Turkey announces counterterror plan in Syria

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, right, and US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford speak during their meeting in Ankara on Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 11 January 2019
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Turkey announces counterterror plan in Syria

ANKARA: A day after American officials visited Turkey to discuss and coordinate the US military withdrawal from Syria, Ankara on Wednesday said preparations to eliminate Daesh and other terrorist groups in northern Syria are underway. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan previously committed to his US counterpart Donald Trump to eradicate all remnants of Daesh in Syria. 

But Ankara has strongly objected to recent American conditions for withdrawing from Syria, such as Turkey guaranteeing the safety of Syrian-Kurdish forces allied to the US. 

The meeting between National Security Adviser John Bolton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and special envoy on Syria James Jeffrey and their Turkish counterparts was dominated by this disagreement.

Erdogan reportedly declined to meet with Bolton. Before visiting Ankara, Bolton had said Turkey should coordinate any military moves with the US.

Experts say Turkey will not undertake a large-scale operation in northern Syria amid the presence of US troops. 

Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Turkey’s options depend on moves by other actors in the Syrian conflict. 

“Ankara is negotiating with Russia, which is in separate talks with the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and the (Syrian) regime” about the Kurdish-controlled northeast of the country in light of the US plan to withdraw, he told Arab News. 

“Moscow will want to keep Turkey in the tent, but it will also have to manage relations with Damascus, which is clearly annoyed by the prospect of even more Turkish soldiers on its territory.”

If Damascus and the Kurds can reach an agreement on the return of the regime’s authority in the northeast, that will dictate the scope of a Turkish operation or whether it will take place at all, Stein said.

The implosion of the Turkish-Russian deal over the “de-escalation zone” in Syria’s Idlib province will be influential in the near future, he added. 

“Turkey hasn’t been able to uphold its commitments (regarding the Idlib deal), which could strengthen Russian leverage over Ankara,” he said.

“Or Moscow could look the other way should things between the Kurds and the regime go south and no agreement is reached, which could give way to a Russian green light for a Turkish operation.”

Since last month, Erdogan has threatened to conduct a cross-border operation in areas held by the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and dispatched military reinforcements along Turkey’s border with Syria. 

Jesse Marks, Middle East analyst and Fulbright scholar at Cambridge University, told Arab News: “Turkey’s plan of action after US forces leave is dependent on how the process of withdrawal is implemented and what changes on the ground occur during this period.”

He said: “The Kurds might reach an agreement with the Syrian government over the northeast. This could pave the way for a transition of northeast Syria to Russian forces to prevent an immediate Turkish offensive, followed by a final handover to Damascus further down the line.”

Turkey is in a diplomatic position to negotiate with the US and Russia simultaneously in order to seek a better range of outcomes in its favor, Marks added. 

But it is unlikely that Turkey will receive a comprehensive green light for military action from either country, he said.  

“Ultimately, the future of northeast Syria isn’t a simple bilateral US-Turkish decision. Kurdish fears of an invasion hastened conversations with the Syrian government over some form of reunification, bringing Russian and Syrian interests into consideration,” he added. 

“If Turkey launches a military offensive after the US drawdown, it has to deal with a range of possibilities that involve Russian and Syrian military actors in the area.” 

Meanwhile, Ankara has asked the US to hand over 16 of its military bases in northern Syria, and to take back arms delivered to the YPG following the withdrawal. 

Experts say for now it is unlikely that the US will hand over any bases in Syria to Turkey because of its alliance with Syrian-Kurdish forces.


US believes Daesh likely responsible for Manbij blast

Updated 38 sec ago
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US believes Daesh likely responsible for Manbij blast

  • US government sources say the Pentagon and other national agencies are investigating the bombing
  • This is one of the deadliest attacks on US forces in Syria since their deployment in 2015

WASHINGTON: The US government believes the Daesh militant group is likely responsible for Wednesday’s attack in northern Syria that killed four Americans, although it has not reached a firm conclusion, two US government sources said on Thursday.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Pentagon and other US agencies were investigating who carried out the attack in Manbij, Syria.
Officials studying the incident are not dismissing Daesh’s claim of responsibility for the blast, which killed two US troops and two civilians working for the US military, and regard it as plausible if not likely, one of the sources said.
The attack occurred nearly a month after President Donald Trump confounded his own national security team with a surprise decision on Dec. 19 to withdraw all 2,000 US troops from Syria, declaring Daesh had been defeated there.
The Manbij attack appeared to be the deadliest on US forces in Syria since they deployed on the ground there in 2015 and it took place in a town controlled by a militia allied to US-backed Kurdish forces.
If Daesh carried out the attack, that would undercut assertions, including by US Vice President Mike Pence several hours after the blast on Wednesday, that the militant group has been defeated.
Experts do not believe Daesh has been beaten despite its having lost almost all of the territory it held in 2014 and 2015 after seizing parts of Syria and Iraq and declaring a “caliphate.”
While the group’s footprint has shrunk, experts believe it is far from a spent force and can still conduct guerilla-style attacks. A Daesh statement on Wednesday said a Syrian suicide bomber had detonated his explosive vest in Manbij.
Trump’s Dec. 19 announcement was one of the reasons his former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, resigned. It stunned allies and raised fears of a long-threatened Turkish military offensive against US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
How and when US forces leave has deepened uncertainty in northern Syria, with Turkey and Syrian President Bashar Assad ready to fill the vacuum.
The US-backed YPG militia that is allied to the fighters holding Manbij last month invited Assad into the area around the town to forestall a potential Turkish assault. Syrian army troops entered the area soon after.
The YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces vowed on Thursday to ramp up attacks on Daesh remnants.