Turkey hints at Syria operation amid discussions of NATO enlargement

Special Turkey hints at Syria operation amid discussions of NATO enlargement
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reviews the honor guard during a ceremony marking the docking of a submarine, in Kocaeli, Turkey, Monday, May 23, 2022. (AP Photo)
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Updated 24 May 2022

Turkey hints at Syria operation amid discussions of NATO enlargement

Turkey hints at Syria operation amid discussions of NATO enlargement
  • Turkey’s operation is expected to focus on areas where the country is targeted the most by cross-border attacks
  • The announcement comes at a time in which Turkey is vehemently objecting to the NATO membership bids of Sweden and Finland

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Monday evening an impending military operation into northern Syria to establish a 30 km-deep safe zone along the southern border. 

Turkey’s operation is expected to focus on areas where the country is targeted the most by cross-border attacks. But Erdogan did not go into further detail. 

Turkish forces have launched three major incursions into northern Syria since 2016 and took control of areas along the border against threats from Daesh and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, listed as a terror group by Turkey. 

The withdrawal of the Syrian Kurdish forces up to 30 km into Syria was part of the Russia-Turkey deal in Sochi. 

The announcement comes at a time in which Turkey is vehemently objecting to the NATO membership bids of Sweden and Finland, citing the two Scandinavian countries’ support for the terror groups and their arms embargoes following Turkey’s previous Syria operation in 2019. 

Although the two countries deny any support given to the terror groups on their soil, Ankara asked Sweden and Finland for the extradition of 33 members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and an end to the ongoing military export bans to Turkey. 

Turkey considers the YPG as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK. 

The timing of the announcement, therefore, stirred debate about whether it would be part of a grand bargain between Turkey and the Western alliance to decrease its support for the Syrian Kurdish militants in exchange for Ankara lessening its pressure on the enlargement goals of the organization. 

Noah Ringler, an expert from Georgetown University, thinks the northwestern Syrian city of Tal Rifaat is the most likely target of the operation, while Kobane or Manbij is the next most likely option. 

“I believe Erdogan still seeks a broader deal with US President Joe Biden on NATO enlargement and the purchase of American-made F-16s and would not like to confront US forces further east near Al-Malikiyah,” he told Arab News. 

An operation in Tal Rifaat, situated halfway between Aleppo and the Turkish border, has been on the agenda for years as the YPG seized control in the region. The city houses Kurds who fled Afrin when Turkey carried out an operation there in 2018 to root the YPG out.  

Ankara, however, perceives a threat coming from the Tal Rifaat area, which is believed to be used by Kurdish forces to conduct cross-border attacks on Turkey. 

There have been several fire exchanges between Turkish forces and Syrian Kurdish militants for a couple of months. 

As Tal Rifaat is home to many refugees living in Kilis and Azaz and has limited Russian and Iranian presence, Ringler said that Russia is likely willing to let Turkey attack within certain areas with some pre-conditions, like ensuring the lack of Turkish sanctions on Russian goods and services. 

“Russia may also ask Turkey to put pressure on the PYD (Kurdish Democratic Union Party) to return them to the table with Syrian President Bashar Assad, as talks have stalled,” he added. 

Experts also note that any such operation could take advantage of Russia’s preoccupation with the invasion of Ukraine and US commitments to defend Taiwan against China.  

According to Ringler, Turkey’s drone strikes on the YPG in northeastern Syria have always been satisficing, as elections in Turkey draw near. 

“Erdogan considers taking new steps as vital to distract the attention from domestic issues and divide the opposition over Kurdish and Syrian issues,” he said. 

The details of the operation and the decision to launch it will however be discussed during Turkey’s National Security Council meeting on Thursday.

Whether the operation has or will have the green light from Russia and US is still unclear. 

“Turkish Armed Forces have the capacity to attack all of the above areas, but for political reasons it is likely the best for Erdogan to do sequential operations, threatening additional action closer to next year’s elections and in order to gain concessions from the US, Iran, Russia and the YPG,” said Ringler.

He added: “I think Assad’s forces will fight back like in February 2020, and the extent of Russian air support will be a key indicator of the extent to which Turkey is coordinating with Russia. Assad’s forces are unlikely to give up positions without trying to impose costs on Turkish-backed Syrian armed groups and the Turkish Armed Forces for their presence in Syria.”

According to Ringler, US Congressional elections will also play a role in negotiations with the US, as presidential powers do not allow Biden to lift some of the existing sanctions and Congress remains committed to arms sanctions on Turkey related to its S-400 Russian missile defense purchase and Operation Peace Spring into Syria. 

Currently hosting about 3.7 million refugees from Syria whose presence in the country has increasingly become a hot topic among several opposition parties pledging their immediate repatriation, Ankara has been discussing their resettlement to briquette houses in safe areas along the border. 

The Turkish government is also worried that public anger over the refugees’ widespread presence will dominate the upcoming election round and influence electoral preferences. 

The latest official figures revealed that 400-500 people are returning each week to the safe zones on the Turkey-Syria border. Since 2016, around half a million Syrians have returned to those zones, which are controlled by Ankara-backed groups.  

“The regions they returned to are Jarablus, A’zaz, Marea, Al-Bab, Ras Al-Ayn, and Tal Abyad. These are all safe regions in Syria that we have created,” Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu recently said.

However, the Syrian government considers the presence of safe zones as a kind of “colonialism” and “ethnic cleansing.” Syria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently urged the international community to stop Ankara from proceeding with its plans for building houses and local infrastructure in safe zones to send 1 million refugees back to their country.  

Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at the New Lines Institute, thinks that the recently announced Turkish military operation in northern Syria is certainly a tactic Ankara has employed to test Russia in Syria amid its intervention in Ukraine. 

“It is also a message Turkey is wishing to send following its opposition to Swedish and Finnish membership in NATO due to grievances related to the PKK, as well as to take advantage of Russian distraction in Ukraine to alter the status quo in Syria and deepen its footprint in the northeast,” she told Arab News. 

Rose, however, does not think the US will offer any public or private green light for this operation, nor will Russia publicly support it.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, in a statement on Tuesday, accused Turkey of “destabilizing the region.”

Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, believes there is always an opportunity for Turkey to launch a tactic operation targeting a specific area. 

“The most reasonable targets would be Tal Rifaat and Manbij. I don’t expect any operation on the eastern side of Syria. Turkey should concentrate its efforts and forces on controlling the strategic points on the M4 highway in Idlib that became a de facto frontier between Turkish-controlled pockets and Kurdish forces,” he told Arab News. 

Erdogan’s announcement also came a day before diplomatic delegations from Sweden and Finland landed in Ankara on Tuesday to discuss their NATO membership bid, where Turkey is expected to present some files on PKK activities during their meeting with the Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin and Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal on Wednesday. 


Four Yemeni soldiers killed, 25 wounded in Houthi attacks during truce

Four Yemeni soldiers killed, 25 wounded in Houthi attacks during truce
Updated 13 August 2022

Four Yemeni soldiers killed, 25 wounded in Houthi attacks during truce

Four Yemeni soldiers killed, 25 wounded in Houthi attacks during truce
  • US envoy Tim Lenderking says international community has made ‘significant progress’ toward ending the war

JEDDAH: Yemen’s army claimed on Saturday that four of its soldiers were killed and 25 more wounded in Houthi attacks, accusing the Iran-backed militia of breaching a United Nations-brokered truce hundreds of times in the past week.

The international community is pressing the Houthis to open roads in Taiz and turn the truce into a lasting peace settlement to end the war.

The army’s media center said in a statement that the Houthis committed 351 violations last week alone by shelling and mounting ground attacks on government troops, launching explosive-rigged drones, gunning down army troops, mobilizing new forces and creating new military posts in Taiz, Hajjah, Marib, Hodeidah, Dhale and Abyan.

Displaced Yemenis receive aids of tents, mattresses and bedding, after their camp was exposed to heavy rain that damaged their tents in the Khokha district of the country’s western province of Hodeida. (AFP)

Under the truce that came into effect on April 2 and has been renewed twice since, both sides agreed to stop fighting, to facilitate the departure of commercial flights from Sanaa, to ease restrictions on the movement of fuel ships through Hodeidah port, and to open roads in Taiz and other provinces.

Yemen’s government and military officials have warned that the continuation of deadly strikes by the Houthis and the failure to lift their seven-year siege on Taiz would jeopardize the truce and efforts to end the war.

Residents of Taiz said on Saturday that the Houthis had fired a number of artillery rounds at A-Shemasi neighborhood in the east of Taiz, causing large explosions. It is not known whether there were any casualties.

People in Taiz have repeatedly complained that the Houthis have not honored the truce and continue to strike densely populated districts.  

Despite local and international pressure, the Houthis have rejected the UN’s proposal to open a main road and four small roads around Taiz, insisting on opening just one narrow, unpaved road.

In New York, Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN secretary-general, said on Friday that talks over opening roads in Taiz and other governorates were “still ongoing.”

“What we have seen since this ceasefire has been agreed to is a good amount of flights going in and out of Sana’a Airport,” he added during his daily press briefing.

US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking said that the international community has made “significant progress” toward ending the war in Yemen and that his priority is to get roads in Taiz open, add flights to more destinations from Sanaa airport, and to accelerate salary payments to public servants in Houthi-controlled areas.


Background of Rushdie attacker sheds light on Khomeini sympathizers in US

Background of Rushdie attacker sheds light on Khomeini sympathizers in US
Updated 14 August 2022

Background of Rushdie attacker sheds light on Khomeini sympathizers in US

Background of Rushdie attacker sheds light on Khomeini sympathizers in US
  • Lebanese-American Hadi Matar signals ties with Tehran-backed Hezbollah

CHICAGO / NEW YORK / WASHINGTON, DC: Hadi Matar, the 24-year-old New Jersey suspect charged with attempted murder over a vicious knife attack on author Salman Rushdie on Friday, is believed to have been motivated by pro-Iranian regime sympathies and the death fatwa placed on the novelist in 1989 by the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

Rushdie was speaking at a literary festival in upstate New York when Matar rushed onto the stage and stabbed the prize-winning author multiple times, including in the face, arm and abdomen, police allege.

The suspect had a pass to attend the literary conference hosted by the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York, according to police.

Hospital officials said that Rushdie, 75, is likely to lose an eye as a result of the attack.

The celebrated author suffered nerve damage to one arm, a serious injury to his liver and is on a ventilator.

Although police officials investigating the attack have not speculated on Matar’s motives, or possible official or unofficial ties to extremist pro-Iranian groups, many experts linked the incident to Iran’s longstanding, extremist terrorist agenda.

Matar’s Facebook cover page, which was widely shared on social media, shows the suspect is a follower of the Tehran regime’s hard-line agenda.

The page includes images of Khomeini, the regime’s founder, and current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, leaving no doubt about Matar’s indoctrination and sympathies with the Iranian regime.

“The attack on Salman Rushdie by a reportedly pro-Khomenei individual would seem to qualify as an act of terrorism. The documented threats to Americans by Iran are certainly terrorism,” Norman Roule, an adviser to the United Against Nuclear Iran coalition, based in Washington, posted on Twitter.

“How would we have responded if these were AQ-related attacks? Why the difference?”

 

 

Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Washington-based Arab Center, a think tank focusing on US foreign policy in the Middle East, told Arab News that pockets of pro-Iranian activists exist in the US, but usually stay under the radar.

Jahshan said that he believed Matar might be a “lone wolf” motivated by the Iranian regime’s longstanding fatwa, and rhetoric against Rushdie and other Western officials, but is surprised the attack was carried out now.

“One would think, after so many years, this fatwa issued by Iran and supported by many in the region, including in Lebanon, has somewhat dissipated, diminished, if you will, in intensity and in emotional attachment to it,” Jahshan told Arab News.

The fatwa against Rushdie was tempered in 1998 after Khomeini’s death, with the Iranian leader’s successors saying they no longer supported calls for Rushdie’s killing. But the fatwa was never officially revoked.

Jahshan said that the fatwa still holds relevance for some who continue to support Iran.

“I'm certainly not surprised that there are people who still take these things seriously. Support (for) terror attacks against civilians for political reasons have diminished in many parts of the world, but they continue to exist at least on the individual level,” he said.

“So the fact that it’s an individual who doesn’t seem to be tied to any particular organization or set-up, whether in this country or outside, is not surprising. That’s the fad right now. That’s a common trend. But, again, one has to wait for the investigation to proceed and see what connections they might come up with after the investigation.”

Immediately after the attack, pro-Iranian and pro-Hezbollah social media feeds lit up with praise for the alleged assailant, but many were later removed.

The IranArabic Twitter account with more than 90,000 followers called Matar a “Lebanese hero who stabbed Satan Salman Rushdie, author of 'The Satanic Verses,' in which he insulted the Prophet of guidance and mercy, the Messenger of God, Muhammad.”

Some activists in Detroit, where Lebanese Shiites and support for Hezbollah are strong, said they are not surprised by the attack, adding that pro-Iranian activism there is often high profile, but also that they feared speaking out publicly because of fears for their safety.

“People are afraid to speak out here in Detroit against Iran or Hezbollah,” one Detroit activist said, asking not to be identified.

The FBI issued an alert in 2020 warning of possible terrorism from pro-Iranian sympathizers and agents in the US after the drone assassination of Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force and responsible for a series of violent terrorist attacks against anti-Iran regime dissidents.

The attack on Rushdie comes after the US Justice Department revealed a plot to assassinate former US National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Shahram Poursafi, identified by US officials as a member of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, is currently wanted by the FBI on charges related to the murder-for-hire plot.

Matar was born in the US, but may not have escaped the extremist indoctrination that many young people, and even children, are forced to go through in pro-Iranian Hezbollah strongholds. Exporting the extremist ideology of the Iranian "revolution" is a key goal of its proxies in the Middle East.

But they seem to have also established a presence in the American heartland as well.

Analysts discovered this summer that a pro-Iran mosque in Houston was forcing young children to take part in chants called “Salam Farmande,” or “Hello Commander” in Farsi. The ceremony, which has been posted on social media, closely mirrors Iranian and Hezbollah indoctrination intended to instill total loyalty to Khamenei.

In a recent report published by the Middle East Forum, a think tank that monitors extremism, Adrian Calamel, an analyst specializing in the Middle East and terrorism, said that the song is part of the recruitment drive for the Iranian regime.

“It’s enlisting the children to be the next generation of martyrs,” he said. “The song itself says, ‘we are ready to die for the commander.’”

Calamel warns that Shiite mosques similar to the one in Houston are centers of Iranian influence in the US.

“Al-Qaeda can’t set up these centers, Daesh can’t set up these centers, but Iran can,” he said.

It is unclear how Matar was radicalized, but clearly there is a broader trend of political and religious indoctrination that is being pushed by sympathizers of Iran’s brand of religious extremism that justify and encourage attacks like the one against Rushdie.


Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in major Cabinet reshuffle

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in major Cabinet reshuffle
Updated 13 August 2022

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in major Cabinet reshuffle

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in major Cabinet reshuffle
  • The Cabinet shake-up was approved by parliament in an emergency session and affected 13 portfolios, including health, education, culture, local development and irrigation ministries
  • President El-Sisi said the shake-up came in consultation with Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly

CAIRO : An emergency session of parliament on Saturday approved several cabinet changes in Egypt’s first major reshuffle since 2019, with 13 ministers moved, the National Media Authority reported.
A statement said the House of Representatives had approved “all the nominations set forth in a letter from President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi regarding a ministerial reshuffle.”
El-Sisi’s official Facebook page said the president had urged parliament to discuss the changes in the more than 30-strong cabinet, which were agreed following consultations with Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli.
The president said in a Facebook post that the changes aimed at “developing the governmental performance in some important files ... which contribute to protecting the state’s interests and capabilities.”
There has been only one reshuffle since Madbouli took office in 2018, in December 2019.
Following parliamentary approval, the new ministers are now expected to be sworn in.
The reshuffle does not include the key defense, interior, finance or foreign ministries.
But it does appoint new ministers of health, tourism and antiquities, commerce and industry, irrigation, civil aviation, immigration, education, higher education, military production, manpower, public business sector, culture and local development.
Banker Ahmed Issa took over the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry, replacing Khaled Al-Anani who led Egypt’s efforts in recent years to revive the tourism industry, a pillar of the economy. Such efforts included displaying ancient discoveries, opening new museums to attract international tourists.
Hani Sweilam, professor of water resources management at Germany’s RWTH Aachen University, was named as Irrigation Minister. He replaced Mohammed Abdel-Aty who oversaw years of technical negations with Ethiopia over its controversial dam on the Nile River’s main tributary.
The decision to replace outgoing irrigation minister Aty comes just a day after Addis Ababa announced it had finished its third filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The Ethiopian water project damming the Nile is proceeding without agreement from downstream countries Egypt and Sudan.
The new irrigation minister is Hani Sewilam, a professor of sustainable development and water resources management at the American University in Cairo.
He assumes the post amid increasing fears over water security and an impending water crisis.
Other notable swaps include tourism and antiquities. Khaled Anani is credited with several high-profile attempts to revive Egypt’s vital tourism industry, and he is succeeded by Ahmed Issa Abu Hussein.
The health portfolio has been filled by Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, the acting minister since October.
Abdel Ghaffar’s former post of higher education minister will be filled by his deputy, Ayman Ashour.
Another notable appointment is Egyptian Air Force chief Mohamed Abbas Helmy, who takes on the civil aviation portfolio.
The government has held talks in recent months with the International Monetary Fund for a new loan to support its reform program and to help address challenges caused by the war in Europe. The government has received pledges from wealthy Arab Gulf nations for billions of dollars in investments, some of which are for private industry.
(With AFP and AP)


15 migrants found dead on border with Sudan, say Libya officials

15 migrants found dead on border with Sudan, say Libya officials
Updated 13 August 2022

15 migrants found dead on border with Sudan, say Libya officials

15 migrants found dead on border with Sudan, say Libya officials
  • The agency said nine other migrants survived while two remain missing in the desert

CAIRO: Libyan authorities said Saturday they found at least 15 migrants dead in the desert on the borders with Sudan, the latest tragedy involving migrants seeking a better life in Europe via perilous journeys through the conflict-wrecked nation.
The Department for Combating Irregular Migration in the southeastern city of Kufra said the migrants were on their way from Sudan to Libya when their vehicle broke down due to lack of fuel.
The agency said nine other migrants survived while two remain missing in the desert. There were women and children among the migrants, but the agency did not elaborate on how many. It also did not reveal causes of the migrants’ death, but said they did not have enough food and water.
It said the migrants were all Sudanese — from a country in turmoil for years. The migrants likely attempted to reach western Libya in efforts to board trafficking boats to Europe.
The agency posted images on Facebook showing bodies purportedly of the dead migrants who were later burned in the desert.
The tragedy was the latest in Libya’s sprawling desert. In June, authorities in Kufra said they found the bodies of 20 migrants who they said died of thirst in the desert after their vehicle broke down close to the border with Chad.
Libya has in recent years emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. The oil-rich country plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Human traffickers in recent years have benefited from the chaos in Libya, smuggling in migrants across the country’s lengthy borders with six nations. The migrants are then packed into ill-equipped rubber boats and set off on risky sea voyages.


Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in Cabinet reshuffle

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in Cabinet reshuffle
Updated 13 August 2022

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in Cabinet reshuffle

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in Cabinet reshuffle
  • Secretary-General of the House of Representatives Ahmed Manaa invited Parliament’s 596 MPs to attend the meeting without disclosing further information

CAIRO: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt announced a Cabinet reshuffle Saturday to improve his administration's performance as it faces towering economic challenges stemming largely from Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The Cabinet shake-up, which was approved by parliament in an emergency session, affected 13 portfolios, including health, education, culture, local development and irrigation ministries.
Also included in the reshuffle was the tourism portfolio, a key job at a time when Egypt is struggling to revive the lucrative sector decimated by years of turmoil, the pandemic and most recently the war in Europe.
The changes, however, didn’t affect key ministries including foreign, finance, defense and the interior, which is responsible for the police force.
El-Sisi said the shake-up came in consultation with Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly. He said in a Facebook post that the changes aimed at “developing the governmental performance in some important files ... which contribute to protecting the state’s interests and capabilities.”
The new ministers are expected to be sworn in before el-Sissi later Saturday or early Sunday.
Egypt’s economy has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine, which rattled global markets and hiked oil and food prices across the world.