Turkey poised for new Syria military operation as talks restart with US on safe zone

Russia and the US have been informed about the imminent Turkish operation in northeastern Syria. (AFP)
Updated 06 August 2019

Turkey poised for new Syria military operation as talks restart with US on safe zone

  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Sunday that his country’s forces would carry out operations in an area controlled by Kurdish YPG militia

ANKARA: Turkey on Monday remained poised for military action in northeastern Syria as critical talks got underway again with the US over the establishment of safe zone in the region.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Sunday that his country’s forces would carry out operations in an area controlled by Kurdish YPG militia, as several high-level diplomats warned that Turkish patience had run out.

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels were recently killed during clashes with the YPG.

Russia and the US have been informed about the imminent operation that would be Turkey’s third such offensive into Syria. 

“We entered Afrin, Jarablus, and Al-Bab. Now we will enter the east of the Euphrates,” Erdogan said.

However, the US State Department responded on the same day, warning Ankara against taking uncoordinated military action, particularly as American personnel could be there.

The announcement came on the eve of a new round of negotiations between Turkish and American military officials in Ankara on the creation of a safe zone.

Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the Ankara-based think-tank ORSAM, said the threat of a Turkish military operation had been aimed at enhancing Ankara’s bargaining position with the US to secure the best possible deal and show its determination over the issue.

“However, Ankara expects a deeper safe zone where the military control is totally in its hands, and where Turkish-backed political elements become much more efficient,” Orhan told Arab News.

Turkey’s National Security Council met last Tuesday to discuss a possible military offensive into Syria against the YPG which the country accuses of being affiliated with the PKK terror group that has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

Ankara sees the presence of the YPG as a security threat that could exploit the power vacuum in the Syrian territory and intends to create a 32 km safe zone in the region clear of Kurdish forces.

But, in the stalled safe-zone negotiations between Turkey and the US, Washington now proposes a more restricted security zone of 5 km to 14 km, with heavy weapons drawn back.

Thousands of Turkish soldiers, along with tanks and armor, have been deployed along the Syrian border over recent days.

However, any unilateral operation poses a significant risk with both parties still struggling to find a compromise over the Kurds: Washington supports the YPG and is against any Turkish military action in the area.

Orhan said that, after notifying Washington, Turkish armed forces could take possession of some settlements along the border avoiding any clashes with American forces whose numbers have already been cut and who are mostly settled in US bases in Syria.

“Some strategic hills, towns such as Tal Abyad and its southern towns with a high density of Arab population may become first targets of such an operation. Such a move will cut the geographic continuity between the settlements held by the YPG. It will also push Washington to revise its current negotiation position,”
he added.

However, considering the de-facto no-fly zone of the US over northeastern Syria, any Turkish operation in the region would not require aerial support as it would be conducted in nearby settlements within missile and artillery range, experts noted.

Dr. Nicholas Danforth, visiting senior fellow at the US German Marshall Fund think tank, said that negotiations between Turkey and the US had been hindered by the discrepancy between Turkey’s stated desire for a safe zone that will keep its border safe and its deeper strategic interest in occupying enough of the region to prevent the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish statelet.

“The deeper the incursion the deeper the ensuing rift between Ankara and Washington,” he told Arab News.

Some experts also argue that the defeat of the YPG by a Turkish operation may lead to the formation of a new Syrian Democratic Forces with non-YPG elements which could cooperate with Turkey, while suggestions for Ankara to cooperate with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime for any eventual offensive in northeastern Syria are also being discussed among prominent experts in Turkey.

“Ironically, so far, the US has proved more supportive of a safe zone than any other actors in the region, including Russia and Syria. Even if America left tomorrow, Ankara would face a choice between permanently occupying the region and turning it over to Damascus,” Danforth said.

“Both of these would forestall the creation of a PKK-dominated statelet, but not necessarily bring Ankara a lasting victory against the PKK.”

The Gulf’s war on smugglers

Updated 22 August 2019

The Gulf’s war on smugglers

  • Recent busts have included cash, cannabis and Captagon
  • Tech-savvy criminals play cat-and mouse with tech-savvy criminals

DUBAI: Bulk cash couriers, narcotics mules, counterfeit goods, wildlife trafficking —  spotting smugglers is all part of a day’s work for customs officials and law enforcement professionals in the Gulf.

Experts say that illegal trafficking in all its guises is bringing in billions each year for criminals worldwide, and the problem is increasing across the globe and the region.

In Saudi Arabia this week alone, officials arrested four passengers attempting to smuggle SR3.1 million ($830,000) in cash out of Madinah’s airport, while Saudi Arabian Border Guards intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis into the Kingdom. In a third bust, Saudi customs thwarted two attempts to bring more than 2.5 million Captagon (amphetamine) pills hidden in two vehicles into the Kingdom via a port.

Adel Hamaizia, a research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at the think tank Chatham House, told Arab News that money laundering,  or cash smuggling, is a major trafficking problem for the Kingdom and wider GCC.

Smuggling of cash is a major trafficking issue for the Kingdom and region, adding to the problem of capital flight.  

“One of the methods aiding capital flight in the GCC is old-school smuggling of cash as well as precious metals,” he said. 

But trafficking of drugs, fuel and even wildlife are also adding to pressures facing customs officials.

“Cross-border fuel smuggling from Saudi Arabia into its neighbors has remained an enduring feature. However, energy pricing reforms in the Kingdom in recent years have stifled smugglers’ margins if not canceled them out altogether,” said Hamaizia. “When it comes to drugs, countries of the GCC serve as consumption destinations and transit hubs, but not production spaces.”

Many countries in the region serve as transit hubs for drug smuggling as a result of geography, infrastructure, porous borders and lengthy coastlines, he said.

“Drugs smuggled into GCC states include qat, opium, cannabis, and Captagon (the family of drugs known as amphetamines). Captagon is one of the major drugs smuggled from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. 

“Wildlife smuggling such as houbara birds, pangolins, ivory, rhinoceros horns and others are also common across Gulf states. Doha serves as transit hubs for birds, mammals, ivory, and reptiles being transported between Africa and Asia.”

The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled.

Channing Mavrellis, of the think tank Global Financial Integrity, which works to curtail trade-related illicit financial flows, also highlighted the growing threat smugglers pose in the GCC. “The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled,” he said.

Experts say smuggling tactics are becoming increasingly sophisticated. “The methods used depend largely on the type of good being smuggled, its quantity and the level of risk/enforcement,” said Mavrellis. “For bulk cash smuggling or drug trafficking in smaller quantities, someone may simply conceal the illicit goods on their body or in their luggage. For larger quantities, smugglers may conceal the goods in a shipment of legitimate goods.”

However, Hamaizia warned that criminals are adopting new high-tech tactics. “The smuggling of lightweight drugs is now often supported by drones,” he said.

Smugglers are also turning to social media. In a report — Social Media and Drug Smuggling — published in journals earlier this year, authors noted the trend, saying: “Social media can be used for legal or illegal purposes by many individuals. Some may use these applications for drug smuggling. For example, Saudi Arabia Directorate General of Narcotics Control has arrested eight individuals for drug smuggling through social media.”

Saudi Arabia’s Border Guards this week intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis.  (Social media photo)

According to customs law jointly adopted by GCC countries, illegal transportation of goods can carry a jail term of up to 15 years. 

Meanwhile, many criminals are attempting to take advantage of the busy transit routes in the region.

Hamaizia said: “Traffickers and smugglers often opt for busier international airports where they may benefit from sloppier screening. Smugglers also focus on connecting flights, where screening is rushed and even non-existent in some cases.”

At Dubai International Airport, one of the region’s busiest hubs, authorities caught more than 1,000 people attempting to smuggle illegal goods into the UAE last year, with officials employing a wealth of new technologies. 

These include the Ionscan 500 DT, which can detect a wide range of military, commercial and homemade explosives as well as common illegal drugs, and the Thermo FirstDefender, a handheld device used to identify unknown solids or liquid chemicals.

Mavrellis said the challenge at busy transit routes was to search and question travelers while keeping operations running smoothly. 

“High volumes of international trade can make detecting smuggling difficult as customs agencies must strike a balance between trade facilitation and enforcement. Basically, it is the problem of finding a needle in a haystack — but without taking too much time,” he said.