on an outpost in Idlib province, southwest of Aleppo city.
Soon afterwards Israel launched a large-scale air raid near Damascus after one of its fighter aircraft was downed by Syrian anti-aircraft fire. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Iran of using its long-term alliance with the Assad regime to try to build a “continuous empire surrounding the Middle East.”
Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, told Arab News that the Syrian government’s decision to send forces to Afrin needed to be seen within this wider context. Moscow, in particular, stood to benefit from the move, he said.
“We already know that Russia has been uneasy about the implications of ‘Operation Olive Branch’ from the beginning. Nevertheless, it felt obliged to approve Turkey’s military operation in Afrin in order not to alienate Ankara at a time when Turkish-US relations were strained due to the YPG issue,” he said.

Sudan security forces tear gas protesters in Omdurman

Updated 34 min 33 sec ago

Sudan security forces tear gas protesters in Omdurman

  • The mushrooming protests are widely seen as the biggest threat to Bashir’s rule
  • Protesters described using medical masks soaked in vinegar to fend off tear gas

KHARTOUM: Sudanese police fired tear gas at crowds of demonstrators in the capital’s twin city Omdurman on Tuesday protesting against the fatal wounding of a demonstrator last week, witnesses said.

The demonstration, which came ahead of planned nighttime rallies in both Omdurman and Khartoum just across the Nile, was the latest in more than a month of escalating protests against the three-decade rule of President Omar Bashir.

Bashir has made defiant appearances at loyalist rallies in Khartoum and other cities.

Chanting “overthrow, overthrow” and “freedom, peace and justice,” the catchword slogans of the protest movement, the demonstrators had gathered near the home of their dead comrade.

The doctors’ branch of the Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA) said he had died on Monday from wounds sustained when demonstrators clashed with security forces in Khartoum on Thursday.

The SPA has taken the lead in organizing the protests after hundreds of opposition activists were detained, and its doctors’ branch has taken casualties.

Human rights groups say that several medics have been among more than 40 people killed in clashes with the security forces since the protests erupted on Dec. 19, 2018.

The authorities say 26 people have been killed, including at least one doctor, but blame rebel provocateurs they say have infiltrated the protesters’ ranks.

The mushrooming protests are widely seen as the biggest threat to Bashir’s rule since he took power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989.

Triggered by the government’s tripling of the price of bread, which brought demonstrators onto the streets of the eastern farming hub of Atbara and other provincial towns, the protests rapidly spread to the metropolis and other big cities as people vented their anger against the government.

A chronic shortage of foreign currency since the breakaway of South Sudan in 2011 deprived the government of most of its oil revenues, has stoked spiraling inflation and widespread shortages.

Bashir has survived previous protest movements in September 2013 and January last year.

But his efforts to blame the US for Sudan’s economic woes have fallen on increasingly deaf ears as people have struggled to buy even basic foods and medicines.

“I am tired of prices going up every minute and standing up in bread lines for hours only for the bakery’s owner to decide how many loaves I can buy,” a 42-year-old woman, Fatima, said during protests last week on the outskirts of the capital of Khartoum.

Fatima and others speaking to the AP would not provide their full names, insisting on anonymity because they fear reprisals by the authorities.

Protesters described using medical masks soaked in vinegar or yeast and tree leaves to fend off tear gas. They said they try to fatigue police by staging nighttime flash protests in residential alleys unfamiliar to the security forces.

“We have used tactics employed by the Egyptians, Tunisians and Syrians but we have so far refrained from pelting security forces with rocks or firebombs,” said Ashraf, another demonstrator.

They said there was little they can do about live ammunition except to keep medics and doctors close by to administer first aid to casualties.

They also described checking paths of planned protests to identify escape routes and potential ambushes by police. Some of their slogans are borrowed from the Arab Spring days, like “the people want to bring down the regime.”