Erdogan renews threat of another Syria incursion as Kurdish militia still in Manbij

A Syrian fighter sits at the newly renamed Salahuddin Ayyubi circle in Afrin whose residents say they are suffering a litany of rights violations at the hands of Turkey-backed rebels. (AFP)
Updated 13 October 2018

Erdogan renews threat of another Syria incursion as Kurdish militia still in Manbij

  • Fear grips Syrian city of Afrin seized from Kurds by Turkey-backed fighters
  • Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish militia as terrorist and part of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey

ISTANBUL/AFRIN,Syria: The Turkish president is suggesting that Turkey’s military could soon launch a new operation across the border into northern Syria, in zones held by Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statement is renewing a threat to expand Turkey’s military operations into areas east of the Euphrates River held by US-backed Syrian Kurds.

Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish militia as terrorist and part of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.

Erdogan says: “God willing, very soon ... we will leave the terror nests east of the Euphrates in disarray.” He spoke on Friday at a military ceremony honoring Turkish commando soldiers.

Turkey launched incursion into Syria in 2016 and 2018, into areas west of the Euphrates, pushing Daesh militants as well as Syrian Kurdish fighters from the border area.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that the Kurdish YPG militia has not left the northern Syrian town of Manbij, contrary to a US-Turkish agreement, and Turkey will do what is necessary.

“They are now digging trenches in Manbij. What does this mean? It means ‘we’ve prepared the graves, come and bury us’,” Erdogan said at a rally in southern Turkey. “They said they would abandon the area in 90 days, but they haven’t. We will do what is necessary.” 

Meanwhile, residents of Syria’s Afrin region say they are suffering a litany of abuses at the hands of Turkish-backed fighters.

They say the fear of harassment has kept them shuttered inside their homes since Ankara and its Arab opposition allies overran the then overwhelmingly Kurdish city in March after a two-month air and ground offensive.

Their testimonies, given under pseudonyms because of fear of retribution, paint a picture of a chaotic city with little protection for civilians. “They robbed my son’s house and didn’t leave a thing — not even the clothes,” says 55-year-old resident Ahmad.

His own motorcycle and 20 gas canisters were seized by opposition fighters, who also looted his family’s liquor store.

Since Turkish troops and pro-Ankara Arab fighters captured the city from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the UN and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have documented widespread abuses.

Half of the enclave’s 320,000 residents fled, according to a recent report by the UN Commission of Inquiry, and most are unable to return.

Those who have often found their homes occupied by fighters or by Arab civilians displaced from other parts of Syria, the UN said.

Other returned to homes “stripped of furniture, electrical appliances and all decor,” in large-scale looting.

Ahmad and his family fled the fighting but came back recently to scenes of devastation with their property looted and their hometown barely recognizable. “When we came back, not even our tractor was left,” he said. “They don’t even let us sleep at night, with all the shooting.”

Turkey has denied allegations of abuses, and fighters say proven offenders are punished.

But residents say not enough is done to curb violations. And it is not only Kurds who have fallen victim to the lawlessness.

Samia, an Arab student in Afrin, says she has been permanently scarred by her father’s brutal killing by armed men trying to steal their family car. “The first time they tried, my father kicked them out of the house. They came back a second time for revenge and killed him,” she recounts. Fighters investigated, but “the killer went to jail for just one month,” she said.

Separately, The UN’s World Food Program is preparing for a vast new wave of refugees likely to flee to Turkey if a looming conflict breaks out in Syria’s flash point Idlib region, WFP Executive Director David Beasley said Friday.

Beasley said the agency is “pre-positioning rations for short term, middle range, along the Turkish border.”

He said the WFP is working with Turkish, Russian, Syrian, US and other officials “to do what we can to minimize the impact when a war truly goes into full scale mode there.”


Thousands flee bombs and hunger in eastern Syria

Updated 12 December 2018

Thousands flee bombs and hunger in eastern Syria

  • UN Spokesperson says at least 16,500 people have been forced to flee their homes
  • Almost 320 civilians have been killed, including 113 children

AL-HOL, Syria: Faraj was born in the pouring rain on a nondescript stretch of desert road in eastern Syria as his family fled escalating fighting over the Daesh group’s last bastion.
His family was part of a group of around 200 civilians who managed to escape from a pocket of territory in Deir Ezzor province that is still held by the jihadists.
“I had to resist hunger, cold and rain,” the newborn’s mother Kamela Fadel tells AFP in a camp for displaced people in the northeastern region of Al-Hol.
The young woman, her husband and their four children now sleep under white tents, with hundreds of other people who fled eastern flashpoints in past weeks.
They are huddled on straw mats laid out directly on the gravely earth, wrapped in blankets and hugging bags packed with their meagre belongings.
A nurse helps an elderly lady to the camp clinic as children play at scaling piles of foam mattresses and families sit cross-legged, eating from tin cans.
It is still cold in the vast tent but at least they are sheltered from the rain.
They walked for several days in the winter weather before being met last week by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling IS in Deir Ezzor.
“It was hunger that prompted us to leave, there was nothing left to eat,” says Kamela’s husband, still sporting the thick beard the jihadists impose on all adult men.
He and his family were living in Al-Shaafa, one of the last villages, together with Sousa and Hajjin, that are still under the control of IS.
The SDF, with the support of air strikes by the US-led coalition against IS, launched a major operation against the last rump of the jihadists’ moribund “caliphate” in September this year.
The jihadists hunkering down in their Euphrates Valley heartland have offered stiff resistance, thwarting coalition hopes of a quick victory.
Warplanes have been raining bombs on IS targets in and around Hajjin, causing significant civilian loss of life in the process, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory says almost 320 civilians have been killed, including 113 children.
“There is destruction everywhere because of the fighting and the bombardment. We were scared for the children,” says Faraj’s father.
Local camp official Mohamed Ibrahim told AFP around 1,700 civilians had arrived in Al-Hol in recent days.
The intensity of the bombardment and the remoteness of the area make it is difficult to estimate the number of civilians who remain, voluntarily or not, in the IS pocket.
“In Syria, displacement leads to food insecurity as people leave their belongings behind,” said Marwa Awad, a spokeswoman for the UN’s World Food Programme in Damascus.
“This is why it’s vital to maintain a lifeline of food assistance for vulnerable families such as those escaping violence in Deir Ezzor,” she said.
Awad said at least 16,500 people had been forced to flee their homes in Hajjin and surrounding areas since violence in the area intensified in July this year.
SDF fighters too suffered heavy losses in their assault on Hajjin, where a group of die-hard jihadists with little to lose are making a bloody last stand.
“There are land mines everywhere on the roads,” says Abu Omar, one of the displaced in Al-Hol.
Fearing retribution against relatives who have stayed behind in IS-controlled territory, he refused to give his full name.
“The village and our homes have been destroyed by the bombardment,” says Abu Omar, a man in his thirties.
“There are still high-ranking members of IS and foreigners there, but most are on the Hajjin frontline,” he says. “They won’t give up easily, they are fighting to the death.”
The US-led coalition puts the number of jihadist fighters holding out in that area at around 2,000.
“The day we managed to flee, the fog was thick and gave us cover. Had they seen us, they would have wiped us out,” says Ziba Al-Ahmed, who escaped the town of Sousa.
“The bombardment was so scary and our bellies were crying,” says the mother of four.
Their farming machinery was too precious to leave in Sousa and her husband stayed behind with one of their daughters.
“We’re worried about them, we don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”