Tayyip Erdogan says Turkey may extend Afrin campaign as Kurds call world powers ‘spectators’

Turkish-backed Syrian Arab fighters walk in the streets after seizing control of the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) on March 18, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 19 March 2018
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Tayyip Erdogan says Turkey may extend Afrin campaign as Kurds call world powers ‘spectators’

ANKARA: Turkish forces will continue to press their offensive against Kurdish YPG forces along the length of Turkey’s border with Syria and — worryingly for the region’s Kurds — if necessary into northern Iraq, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday, threatening wider conflict in Syria’s civil war.
A day after Turkish troops swept into Afrin, the main town in a pocket of Kurdish-controlled territory in northwest Syria, Erdogan said Turkey would also target a region stretching nearly 400 km (250 miles) east to the northern Syrian town of Qamishli.
Expanding Turkey’s military campaign into the much larger Kurdish-held territory futher east would risk confronting troops of a NATO ally, the United States, that are deployed alongside a YPG-dominated force in northern Syria.
The YPG has been Washington’s main ally against Daesh in Syria, in a partnership that has infuriated Turkey which sees the Kurdish force as an extension of a militant group waging a decades-long insurgency in its own southeast.
It launched an air and ground offensive two months ago against the YPG in Afrin, a campaign it dubbed “Olive Branch.”
“By controlling Afrin city center yesterday, we have passed the most important step of the Olive Branch operation,” Erdogan told a gathering of judges and prosecutors in Ankara.
“After this, we will continue now to Manbij, Ayn Al-Arab, Tel Abyad, Ras Al-Ain and Qamishli until this corridor is fully removed,” he said, referring to a string of towns along Syria’s border region with Turkey.
Turkish authorities have described the stretch of northern Syria under Kurdish control as a “terror corridor” on the long southern border. YPG officials have said their focus is on guaranteeing legal and constitutional rights for Syrian Kurds.
Nicholas Heras, a security fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said taking Afrin was a success for Erdogan, who shrugged off international concern to press on with the operation.
“Afrin is one of the most strategic areas of northwest Syria. It is a piece of real estate that anchors Turkey’s presence for many years to come,” Heras said.

INTO IRAQ?
Turkey is also concerned about the presence in northern Iraq of militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has waged the insurgency in Turkey since the 1980s.
The PKK has been based in Qandil mountain region near Iraq’s border with Iran, but Erdogan said a “second Qandil” was being established in Sinjar, further west.
He said Turkey had told the Iraqi government to deal with the threat. “If you are unable to handle it, we can suddenly come into Sinjar one night and clean the PKK from there. If we are friends, if we are brothers, then you will provide us with the necessary facilitations.”
Turkey’s prime minister Binali Yildirim was holding talks with the Iraqi government, Erdogan added. “However, if this issue is prolonged much longer there will be an Olive Branch there too.”
Meanwhile, a top Kurdish envoy on Monday accused the international community of being “spectators” as Turkish-led troops commit war crimes in Syria.
Khaled Issa, who represents the Kurdish rebel authority in France, accused foreign powers of abandoning the Kurds who have been allies on the ground in the fight against Daesh.
“There’s a moral responsibility for the international community in the face of an unjustified and illegal aggression,” Issa told AFP, referring to the Turkish-led offensive on the former Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin.
“What is happening in Afrin is ethnic cleansing and the great powers are spectators,” added Issa, who represents the “Rojava self-ruled Democratic Administration” which runs areas under Kurdish control in northern Syria.
Earlier on Monday government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said Turkish forces would return Afrin to its “real owners” after driving the YPG out.
“We are not permanent there (in Afrin) and we are certainly not invaders. Our goal is to hand the region back to its real owners after clearing it of terrorists,” Bozdag, who is also a deputy prime minister, told reporters.
A Syrian Kurdish official told Reuters that more than 200,000 people who had fled the Afrin offensive were without shelter, food or water in nearby areas.
“The people with cars are sleeping in the cars, the people without are sleeping under the trees with their children,” said Hevi Mustafa, a senior member of the Afrin civil authority.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called for greater access to the civilian population of Afrin. It said the Turkish Red Crescent aid group lacked credibility among Syrian Kurds after Turkey’s military operation.
Turkey’s emergency aid agency AFAD sent a convoy into Afrin town center on Monday and distributed Turkish Red Crescent materials including food, water and hygiene products.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” about events in Afrin and called for the powers involved to provide access for aid organizations.
The Afrin campaign was Turkey’s second cross-border operation into Syria during its seven-year-old civil war. The first, dubbed “Euphrates Shield,” targeted Daesh and Kurdish fighters further east than Afrin.
After the completion of Euphrates Shield in early 2017, Turkey set up local systems of governance in the swathe of land captured, protected by Turkish forces.
Bozdag said Turkey now aimed to form similar systems in Afrin region, without elaborating. (Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Andrew Roche)


In power for 15 years, Iraq’s Shiites split ahead of crucial vote

Updated 25 April 2018
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In power for 15 years, Iraq’s Shiites split ahead of crucial vote

  • About 60 percent of Iraqis are 27 or younger and many young people in urban areas say they want a secular government
  • If no clear winner emerges, Iran could have more of a chance to act as a broker between the Shiite parties and influence who becomes prime minister

BASRA/NAJAF, Iraq: United in their fight against Saddam Hussein’s oppression for decades, Iraq’s Shiites have become deeply fragmented and disillusioned with their leaders after 15 years in power.
In Iraq’s Shiite heartlands, many who once voted blindly along sectarian lines are now turning their ire against the Shiite-led governments they say have failed to repair crumbling infrastructure, provide jobs or end the violence.
The divisions within the community now risk splitting the Shiite vote in a May 12 election, which could complicate and delay the formation of a government, threaten gains against Islamic State and let Iran meddle further in Iraq’s politics.
In the oil-rich southern province of Basra, 81-year-old retired teacher Mowafaq Abdul Ghani is disappointed with the performance of the Shiite leaders since Saddam fell in 2003.
“I’ve been waiting for Saddam to fall since the 1970s. I’ve been waiting for you! Why would you do this to us?” he said.
“Look around. The streets are filthy, there are flies everywhere, pot holes at every step. Twenty years ago Basra was terrible but it was better than this,” Abdul Ghani said.
In the holy city of Najaf, home to Imam Ali’s shrine and Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, there was a similar feeling of disillusionment.
At midnight on April 13 when official campaigning began, hordes of party activists plastered campaign posters on every visible surface, in same cases covering pictures honoring those who died fighting Islamic State.
“They took down the martyrs and replaced them with thieves,” said unemployed 29-year-old Abbas Saad.
Even Sistani seems unhappy with the performance of the politicians, issuing a fatwa recently implicitly calling on Shiites to vote for new blood.
“The tried should not be tried,” said the fatwa from Sistani, whose decrees are sacrosanct to millions.
 

New generation
Under the informal power-sharing arrangement in place since Saddam’s fall, the prime minister has always come from the Shiite majority with a Kurdish president and a Sunni speaker.
In the past, while no party has won enough seats to govern alone, there has typically been one Shiite leader with enough support to shape a ruling coalition government.
This time there are three Shiite frontrunners: incumbent Haider Al-Abadi who has promoted a more inclusive government, his overtly sectarian predecessor Nuri Al-Maliki who failed to inspire unity and Hadi Al-Amiri, a military commander close to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards seen as a war hero by many.
If no clear winner emerges, Iran could have more of a chance to act as a broker between the Shiite parties and influence who becomes prime minister, while Daesh could capitalize on any power vacuum and exploit Sunni feelings of marginalization.
At a party for university graduates in Najaf, dozens of young people danced under a glittering disco ball and listened to poetry in a packed hall. At the event sponsored by Adnan Al-Zurfi, a former governor running on Abadi’s Victory Alliance list, the talk was of inclusiveness.
About 60 percent of Iraqis are 27 or younger and many young people in urban areas say they want a secular government, underscoring the split within the Shiite voter base.
“I’m against voting based on sect,” said student Ali Reda.
Abadi’s list, touted by Zurfi as “cross-sectarian,” is the only one contesting the election in all of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
“The youth care about unemployment, education, and freedoms,” he said at a nearby cafe surrounded by young men playing billiards. “The Shiite majority has a responsibility to calm the fears of other communities. We are proposing an inclusive government in which everyone is represented.”
 

Shiite rule
Just an hour away from Najaf in Karbala, the holy city visited by 30 million Shiite pilgrims a year, sharing power with Sunnis and Kurds is not seen as a solution.
“Iraq has a Shiite majority. It is natural that it be ruled by a Shiite,” said Muntazer Al-Shahrestani, who runs a school for Shiite clerics.
While there has been no census for a long time, US figures from 2003 put the breakdown of the Iraqi population at roughly 48-60 percent Shiite Arabs, 15-22 percent Sunni Arabs, 18 percent Kurds with other groups making up the rest.
Shahrestani said while the rights of minorities should be protected there should be a Shiite government, echoing a popular opinion among religious Shiites.
Many campaign on that sentiment, none more than former prime minister Maliki, who is widely viewed by Sunni and Kurds as sectarian and oppressive.
Maliki is also blamed by many Shiites for losing a third of Iraq to Islamic State in 2014 before being replaced by Abadi, but he remains popular with others who credit him with signing Saddam’s death warrant.
 

Men of God
In Hayaniya, one of the poorest parts of Basra, Ali Khaled plans to vote for Amiri’s Conquest Alliance, as do many in his neighborhood.
Khaled’s brother was killed fighting Islamic State for Amiri’s Badr Organization, an Iran-backed militia that is one of the many state-sponsored groups collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that emerged as a response to a Sistani fatwa calling on Iraqis to fight Islamic State.
He receives up to $675 a month as payment for the death of his brother but he’s not thanking the current government.
“The PMF follow God, they don’t have bureaucracy like the government,” Khaled said. “Hadi Al-Amiri fought with us. He left his cushy post as a minister to fight for us. He eats our food. He lived with us.”
But many others view Amiri, whose candidates hang photos of Iranian Supreme Leaders Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in their offices, as having a stronger allegiance to Iran than Iraq.
“Amiri is a hero but he is too close to Iran. A vote for him is one against Iraq’s sovereignty,” said Abdul Ghani, the retired teacher in Basra.
 

Neglected heartland

For years, the province was a support base for Shiite leaders. Now, many Basrawis are fed up.
Basra produces about 3.5 million barrels of oil per day, the vast majority of Iraq’s oil wealth equivalent to more than 80 percent of the federal budget.
But many in the city don’t believe they get a fair share of government revenues handed out to the 18 provinces and say what little they do get is squandered by local officials.
The city’s water is undrinkable, its roads neglected, and its streets overflowing with waste. The Al-Ashar river that divides the city was once a source of prosperity for its people, but now its clogged with rubbish.
Jobs are scant, as are school supplies and medical equipment but there is no shortage of posters for the Shiite candidates.
At the same house in Hayaniya where Khaled was speaking, his neighbor, a soldier with an elite Interior Ministry unit, said he would just not vote, even for Abadi, his commander-in-chief.
Many do still plan to vote for Abadi, though more out of pragmatism than passion with some describing him as “the best of the worst.”
Wounded fighting Islamic State in Mosul last year, the soldier, who requested anonymity, sipped tea sitting on the floor, his leg still in a cast he was forced to pay for himself.
“When I was first injured I got visits and promises (from officials) but nothing, ultimately. I have no faith in the government or parliament,” he said.
A majority of those interviewed by Reuters in Basra said they would not vote. Two men, who declined to be named, said they planned to sell their families’ votes to the highest bidder, just to help make ends meet.
“I am hungry. I have eight votes and I want to sell them,” said one.