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. 


Sale puts Ben & Jerry’s ice cream back in West Bank, kind of

Sale puts Ben & Jerry’s ice cream back in West Bank, kind of
Updated 9 sec ago

Sale puts Ben & Jerry’s ice cream back in West Bank, kind of

Sale puts Ben & Jerry’s ice cream back in West Bank, kind of
JERUSALEM: A new agreement in Israel will put Ben & Jerry’s ice cream back on shelves in annexed east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank despite the ice cream maker’s protest of Israeli policies, according to Unilever, the company that owns the brand.
But it’s unclear if the product, which would only be sold with Hebrew and Arabic lettering, would still appeal to Ben & Jerry’s fans or have the support of the Vermont company, which has long backed liberal causes.
Israel hailed the move as a victory in its ongoing campaign against the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. BDS aims to bring economic pressure to bear on Israel over its military occupation of lands the Palestinians want for a future state.
Unilever, which acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 but distanced itself from the ice cream maker’s decision last year to halt sales in the territories, said Wednesday that it had sold its business interest in Israel to a local company that would sell Ben & Jerry’s ice cream under its Hebrew and Arabic name throughout Israel and the West Bank.
When Ben & Jerry’s was sold, the companies agreed that the ice cream maker’s independent board would be free to pursue its social mission, including longstanding support for many liberal causes, including racial justice, climate action, LGBTQ rights and campaign finance reform.
But Unilever would have the final word on financial and operational decisions.
Unilever said it has “used the opportunity of the past year to listen to perspectives on this complex and sensitive matter and believes this is the best outcome for Ben & Jerry’s in Israel.”
In its statement, Unilever reiterated that it does not support the BDS movement. It said it was “very proud” of its business in Israel, where it employs around 2,000 people and has four manufacturing plants.
Unilever sold the business to Avi Zinger, the owner of Israel-based American Quality Products Ltd, who had sued Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s in March in a US federal court over the termination of their business relationship, saying it violated US and Israeli law.
Zinger’s legal team said the decision by Unilever was part of a settlement. He thanked Unilever for resolving the matter and for the “strong and principled stand” it has taken against BDS. “There is no place for discrimination in the commercial sale of ice cream,” Zinger said.
There was no immediate comment from Ben & Jerry’s. A spokeswoman pointed to the Unilever announcement.
But reaction to the new agreement arrived quickly.
Omar Shakir, the director of Human Rights Watch for Israel and the Palestinian territories, said Unilever seeks to undermine Ben & Jerry’s “principled decision” to avoid complicity in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights, which his organization says amount to apartheid, an allegation Israel adamantly rejects.
“It won’t succeed: Ben & Jerry’s won’t be doing business in illegal settlements. What comes next may look and taste similar, but, without Ben & Jerry’s recognized social justice values, it’s just a pint of ice cream.”
Israel hailed the decision and thanked governors and other elected officials in the United States and elsewhere for supporting its campaign against BDS. It said Unilever consulted its Foreign Ministry throughout the process.
“Antisemitism will not defeat us, not even when it comes to ice-cream,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said. “We will fight delegitimization and the BDS campaign in every arena, whether in the public square, in the economic sphere or in the moral realm.”
BDS, an umbrella group supported by virtually all of Palestinian civil society, presents itself as a non-violent protest movement modeled on the boycott campaign against apartheid South Africa. It does not adopt an official position on how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved, and it officially rejects antisemitism.
Israel views BDS as an assault on its very legitimacy, in part because of extreme views held by some of its supporters. Israel also points to the group’s support for a right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees — which would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state — and BDS leaders’ refusal to endorse a two-state solution to the conflict.
Ben & Jerry’s decision was not a full boycott, and appeared to be aimed at Israel’s settlement enterprise. Some 700,000 Jewish settlers live in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, which Israel annexed and considers part of its capital. Israel captured both territories in the 1967 Mideast war, and the Palestinians want them to be part of their future state.
Most of the international community views the settlements as a violation of international law. The Palestinians consider them the main obstacle to peace because they absorb and divide up the land on which a future Palestinian state would be established. Every Israeli government has expanded settlements, including during the height of the peace process in the 1990s.

Egypt and Oman agree to establish joint investment fund

Egypt and Oman agree to establish joint investment fund
Updated 26 min 31 sec ago

Egypt and Oman agree to establish joint investment fund

Egypt and Oman agree to establish joint investment fund
  • Two countries also sign agreements in multiple sectors, including the environment and education
  • Agreement comes during Egyptian President El-Sisi’s official visit to Oman 

CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tariq have agreed on a study to establish a joint investment fund between their two countries, focused on feasible projects in various vital sectors.

In a joint statement released on Tuesday, the two leaders confirmed, during the official visit of the Egyptian president to Oman, that all relevant authorities would discuss investment opportunities in fields including energy and renewables, industry, healthcare and pharmaceuticals.

During El-Sisi’s visit, Egypt and Oman signed two agreements, six memoranda of understanding, three executive programs and letters of cooperation in promoting competition, combating monopolies, promoting investment, developing exports, establishing and managing industrial zones, and protecting the environment, in addition to the mutual recognition of marine qualification certificates for navigators.

The governments of the two countries also signed a cooperation agreement in maritime transport and ports, and a cooperation agreement between Sultan Qaboos University and the Egyptian National Institute for Astronomical and Geophysical Research.

El-Sisi affirmed “Egypt’s keenness during the coming period to develop economic and commercial cooperation relations with the Omani business community and companies, and develop joint investments, to contribute to supporting economic development … to maximize mutual interests and optimal utilization of available opportunities.”

During his meeting with representatives of the business community and heads of major companies in Oman, with the participation of a number of senior Omani officials and representatives, he stressed that “the qualitative leap that Egypt has witnessed recently in the various development sectors reflects the strong will of the state, with its governmental and popular components to achieve sustainable development, which will have positive repercussions on the strengthening of bilateral relations between Egypt and the Sultanate of Oman by opening doors to maximize existing Omani investments in various sectors.

“The distinguished fraternal relations between the two brotherly countries are the real umbrella for supporting efforts to develop joint cooperation in various economic fields through the availability of the necessary political will,” El-Sisi said.

The Egyptian leader also discussed the various investment opportunities in Egypt, foremost of which is the development axis of the Suez Canal Zone, which includes a number of major industrial and logistical areas, and which provides promising opportunities for Omani companies wishing to benefit from Egypt’s strategic location.

El-Sisi arrived in Oman on Monday and an official reception ceremony was held for him. 

Talks between the two leaders were held at Al-Alam Palace in the Omani capital Muscat and included delegations from both countries.

El-Sisi affirmed Egypt’s “pride in the depth and strength of strategic relations with the Sultanate of Oman,” and its desire to “strengthen and diversify the frameworks of joint bilateral cooperation, and explore mechanisms to push them to broader horizons in various political, security, economic and commercial fields.”

He also praised “the existing level of coordination and unity of visions between the two brotherly countries on issues of common interest,” as well as the “Omani-Egyptian consensus on all regional and international issues.”

Ambassador Bassam Radi, official spokesman for the Presidency of the Republic, said El-Sisi and Sultan Haitham held an expanded session of talks, during which the sultan praised the “close and historical brotherly ties that unite the two countries.”


Egyptian president meets Bahraini king on 2nd stage of Gulf tour

Egyptian president meets Bahraini king on 2nd stage of Gulf tour
Updated 3 min 28 sec ago

Egyptian president meets Bahraini king on 2nd stage of Gulf tour

Egyptian president meets Bahraini king on 2nd stage of Gulf tour
  • Following his visit to Oman, El-Sisi met the Bahraini monarch to discuss regional issues and strategic cooperation
  • Egypt’s leader reiterated his country’s “keenness to develop cooperation with the Kingdom of Bahrain in all fields”

CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi held talks with Bahrain’s King Hamad on the second stage of his Gulf tour.

Following his visit to Oman, El-Sisi met the Bahraini monarch to discuss regional issues and strategic cooperation.

During their meeting — that was also attended by Bahrain’s Prime Minister Crown Prince Salman Al-Khalifa — at Sakhir Palace, in Manama, Egypt’s leader reiterated his country’s “keenness to develop cooperation with the Kingdom of Bahrain in all fields.”

Welcoming El-Sisi to the capital city, King Hamad said: “(Your visit) reflects the uniqueness of the distinguished bilateral relations and embodies the keenness of the two leaderships to communicate, coordinate, and consult on regional issues of common concern to serve the interests of the two countries and the issues of the Arab nation,” the Bahrain News Agency reported.

The king hailed the “efficiency” and contribution of the Egyptian community in his country toward the development of Bahrain and noted that the two nations had “a long history and a developed present,” while sharing a “constant aspiration to advance bilateral cooperation toward broader horizons.”

King Hamad pointed out that, due to El-Sisi’s approach, Egypt was witnessing, “a pioneering development renaissance and vital projects, and the qualitative achievements it has achieved in all fields.”

He also praised Egypt’s, “pivotal and firm role as a fundamental pillar of security and stability in the region and its appreciated efforts in supporting the nation’s causes and strengthening the course of work for the common Arab in facing the current challenges in the region.”

El-Sisi’s foreign tour comes after it was recently announced that US President Joe Biden will visit Saudi Arabia in mid-July and while there would be attending a joint summit with Gulf state leaders.

The official spokesman for the Egyptian presidency, said: “The current stage requires concerted efforts to protect Arab national security and confront attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of Arab countries and destabilize them.”


Five killed in Aden blast targeting security official

Five killed in Aden blast targeting security official
Updated 29 June 2022

Five killed in Aden blast targeting security official

Five killed in Aden blast targeting security official
  • An improvised explosive device planted in a car went off when a vehicle carrying Lahj province Security Chief Saleh Al-Sayed passed through Aden’s Khormaksar neighborhood
  • Al-Sayed, who is loyal to the pro-independence Southern Transitional Council, narrowly escaped death as the explosion burned his car and many other vehicles

AL-MUKALLA: At least five people were killed and several others wounded on Wednesday when a blast targeted a security official in Yemen’s southern city of Aden, the country’s interim capital and the seat of its internationally recognized government, a local security source and residents said. 

An improvised explosive device planted in a car went off when a vehicle carrying Lahj province Security Chief Saleh Al-Sayed passed through Aden’s Khormaksar neighborhood, killing five people — four civilians and a bodyguard — and wounding seven others, a security source told Arab News by telephone. 

Al-Sayed, who is loyal to the pro-independence Southern Transitional Council, narrowly escaped death as the explosion burned his car and many other vehicles that were passing through the street.  

Al-Sayed is known for leading troops that purged the Lahj province of Al-Qaeda, Daesh and other armed groups in 2016 and also commanded troops that battled the Houthis in Aden in 2015. 

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but local officials blame terrorist groups for such attacks. 

Wednesday’s explosion in Aden is the latest in a string of deadly attacks that have shaken the city during the past two years. 

This month, a Yemeni journalist was burned to death in Aden when an IED blast ripped through his vehicle. 

In May, the commander of joint operations at the Aden-based 4th Military Region escaped death after a blast hit his armed SUV in Aden’s Mualla. 

In November, a pregnant journalist was killed when an explosion blew up her vehicle in Aden.  

The latest attack in Aden came a day after Aden Gov. Ahmed Hamed Lamlis told a group of UN officials based in Yemen that the city is “safe” to host their offices.  

Lamlis pledged during a meeting with Diego Zorella, UN deputy resident coordinator for humanitarian affairs in Yemen, to protect the UN delegations that visit or settle in Aden, urging them to intensify their humanitarian operations in the city.


Populist Turkish politicians stoke tensions over Syrian refugees as elections loom

Populist Turkish politicians stoke tensions over Syrian refugees as elections loom
Updated 29 June 2022

Populist Turkish politicians stoke tensions over Syrian refugees as elections loom

Populist Turkish politicians stoke tensions over Syrian refugees as elections loom
  • Umit Ozdag, the leader of the nationalist Zafer (Victory) Party, was stopped from entering Hatay after he pledged to place a “symbolic” mine at the border with Syria
  • Turkish police, the gendarmerie and officials from the Hatay governorate prevented Ozdag from entering the city

ANKARA: A toxic and dangerous anti-refugee discourse is gaining momentum in Turkey. Umit Ozdag, the leader of the nationalist Zafer (Victory) Party, was recently stopped from entering the southern border town of Hatay after he pledged to place a “symbolic” mine at the border with Syria to prevent crossings.

Turkish police, the gendarmerie and officials from the Hatay governorate prevented Ozdag from entering the city, as his move could provoke hatred and incitement against the refugee population in the city. Hatay is home to some 400,000 Syrians.

Experts have warned about far-right politicians using Syrian refugees as a political card ahead of general and presidential elections scheduled for next year.

Ozdag’s party is mainly based on anti-Syrian ideology, pursuing a campaign against the presence of refugees in Turkey and accusing them of causing the country’s dire economic and financial problems.

The Zafer Party, having an insignificant share of votes according to the polls, also criticizes the high birth rates among the refugees, which it terms a “silent invasion” of Turkey.

Ozdag has tweeted controversial videos, claiming he would expel all refugees from Turkey once he comes to power.

He also said that his party would quit the international treaty banning anti-personnel mines and would replant them on the borders to stop refugees.

Ozdag added that every Turkish citizen who wants the Syrian refugees to stay in Turkey is a “traitor.”

According to Friedrich Puttmann, a researcher at the Istanbul Policy Center, Ozdag’s latest statements appear to be inspired by far-right nationalists in the EU, such as the German party Alternative für Deutschland, which also suggested in the heat of Germany's refugee debate in 2016 that its borders should be defended with military means against the arrival of asylum seekers.

“Ozdag can be considered a political entrepreneur, trying to gain power by basing his party 100 percent on a single new issue in Turkish politics, and doing everything he can to make this issue as big as possible to generate votes from it,” he told Arab News.

Puttmann said that by deploying this strategy, Ozdag is seeking to exploit not only Turks’ grievances with regard to the hosting Syrian refugees but also their strong sense of nationalism.

“To counter this, his critics should therefore not fall into his trap by defending the refugees themselves but rather challenge him on the grounds of what it means to be Turkish,” he said.

Syrian refugees in Turkey have been banned from visiting their families back home during Eid Al-Adha, while new quotas have been applied to residence permits. As of July 1, Turkey will limit permits for foreigners to a ceiling of 20 percent of the population of some neighborhoods.

Puttmann noted that much of the Turkish debate on the Syrian refugees is an extension of the debate on the meaning of Turkish identity.

“If Ozdag’s critics can present a vision of Turkishness that is not divisive but speaks to values shared across different segments of Turkish society, they can also convince the public that planting mines on the Turkish-Syrian border would be the most ‘un-Turkish’ thing to do,” he said.

Turkey currently hosts about 3.7 million Syrian refugees within its borders, apart from more than 200,000 Syrians who were granted Turkish citizenship in a decade. Turkey also provides security and humanitarian assistance to over 3 million Syrians in Turkey-controlled regions in Syria.

According to the latest surveys, anti-refugee sentiment is gaining popularity in Turkey.

A recent survey by the İstanbul Ekonomi Arastirma (Istanbul Economics Research) organization revealed that 61 percent of respondents favored a harsher stance against refugees. The repatriation of Syrians is believed to be among the top topics of the impending election commitments of the opposition parties.

Prof. Murat Erdogan, director at Ankara University’s Migration Research Center and a CATS-SWP Fellow in Berlin, told Arab News that the anti-refugee discourse cannot be resolved by stopping someone from entering a city where the refugee population has reached more than 20 percent of the local population.

“Ozdag and his party are bringing up the existing concerns and anger that are deeply rooted in Turkish society following a large influx of refugees in a short period of time,” he said.

According to the academic, who predicts the development of new political formations, the high levels of attention directed to anti-refugee perspectives has caused the Syrian issue to become associated with discussion surrounding Turkey’s national security.

“The indefinite nature of the immigration process creates a sense of insecurity and fuels concerns in Turkish society that the domestic borders cannot be protected and the immigration wave cannot be managed,” he said.

“While the government frames the refugees as the elements of religious or cultural solidarity as part of its humanitarian foreign policy, the opposition criticizes this policy by securitizing this issue. This is a reality and has been used by populist politicians in recent years,” Prof. Erdogan added. 

“It is very important to boost the resilience of Turkish society in the coming period and to implement cohesion policies for Syrians at the local level to prevent further conflicts,” he said.

Two young Syrians — Sultan Abdul Baset Jabneh and Sharif Khaled Al-Ahmad — were killed in Istanbul in June, while a 70-year-old Syrian woman was hit in the face in the southeastern province of Gaziantep last month, triggering an outcry on social media.

On May 31, an immigrant sexually harassed a 10-year-old Turkish boy in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district hosting a large population of refugees. The immigrant was arrested, but local anger swiftly poured into the streets.

As part of a new project, the Turkish government recently committed to voluntarily relocating 1 million Syrians to northern Syria by establishing necessary infrastructure.