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.


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 49 min 17 sec ago
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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.”