Turkey may launch new offensive against US-backed Kurdish militia in Syria

A Turkish military truck carries tanks as it drives towards the Syrian border on September 13. (AFP)
Updated 23 September 2018
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Turkey may launch new offensive against US-backed Kurdish militia in Syria

  • The operation is expected to begin from Turkey’s southeastern border town of Suruc
  • Turkey maintains its regional alliance with Russia as leverage against US support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia

ANKARA: Turkey is gearing up for a military offensive on Tal Abyad in Syria, according to some news reports, with video footage showing the Turkish military deploying troops near its border town Akcakale. 

Experts interviewed by Arab News noted that the military deployment to the Syrian border with many tanks and howitzers was aimed at putting additional pressure on the US to accelerate the implementation of a roadmap endorsed by Turkey and the US in June for the northern Syrian city of Manbij.

A recent agreement between Ankara and Moscow that forestalled a full-scale Syrian regime offensive against the Syrian province of Idlib also triggered Turkey’s ambitious military activities along the border. 

Turkey maintains its regional alliance with Russia as leverage against US support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, seen as a domestic security threat to Turkey due to their links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state for more than three decades. 

And the Manbij roadmap between Turkey and the US consists of the withdrawal of the YPG from the city to stabilize the region.

Tal Abyad, an Arab-majority town located to the north of Raqqa city and near the Turkish border, was captured from Daesh in 2015 by the YPG in an offensive supported by US-led airstrikes. The YPG remains a reliable American partner in Syria. 

A potential operation in Tal Abyad, if it happens, would likely mark a new phase in Turkey’s military intervention in Syria by directly clashing with the YPG on the ground. 

Mete Sohtaoglu, an analyst on Syrian politics, expects Turkey’s operation in Tal Abyad to start by March 2019. 

“Turkey’s main objective is to wipe out all YPG presence in the east of the Euphrates. The details of the operation, if it occurs, will become clear following an upcoming meeting between Turkish and American presidents,” he told Arab News. 

“The operation is expected to begin from Turkey’s southeastern border town of Suruc, then will specifically include the zone between Tal Abyad and Kobani cantons,” he said. 

Although not officially confirmed, Trump and Erdogan are likely to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s 73rd session, which will begin on Sept. 25. 

According to Sohtaoglu, the prime condition for the US to address Ankara’s concerns and withdraw its support for the YPG would be a change of policy by Turkey about Iran. 

Ankara recently gave the green light for military cooperation with Washington in Syria. Since June 18, US and Turkish troops have been conducting “coordinated independent patrols” to the north of Manbij as part of the roadmap. 

In a press conference on Friday, Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin announced that Turkey would soon start joint training and patrols with the US in the Syrian Kurdish-held town of Manbij, but said Washington’s continuous arms support of the YPG was unacceptable.

The US State Department omitted the YPG and its political wing the Democratic Union Party (PYD) from its 2017 Country Reports on Terrorism, which was released on Wednesday.

However, some experts do not expect any decrease of US support to its local partner YPG, while mobilizing the forces alongside the border is a tactical move. 

“I don’t expect an imminent and direct military operation to Tal Abyad. I think the recent military reinforcement intends to put pressure on the US to quickly operationalize the joint roadmap on Manbij, another Kurdish-held province,” Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert at the Ankara-based think-tank ORSAM, told Arab News. 

Orhan thinks that Turkey’s tactical move would change the local balance in Tal Abyad. 

“It would create a sense that the Turkish army wants to enter the area and would incite some rebels. The removal of YPG from this province would undermine the terror group’s aim to create an integrated zone in this region because it will break the geographical continuity between the cantons,” he said. 

Further increasing its geographical importance, Tal Abyad is located on an intermediate point between the major cantons of Kobani and Qamishli. 

Orhan said that Turkey already had the support of Arab tribes that took refuge in Turkey from Tal Abyad, and Ankara’s ability to rally this support in an Arab-majority town would force the US to reconsider its alliance with the YPG. 

“In the past, the Arab tribes that took shelter in Turkey often expressed their willingness to take part in an Turkish operation to Tal Abyad if Ankara supports them,” he said. 

Last year in March, Turkey convened a meeting of about 50 Sunni Arab tribal leaders in the Turkish southeastern province of Sanliurfa that lies to the north of Tal Abyad, and their position against the YPG was put on the table. 


Mardini — refugee from Syria rising fast after fleeing war

Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, the Olypmpia swimmer, escaped conflict in her homeland. A year later she famously competed at the Rio Olympics. (Photo/UNHCR)
Updated 22 July 2019
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Mardini — refugee from Syria rising fast after fleeing war

  • The 21-year-old girl almost drowned at sea fleeing her war-torn country four years ago

GWANGJU/SOUTH KOREA: Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, who almost drowned at sea fleeing her war-torn country four years ago, heaved a deep sigh after failing to set a personal best at the world swimming championships on Sunday.

Representing FINA’s independent athletes team, the 21-year-old looked up at the giant scoreboard and winced at her time of 1 minute 8.79 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly heats in South Korea.
“I’m not very happy actually,” Mardini told AFP.
“I had some problems with my shoulder but I’m back in training. I still have the 100m freestyle and I’m looking forward to that.”
Mardini’s time was more than 12 seconds slower than that of reigning champion Sarah Sjostrom and 47th overall, but she has come a long way since risking her life crossing from Izmir in Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos in the summer of 2015.
Refugee swimmer Mardini knows what she is talking about when it comes to family separation for asylum seekers.
In 2015, she and her sister Sarah had escaped conflict in their homeland when the boat they were aboard with other refugees began sinking. They jumped out and swam part of the journey from Turkey to Greece.
They then embarked on an overland trip from Greece to Germany, evading local authorities in countries with immigration policies that barred them from legal entry. Along the way the sisters slept in train stations or wherever they could find shelter.
Mardini empathizes with families currently separated along the US southern border.
“This is the most terrible thing anyone can have — to live without a mom or to live without a family,” she said on Sunday at the world swimming championships where she’s competing as an independent athlete.
“I arrived in Greece in only jeans and a T-shirt,” said Mardini, who also swims in the 100m freestyle later this week. “Even my shoes were gone.”
“In the beginning I refused to be in a refugee team because I was afraid people would think I got the chance because of my story,” said Mardini, who now lives with her family in Berlin.
“I wanted to earn it. But then I realized I had a big opportunity to represent those people — so I took the chance and I never regretted it,” she added.
Mardini was 17 at the time. She is now a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She famously competed at the Rio Olympics a year later under the refugee flag.

FASTFACT

• In 2015, she and her sister had escaped conflict in their homeland when the boat they were aboard with other refugees began sinking. They jumped out and swam part of the journey from Turkey to Greece.

• Mardini was 17 at the time. She is now a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Rio was amazing. It was really exciting to see the reaction of people to the team. Now I’m representing millions of displaced people around the world and it really makes me proud.”
It is a far cry from life back in Syria, where rocket strikes would often shake the pool she trained at in Damascus.
“There were bomb attacks sometimes that would crack the windows around the pool,” said Mardini, who has addressed the UN General Assembly and whose story is set to be told in a Hollywood movie.
“I know people who lost their moms on the way or in the water — that got drowned — and I feel this is terrible,” she said.
Mardini said that from the time she left Syria she lived without her mother for six months. Eventually, they were reunited in Germany, where they now live in Berlin. “I felt so alone,” she said. “So lonely.”
The experience has prompted her to stand up for fellow asylum seekers in similar situations.
“Someone has to do something about it,” Mardini said. “The least we can do is talk about it, not just ignore it like everything else happening in the world.”
Mardini finished 47th out of 52 swimmers in the 100-meter butterfly heats on Sunday. Her other event in Gwangju is the 100 freestyle on Thursday.
She is attempting to again qualify for the Olympics as a member of the Refugee Olympic Team.
“My goal now is just to swim a new personal best,” she said. “And my next goal will be Tokyo 2020.”
Fellow Syrian Ayman Kelzieh was also forced to flee the country before competing at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.
Returning to Korea five years later, the 26-year-old now owns a fistful of national swim records, including the 50m, 100m and 200m butterfly.
“When the war started I had just moved to Damascus and I couldn’t get back home to Aleppo,” said Kelzieh, who now lives on the Thai island of Phuket.
“But even in Damascus bombs sometimes even went off at the swimming pool we trained at,” he added after taking a poolside selfie with his idol, South African star Chad le Clos.
“There were even attacks at the hotel I stayed in — I was lucky.”