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Fighting Rages in Syria’s Last Major Insurgent Stronghold

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Two Syrian sisters running to embrace after finding each other following an air strike on the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus on Tuesday. Credit Abdulmonam Eassa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

GENEVA — The United Nations expressed alarm on Thursday about a surge of fighting and destruction in northwestern Syria’s Idlib Province, the last major area of the country held by insurgents, where assaults by Russian-backed Syrian forces have put tens of thousands of civilians at risk.

United Nations relief officials also called on Thursday for an urgent humanitarian pause in fighting around Eastern Ghouta, the rebel-held Damascus suburb where roughly 400,000 civilians have long been trapped without recourse to emergency aid.

The assault on Idlib, including areas near the Turkish border, has forced more than 100,000 people to flee for safety since the start of December, Jan Egeland, the United Nations adviser on humanitarian affairs in Syria, said after a meeting of a humanitarian task force in Geneva on Thursday.

The United Nations estimates Idlib’s population at 2.5 million, including more than a million who fled or were evacuated to the province to escape offensives elsewhere in the country, and who are packed into camps scattered across the province.

Mr. Egeland did not confirm reports by some human rights investigators that government forces and their allies had deliberately targeted civilians and hospitals in Idlib, but he said no measures appeared to have been taken to avoid casualties among noncombatants.

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“You are as exposed to attack if you go to a hospital as anywhere else, some would say more so,” Mr. Egeland said.

Both the Syrian and Russian governments have said their forces are attacking only militants.

But at least two medical facilities serving thousands of patients in Idlib were struck in nine attacks on medical centers or medical workers in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta in the last eight days, Mr. Egeland said. These attacks followed more than 100 attacks on medical facilities recorded by international agencies in 2017, he added.

Mr. Egeland said the proposed humanitarian pause in intense fighting around Eastern Ghouta would allow delivery of food for a population that has been cut off from relief for years and is suffering acute malnutrition.

Bombing and shelling of Eastern Ghouta have killed at least 85 civilians and wounded 183 since the start of the year, the top United Nations human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said on Wednesday. Aircraft bombed two medical facilities, killing a medical worker in that period, he said.

Opposition forces in Eastern Ghouta have fired on residential areas of Damascus since Jan. 1, inflicting civilian casualties, Mr. al-Hussein added, citing a rocket attack last week.

“The situation is screaming for a humanitarian pause in the extremely intense fighting so that humanitarian agencies can do their work and civilians can get relief,” Mr. Egeland said.

The appeal came as Mark Lowcock, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator, visited Damascus to press the case for unfettered access by relief agencies to millions of civilians in need of aid and for the evacuation of civilians who require urgent medical treatment.

A temporary deal struck between the government and rebels in Eastern Ghouta led to the evacuation of 30 critically ill patients between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and international agencies have confirmed that they are receiving medical care in Damascus hospitals, Mr. Egeland said.

But the Syrian government has not responded to repeated appeals by the United Nations since September for evacuation of other Eastern Ghouta civilians in need of medical attention. Mr. Egeland said more than 500 people required urgent evacuation.

After two days of talks in Damascus, Mr. Lowcock said on Thursday that he hoped for a number of positive developments “soon” on measures to relieve humanitarian suffering, but that more discussions would be needed.

Russia, the main ally of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, has repeatedly said in recent months that it is winding down military activities in the country’s nearly seven-year-old war. But the offensive aimed at insurgents in Idlib appeared to suggest otherwise.

Part of Russia’s aggressive response in Idlib may reflect anger over an attempted armed drone assault on Russian bases in Syria last weekend. The Russian Defense Ministry said the 13 drones, which were either shot down or crashed before reaching their targets, had been launched by insurgents in Idlib.

At a Defense Ministry briefing in Moscow on Thursday, officials suggested that the drones may have been manufactured in Ukraine. There was no immediate comment from Ukrainian officials about that assertion.

The increased fighting in Idlib has put at risk an effort by Russia to convene a meeting of Syrian adversaries in the Russian city of Sochi at the end of this month.

Turkey, which backs some insurgent groups fighting Mr. Assad but has been collaborating with his allies, Russia and Iran, on efforts to stop the fighting, insisted this week that the bombing attacks in Idlib must stop, the Turkish news media reported.

Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said Mr. Assad’s forces were responsible for most of the fighting in Idlib, and could “negatively affect efforts to launch a process for a political settlement.”

Continue reading the main story

GENEVA — The United Nations expressed alarm on Thursday about a surge of fighting and destruction in northwestern Syria’s Idlib Province, the last major area of the country held by insurgents, where assaults by Russian-backed Syrian forces have put tens of thousands of civilians at risk.

United Nations relief officials also called on Thursday for an urgent humanitarian pause in fighting around Eastern Ghouta, the rebel-held Damascus suburb where roughly 400,000 civilians have long been trapped without recourse to emergency aid.

The assault on Idlib, including areas near the Turkish border, has forced more than 100,000 people to flee for safety since the start of December, Jan Egeland, the United Nations adviser on humanitarian affairs in Syria, said after a meeting of a humanitarian task force in Geneva on Thursday.

The United Nations estimates Idlib’s population at 2.5 million, including more than a million who fled or were evacuated to the province to escape offensives elsewhere in the country, and who are packed into camps scattered across the province.

Mr. Egeland did not confirm reports by some human rights investigators that government forces and their allies had deliberately targeted civilians and hospitals in Idlib, but he said no measures appeared to have been taken to avoid casualties among noncombatants.

“You are as exposed to attack if you go to a hospital as anywhere else, some would say more so,” Mr. Egeland said.

Both the Syrian and Russian governments have said their forces are attacking only militants.

But at least two medical facilities serving thousands of patients in Idlib were struck in nine attacks on medical centers or medical workers in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta in the last eight days, Mr. Egeland said. These attacks followed more than 100 attacks on medical facilities recorded by international agencies in 2017, he added.

Mr. Egeland said the proposed humanitarian pause in intense fighting around Eastern Ghouta would allow delivery of food for a population that has been cut off from relief for years and is suffering acute malnutrition.

Bombing and shelling of Eastern Ghouta have killed at least 85 civilians and wounded 183 since the start of the year, the top United Nations human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said on Wednesday. Aircraft bombed two medical facilities, killing a medical worker in that period, he said.

Opposition forces in Eastern Ghouta have fired on residential areas of Damascus since Jan. 1, inflicting civilian casualties, Mr. al-Hussein added, citing a rocket attack last week.

“The situation is screaming for a humanitarian pause in the extremely intense fighting so that humanitarian agencies can do their work and civilians can get relief,” Mr. Egeland said.

The appeal came as Mark Lowcock, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator, visited Damascus to press the case for unfettered access by relief agencies to millions of civilians in need of aid and for the evacuation of civilians who require urgent medical treatment.

A temporary deal struck between the government and rebels in Eastern Ghouta led to the evacuation of 30 critically ill patients between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and international agencies have confirmed that they are receiving medical care in Damascus hospitals, Mr. Egeland said.

But the Syrian government has not responded to repeated appeals by the United Nations since September for evacuation of other Eastern Ghouta civilians in need of medical attention. Mr. Egeland said more than 500 people required urgent evacuation.

After two days of talks in Damascus, Mr. Lowcock said on Thursday that he hoped for a number of positive developments “soon” on measures to relieve humanitarian suffering, but that more discussions would be needed.

Russia, the main ally of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, has repeatedly said in recent months that it is winding down military activities in the country’s nearly seven-year-old war. But the offensive aimed at insurgents in Idlib appeared to suggest otherwise.

Part of Russia’s aggressive response in Idlib may reflect anger over an attempted armed drone assault on Russian bases in Syria last weekend. The Russian Defense Ministry said the 13 drones, which were either shot down or crashed before reaching their targets, had been launched by insurgents in Idlib.

At a Defense Ministry briefing in Moscow on Thursday, officials suggested that the drones may have been manufactured in Ukraine. There was no immediate comment from Ukrainian officials about that assertion.

The increased fighting in Idlib has put at risk an effort by Russia to convene a meeting of Syrian adversaries in the Russian city of Sochi at the end of this month.

Turkey, which backs some insurgent groups fighting Mr. Assad but has been collaborating with his allies, Russia and Iran, on efforts to stop the fighting, insisted this week that the bombing attacks in Idlib must stop, the Turkish news media reported.

Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said Mr. Assad’s forces were responsible for most of the fighting in Idlib, and could “negatively affect efforts to launch a process for a political settlement.”

Nytimes

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Syria

As Turkey Attacks Kurds in Syria, U.S. Is on the Sideline

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Turkish soldiers at the Syrian border on Monday. The United States has not chastised Turkey for attacking its allies, the Syrian Kurds. Credit Sedat Suna/European Pressphoto Agency

WASHINGTON — When President Trump met with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the United Nations last September, he embraced him as a friend and declared, “We’re as close as we’ve ever been.” Five months later, Turkey is waging an all-out assault against Syrian Kurds, America’s closest allies in the war against the Islamic State.

The Turkish offensive, carried out over the protests of the United States but with the apparent assent of Russia, marks a perilous new phase in relations between two NATO allies — bringing their interests into direct conflict on the battlefield. It lays bare how much leverage the United States has lost in Syria, where its single-minded focus has been on vanquishing Islamist militants.

As Turkish troops advanced Monday on the Kurdish town of Afrin, in northwest Syria, the White House warned Turkey not to take its eye off the campaign against the Islamic State. But it stopped short of rebuking Turkey, and acknowledged its security concerns about the Kurds, whom Turkey considers terrorists and a threat to its territorial sovereignty.

The inherent conflict of the United States using the Kurds as its on-the-ground partner in fighting the Islamic State could be overlooked as long as that group remained a threat. But with the militants now in retreat, the White House is groping for a way to maintain relations with the Kurdish fighters without further alienating the Turks.

The Trump administration’s response has been to help the Kurds build a border security force in northeast Syria, ostensibly to guard against the resurgence of the Islamic State. But that has only antagonized the Turks, who view it as a staging ground for a future insurgency against their homeland.

Continue reading the main story

“The U.S. has tried to walk a very fine line in Syria,” said Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. counterterrorism agent who is now chairman of the Soufan Group. But, he said, “as the battlefield shrinks in Syria, the line has become near impossible to maintain.”

Mr. Soufan said the United States “would likely have to either dramatically scale back its support of the Kurdish rebels — which would be seen as yet another U.S. betrayal of the few groups that have consistently supported and helped the U.S. in Syria and Iraq — or risk indirect and even direct conflict with Turkey, a fellow NATO member.”

The administration tried to stave off either of those scenarios with carefully worded statements by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Mr. Tillerson acknowledged that Turkey has “legitimate concerns about terrorists crossing the border,” while Mr. Mattis praised Turkey for allowing the United States to use its air base at Incirlik to fly missions against the Islamic State. Ms. Sanders urged Turkey on Monday to use “restraint in its military actions and rhetoric,” and limit the scope and duration of the operation.

As it has so often in Syria, however, the United States seemed mostly a bystander. And as it has receded, Russia has filled the vacuum, gaining influence and rehabilitating its relationship with Turkey.

It is widely assumed in Ankara that the Turkish government received a green light from Russia to launch the attack, even as Russian officials denied it. Mr. Erdogan said Monday that Turkey had an agreement with Russia on the operation.

“Russia is managing the tempo of this operation,” said Metin Gurcan, a security analyst and columnist for Al-Monitor, noting that Turkey’s senior security officials had visited Moscow the day before it began.

Though Turkish forces, together with fighters of the Free Syrian Army, captured high ground and three villages near Afrin on Monday, military analysts said the campaign was dependent on Russia’s agreement to open up the airspace to Turkish jets.

Russia controls Syrian airspace in the region west of the Euphrates River, which includes Afrin, while the United States controls the skies east of the Euphrates.

For Mr. Erdogan, who is seeking the support of nationalists before presidential elections this year or next, the Afrin operation is politically vital. He has criticized the United States over its support of the Syrian Kurd militias, which he says are allied with the outlawed P.K.K., a Kurdish militant group that has been waging a separatist struggle in Turkey for the last three decades.

Photo
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey speaking in Ankara on Monday. Credit Office of the Turkish President

On Monday, he took another swipe at the United States, saying, “Our country does not envy the soil of others.”

“When the operation achieves its aims, it would be over,” Mr. Erdogan told a group of businessmen in the presidential palace. “Some, or America, are asking us about the duration. And I am asking America, ‘Was your timing determined in Afghanistan?’ When the job is done. We are not eager to stay. We know when to pull out. And we do not care to have permission from anyone to do this.”

Russia has joined Turkey in accusing the United States of encouraging the Kurds and aggravating the situation in Syria. “This is either a lack of understanding of the situation or an absolutely conscious provocation,” said the foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov.

The Turkish assault underscores the deepening ties between Russia and Turkey — a relationship that has rebounded from the nadir of November 2015, when the Turks shot down a Russian fighter plane over Syria.

Analysts say Russia has good reasons to bless the Turkish attack. It stands to gain by sowing discord between the United States and its allies and, more broadly, by extending diplomatic influence in the region. They also speculate that Turkey, in return for Moscow’s forbearance, has agreed to turn a blind eye to Russian and Syrian attacks on rebels in Idlib Province, who are nominally allied with Turkey against the Syrian government.

The United States has taken some steps to reassure Mr. Erdogan. It stopped supplying heavy weapons to the Kurds, now that the operation to retake the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa is finished. But administration officials said they were determined to continue their relationship with the Kurds because of their effectiveness in fighting militants.

In recent weeks, senior American officials have talked about the need to re-establish security in northern Syria by installing local security forces that reflect the demographics of those areas before the civil war. That would require the return of tens of thousands of Arabs who fled Syria during the fighting.

Mr. Tillerson outlined the strategy in a speech last week in which he said the United States would keep troops in Syria for the foreseeable future.

“We cannot allow history to repeat itself in Syria,” he said. “ISIS presently has one foot in the grave, and by maintaining an American military presence in Syria until the full and complete defeat of ISIS is achieved, it will soon have two.”

Critics, however, questioned whether the administration had the diplomatic muscle, political commitment or military staying power to put that strategy into effect. Even now, some noted, many of its statements are still narrowly focused on the fight against the Islamic State and do not take account of the common interest Turkey and the United States have in resisting Russia, Iran and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

The United States, some analysts said, needs to make a better case to the Turkish government for why the American alliance with the Syrian Kurds will most likely outlast the war against the Islamic State.

“We told the Turks that the Kurds were temporary, tactical, and transactional to defeat ISIS,” said James F. Jeffrey, a former American ambassador to Turkey and Iraq. “Now we need them to contain Iran.”

He said the administration was sending mixed messages to the Turks, which antagonized Mr. Erdogan and made it impossible for him to turn a blind eye to the links between the Syrian Kurds and the P.K.K.

“The whole purpose of this is to split the Russians from the Syrians by saying we’re going to stay on to force a political solution in Syria,” Mr. Jeffrey said. “We have a seeming inability, in our various public announcements, to send this message to the Turks.”

So far, the Turkish operations have been limited to targets around Afrin, which lies about 25 miles north of Aleppo and about 75 miles from the main Kurdish areas east of the Euphrates River. These areas are of less concern to the United States.

The question, said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Studies, is, “Once Turkey gets control of that area, will they push into the other areas?” That could bring Turkey into conflict with the main force of Kurds, and even potentially, with American troops.

Continue reading the main story

WASHINGTON — When President Trump met with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the United Nations last September, he embraced him as a friend and declared, “We’re as close as we’ve ever been.” Five months later, Turkey is waging an all-out assault against Syrian Kurds, America’s closest allies in the war against the Islamic State.

The Turkish offensive, carried out over the protests of the United States but with the apparent assent of Russia, marks a perilous new phase in relations between two NATO allies — bringing their interests into direct conflict on the battlefield. It lays bare how much leverage the United States has lost in Syria, where its single-minded focus has been on vanquishing Islamist militants.

As Turkish troops advanced Monday on the Kurdish town of Afrin, in northwest Syria, the White House warned Turkey not to take its eye off the campaign against the Islamic State. But it stopped short of rebuking Turkey, and acknowledged its security concerns about the Kurds, whom Turkey considers terrorists and a threat to its territorial sovereignty.

The inherent conflict of the United States using the Kurds as its on-the-ground partner in fighting the Islamic State could be overlooked as long as that group remained a threat. But with the militants now in retreat, the White House is groping for a way to maintain relations with the Kurdish fighters without further alienating the Turks.

The Trump administration’s response has been to help the Kurds build a border security force in northeast Syria, ostensibly to guard against the resurgence of the Islamic State. But that has only antagonized the Turks, who view it as a staging ground for a future insurgency against their homeland.

“The U.S. has tried to walk a very fine line in Syria,” said Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. counterterrorism agent who is now chairman of the Soufan Group. But, he said, “as the battlefield shrinks in Syria, the line has become near impossible to maintain.”

Mr. Soufan said the United States “would likely have to either dramatically scale back its support of the Kurdish rebels — which would be seen as yet another U.S. betrayal of the few groups that have consistently supported and helped the U.S. in Syria and Iraq — or risk indirect and even direct conflict with Turkey, a fellow NATO member.”

The administration tried to stave off either of those scenarios with carefully worded statements by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Mr. Tillerson acknowledged that Turkey has “legitimate concerns about terrorists crossing the border,” while Mr. Mattis praised Turkey for allowing the United States to use its air base at Incirlik to fly missions against the Islamic State. Ms. Sanders urged Turkey on Monday to use “restraint in its military actions and rhetoric,” and limit the scope and duration of the operation.

As it has so often in Syria, however, the United States seemed mostly a bystander. And as it has receded, Russia has filled the vacuum, gaining influence and rehabilitating its relationship with Turkey.

It is widely assumed in Ankara that the Turkish government received a green light from Russia to launch the attack, even as Russian officials denied it. Mr. Erdogan said Monday that Turkey had an agreement with Russia on the operation.

“Russia is managing the tempo of this operation,” said Metin Gurcan, a security analyst and columnist for Al-Monitor, noting that Turkey’s senior security officials had visited Moscow the day before it began.

Though Turkish forces, together with fighters of the Free Syrian Army, captured high ground and three villages near Afrin on Monday, military analysts said the campaign was dependent on Russia’s agreement to open up the airspace to Turkish jets.

Russia controls Syrian airspace in the region west of the Euphrates River, which includes Afrin, while the United States controls the skies east of the Euphrates.

For Mr. Erdogan, who is seeking the support of nationalists before presidential elections this year or next, the Afrin operation is politically vital. He has criticized the United States over its support of the Syrian Kurd militias, which he says are allied with the outlawed P.K.K., a Kurdish militant group that has been waging a separatist struggle in Turkey for the last three decades.

On Monday, he took another swipe at the United States, saying, “Our country does not envy the soil of others.”

“When the operation achieves its aims, it would be over,” Mr. Erdogan told a group of businessmen in the presidential palace. “Some, or America, are asking us about the duration. And I am asking America, ‘Was your timing determined in Afghanistan?’ When the job is done. We are not eager to stay. We know when to pull out. And we do not care to have permission from anyone to do this.”

Russia has joined Turkey in accusing the United States of encouraging the Kurds and aggravating the situation in Syria. “This is either a lack of understanding of the situation or an absolutely conscious provocation,” said the foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov.

The Turkish assault underscores the deepening ties between Russia and Turkey — a relationship that has rebounded from the nadir of November 2015, when the Turks shot down a Russian fighter plane over Syria.

Analysts say Russia has good reasons to bless the Turkish attack. It stands to gain by sowing discord between the United States and its allies and, more broadly, by extending diplomatic influence in the region. They also speculate that Turkey, in return for Moscow’s forbearance, has agreed to turn a blind eye to Russian and Syrian attacks on rebels in Idlib Province, who are nominally allied with Turkey against the Syrian government.

The United States has taken some steps to reassure Mr. Erdogan. It stopped supplying heavy weapons to the Kurds, now that the operation to retake the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa is finished. But administration officials said they were determined to continue their relationship with the Kurds because of their effectiveness in fighting militants.

In recent weeks, senior American officials have talked about the need to re-establish security in northern Syria by installing local security forces that reflect the demographics of those areas before the civil war. That would require the return of tens of thousands of Arabs who fled Syria during the fighting.

Mr. Tillerson outlined the strategy in a speech last week in which he said the United States would keep troops in Syria for the foreseeable future.

“We cannot allow history to repeat itself in Syria,” he said. “ISIS presently has one foot in the grave, and by maintaining an American military presence in Syria until the full and complete defeat of ISIS is achieved, it will soon have two.”

Critics, however, questioned whether the administration had the diplomatic muscle, political commitment or military staying power to put that strategy into effect. Even now, some noted, many of its statements are still narrowly focused on the fight against the Islamic State and do not take account of the common interest Turkey and the United States have in resisting Russia, Iran and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

The United States, some analysts said, needs to make a better case to the Turkish government for why the American alliance with the Syrian Kurds will most likely outlast the war against the Islamic State.

“We told the Turks that the Kurds were temporary, tactical, and transactional to defeat ISIS,” said James F. Jeffrey, a former American ambassador to Turkey and Iraq. “Now we need them to contain Iran.”

He said the administration was sending mixed messages to the Turks, which antagonized Mr. Erdogan and made it impossible for him to turn a blind eye to the links between the Syrian Kurds and the P.K.K.

“The whole purpose of this is to split the Russians from the Syrians by saying we’re going to stay on to force a political solution in Syria,” Mr. Jeffrey said. “We have a seeming inability, in our various public announcements, to send this message to the Turks.”

So far, the Turkish operations have been limited to targets around Afrin, which lies about 25 miles north of Aleppo and about 75 miles from the main Kurdish areas east of the Euphrates River. These areas are of less concern to the United States.

The question, said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Studies, is, “Once Turkey gets control of that area, will they push into the other areas?” That could bring Turkey into conflict with the main force of Kurds, and even potentially, with American troops.

Nytimes

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What’s Behind Turkey’s Attack on Syria’s Kurds

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Syrian Kurds carrying portraits of Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader imprisoned since 1999. Credit Delil Souleiman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Over the weekend, Turkish troops launched an aerial and ground assault on American-allied Kurdish militias in Syria. Here is what you need to know.

Aren’t the U.S. and Turkey friends?

Only to a point. As NATO allies, they are obliged to come to each other’s aid in the event of an attack. The United States is an important supplier of arms and military aid to Turkey, and has used Turkey’s Incirlik air base as part of its campaign against the Islamic State in neighboring Syria.

But relations have cooled as Turkey has taken an authoritarian turn under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, its de facto leader since 2003. Ties deteriorated further after a failed coup attempt in July 2016. Mr. Erdogan said the failed uprising was fomented by the cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally now living in exile in Pennsylvania. He has accused the United States of sheltering Mr. Gulen.

Since 2016, Turkey has improved relations with Russia and Iran, two major foes of the United States. Until now, all four countries have shared an interest in defeating the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, but now that the terrorist group is on the run, the conflicts are coming back to the fore. Russia and Iran back Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who has held on to power after seven years of civil war. The United States has insisted that Mr. Assad must go, but he increasingly appears likely to survive, a prospect that worries Turkey.

What is Turkey trying to do?

Hold back the Kurds, who since 2012 have effectively governed an area of northern Syria they call Rojava. The Turks want to prevent the Kurds from gaining control over a contiguous sliver of land connecting enclaves, including the towns of Afrin in the northwest, Kobani in north-central Syria and Qamishli in the northeast.

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Turkey is now trying to disrupt the Syrian Kurds’ control of Afrin. It is not the first time Turkey has intervened: In August 2016, it launched a major offensive to clear ISIS remnants from their border stronghold, and to roll back gains by Syrian Kurdish forces.

Mr. Erdogan fears that the Syrian Kurds would use control of much of northern Syria to support the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the P.K.K., a separatist group that Turkey, the United States and the European Union all consider a terrorist group.

Photo
Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units firing on a drone operated by Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, last year. Credit Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Here’s where things get complicated. The United States has armed a Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, that has played a crucial role in battling ISIS.

As the fight against ISIS nears an end, Turkey fears that the militia will turn its attention toward helping its Kurdish allies in Turkey. That fear is not entirely unjustified, according to Renad Mansour, a scholar at Chatham House in London, who points out that Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader imprisoned since 1999, was based in Kurdish Syria for nearly two decades.

Amy Austin Holmes, a sociologist at the American University of Cairo who has studied the Syrian Kurds, says that many of them joined the Protection Units “for the simple reason that they wanted to defend their towns, like Kobani, that were under attack from the Islamic State, and not necessarily because they were convinced by the ideology of the P.K.K.”

Michael M. Gunter, a political scientist at Tennessee Tech who also studies the Syrian Kurds, said, “The Turks overplay the threat, but it’s not completely a figment of their imagination.”

How did the Kurds end up in the middle of all this?

The Kurds have been one of the United States’ most effective allies in the fight against ISIS, and the implosion of authority in Syria in 2011, and in Iraq in 2003, revived the aspirations of a people often described as the world’s largest stateless nation.

ISIS, a mostly Sunni movement, considers Kurds and Shiites apostates and heretics. The Kurds have also recruited, trained and promoted women as fighters, a rare sight in the Middle East.

The Kurds make up a substantial minority in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, and while some share aspirations of an independent Kurdish nation, that aspiration is far from universal. In particular, the leadership of the largely autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, has close economic ties to Turkey and is skeptical of the Syrian Kurds.

Photo
Syrian Democratic Forces soldiers resting before returning to the front line in Raqqa last year. Credit Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Partly to avoid the appearance of siding too closely with the Kurds, the United States helped organize a multiethnic force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, in 2015 to help lead the fight against ISIS.

“We knew this day would come, when ISIS would be defeated and the U.S. would have to decide what to do: stop supporting the S.D.F., or continue supporting them,” Mr. Gunter said.

Jordi Tejel Gorgas, a historian at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, said that Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s announcement last week that the United States would support a new, 30,000-strong, Kurdish-led border force in northeastern Syria helped precipitate the Turkish attack. It raised fears across the region that the United States was trying to cement an autonomous Kurdish enclave.

“Turkey has wished to intervene in this area for a while,” he said. “The Trump administration’s announcement gave it a good excuse.”

Is this bad for the United States?

Yes, but it’s partly Washington’s fault for pursuing an anti-ISIS strategy that set up the Turkish-Kurdish time bomb is now going off.

Nikolaos van Dam, a former Dutch ambassador to Iraq and a scholar of the Middle East, said that the Trump administration was supporting the Syrian Kurds “against the explicit wishes of Turkey” because it wanted to keep a foothold in Syria after ISIS collapses. But he warned that this approach was unlikely to succeed if Mr. Assad stayed in power.

The conflict now risks pitting former allies against each other: The Free Syrian Army, a group of American-backed moderate rebels fighting Mr. Assad, is now fighting alongside the Turkish Army against the Kurds.

In the long run, Mr. Van Dam said, Washington’s alliance with Turkey was more important than its relationship with the Kurds.

Continue reading the main story

Over the weekend, Turkish troops launched an aerial and ground assault on American-allied Kurdish militias in Syria. Here is what you need to know.

Only to a point. As NATO allies, they are obliged to come to each other’s aid in the event of an attack. The United States is an important supplier of arms and military aid to Turkey, and has used Turkey’s Incirlik air base as part of its campaign against the Islamic State in neighboring Syria.

But relations have cooled as Turkey has taken an authoritarian turn under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, its de facto leader since 2003. Ties deteriorated further after a failed coup attempt in July 2016. Mr. Erdogan said the failed uprising was fomented by the cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally now living in exile in Pennsylvania. He has accused the United States of sheltering Mr. Gulen.

Since 2016, Turkey has improved relations with Russia and Iran, two major foes of the United States. Until now, all four countries have shared an interest in defeating the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, but now that the terrorist group is on the run, the conflicts are coming back to the fore. Russia and Iran back Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who has held on to power after seven years of civil war. The United States has insisted that Mr. Assad must go, but he increasingly appears likely to survive, a prospect that worries Turkey.

Hold back the Kurds, who since 2012 have effectively governed an area of northern Syria they call Rojava. The Turks want to prevent the Kurds from gaining control over a contiguous sliver of land connecting enclaves, including the towns of Afrin in the northwest, Kobani in north-central Syria and Qamishli in the northeast.

Turkey is now trying to disrupt the Syrian Kurds’ control of Afrin. It is not the first time Turkey has intervened: In August 2016, it launched a major offensive to clear ISIS remnants from their border stronghold, and to roll back gains by Syrian Kurdish forces.

Mr. Erdogan fears that the Syrian Kurds would use control of much of northern Syria to support the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the P.K.K., a separatist group that Turkey, the United States and the European Union all consider a terrorist group.

Here’s where things get complicated. The United States has armed a Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, that has played a crucial role in battling ISIS.

As the fight against ISIS nears an end, Turkey fears that the militia will turn its attention toward helping its Kurdish allies in Turkey. That fear is not entirely unjustified, according to Renad Mansour, a scholar at Chatham House in London, who points out that Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader imprisoned since 1999, was based in Kurdish Syria for nearly two decades.

Amy Austin Holmes, a sociologist at the American University of Cairo who has studied the Syrian Kurds, says that many of them joined the Protection Units “for the simple reason that they wanted to defend their towns, like Kobani, that were under attack from the Islamic State, and not necessarily because they were convinced by the ideology of the P.K.K.”

Michael M. Gunter, a political scientist at Tennessee Tech who also studies the Syrian Kurds, said, “The Turks overplay the threat, but it’s not completely a figment of their imagination.”

The Kurds have been one of the United States’ most effective allies in the fight against ISIS, and the implosion of authority in Syria in 2011, and in Iraq in 2003, revived the aspirations of a people often described as the world’s largest stateless nation.

ISIS, a mostly Sunni movement, considers Kurds and Shiites apostates and heretics. The Kurds have also recruited, trained and promoted women as fighters, a rare sight in the Middle East.

The Kurds make up a substantial minority in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, and while some share aspirations of an independent Kurdish nation, that aspiration is far from universal. In particular, the leadership of the largely autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, has close economic ties to Turkey and is skeptical of the Syrian Kurds.

Partly to avoid the appearance of siding too closely with the Kurds, the United States helped organize a multiethnic force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, in 2015 to help lead the fight against ISIS.

“We knew this day would come, when ISIS would be defeated and the U.S. would have to decide what to do: stop supporting the S.D.F., or continue supporting them,” Mr. Gunter said.

Jordi Tejel Gorgas, a historian at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, said that Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s announcement last week that the United States would support a new, 30,000-strong, Kurdish-led border force in northeastern Syria helped precipitate the Turkish attack. It raised fears across the region that the United States was trying to cement an autonomous Kurdish enclave.

“Turkey has wished to intervene in this area for a while,” he said. “The Trump administration’s announcement gave it a good excuse.”

Yes, but it’s partly Washington’s fault for pursuing an anti-ISIS strategy that set up the Turkish-Kurdish time bomb is now going off.

Nikolaos van Dam, a former Dutch ambassador to Iraq and a scholar of the Middle East, said that the Trump administration was supporting the Syrian Kurds “against the explicit wishes of Turkey” because it wanted to keep a foothold in Syria after ISIS collapses. But he warned that this approach was unlikely to succeed if Mr. Assad stayed in power.

The conflict now risks pitting former allies against each other: The Free Syrian Army, a group of American-backed moderate rebels fighting Mr. Assad, is now fighting alongside the Turkish Army against the Kurds.

In the long run, Mr. Van Dam said, Washington’s alliance with Turkey was more important than its relationship with the Kurds.



Nytimes

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Turkish Army extends Syria operation to Azaz district, east of Afrin – state media

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