Posts Tagged ‘Kurdish’

Turkey elections: Can Erdogan really lose?

June 18, 2018

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has won every election in Turkey for the past 16 years. The current economic crisis means he is now in danger of losing his parliamentary majority — and re-election as president is far from certain.

People hold an election poster showing Turkey's president

If the latest opinion polls are to be believed, between45 and 55 percent of the Turkish electorate will cast their vote for the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoganin parliamentary and presidential elections on 24 June. In reality, though, that figure could be far lower.

Hakan Bayrakci owns the opinion research institute SONAR. He says the people in power in Turkey have created a climate of fear, and as a result almost ten percent of voters won’t be open about their preferred candidate. According to Bayrakci, these voters give false statements in surveys, meaning that it’s highly likely the election result will deviate from the opinion polls.

Read more: Deutsche Welle and Taz shed light on Turkey elections

Since Turkey adopted constitutional reforms in a referendum in April 2017, the electorate has had two votes. One is for the new president, while the other decides which parties will have seats in parliament. Erdogan has not lost an election in 16 years, but the forthcoming elections are likely to be the most difficult of his political career. His Islamic-conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has shaped Turkish politics ever since his first victory in 2002, is also preparing for its toughest election yet.

Turkey’s problems are getting worse

Özer Sencar, who owns the opinion research institute Metropoll, has been following Erdogan’s career for 25 years. He says Erdogan has never run such a bad election campaign. Erdogan no longer determines the agenda or presents any vision for the future; when he appears in public he seems weak and lacks passion, Sencar told DW: “He’s never made so many mistakes in his speeches.” Sencar doubts Erdogan will hold on to power.

Erdogan has ruled Turkey for 16 years and has long been regarded as the strongest force in Turkish politics. His greatest success was the revival of the economy. Over the past decade and a half, average annual income has risen from the equivalent of $3,500 (€3,020) to $10,000 and there has been a construction boom all over the country.

Read more: Cavusoglu: Europe shows ‘double standards’ over democracy

Today, though, the Turkish economy is not in good shape. Since the attempted coup in July 2016 and the state of emergency that followed, the Turkish lira has lost more than 30 percent of its value. There is almost no investment any more. The international markets’ confidence in the Turkish economy is dwindling. Erdogan, who publicly rejected interest rates based on religious conviction, had to turn a blind eye when the Turkish central bank raised key rates in recent weeks. Turkey now has the fourth-highest interest rates in the world, after Argentina, Venezuela and Iran.

“For the first time in 16 years Erdogan is not successful. He can no longer run the economy. The problems in education and health care are also increasing,” Sencar said. Turkish people are starting to feel the effects of the economic crisis, he added, which explains the lack of enthusiasm at Erdogan’s election campaign events.

Gülfem Saydan Sanver also observes that Erdogan is finding it increasingly difficult to communicate his message to the people. Sanver won the Pollie Award of the American Association of Political Consultants with her doctorate on “The AKP’s electoral success.” She argues Erdogan’s one-man shows within the party are now a disadvantage. “He stands there alone, at meetings and giving speeches, and he can’t get his message across,” said Sanver.

The main beneficiary, Sanver says, is Muharrem Ince. The presidential candidate of the social-democrat Republican People’s Party (CHP) has recently increased his opinion poll rating to over 30 percent, and the main opposition is now even more motivated to win the election. “Erdogan is still trying to play to the fears of right-wing conservative voters,” Sanver told DW. This, she says, is why he has been talking about military operations against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraqin recent election speeches, in an attempt to stir up fear among the electorate. If voters are afraid, they fear a change of leader and are more likely to vote for the current president.

Read more: Demirtas: Europe is letting Turkey’s opposition down

End of the strong presidential system?

Recent polls suggest Erdogan could still win the presidential election in the second round. The so-called “republican alliance” of the AKP and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) could, however, forfeit its parliamentary majority to the opposition, which would mean Erdogan would no longer have a power base in parliament. The strong presidential system, which opposition politicians view as a form of dictatorship, would not materialize for him.

“If the AKP were to lose its parliamentary majority, Erdogan will face hard times ahead,” said Sanver. Following the imposition of the state of emergency, Erdogan was able to pass laws and govern by decree. Sanver’s assessment: “If the AKP no longer has a majority in parliament Erdogan will lose some of his current power, even if he’s re-elected. He won’t be an effective president, and he’ll have to recognize the authority of the parliament.”


Turkey elections 2018: everything you need to know

June 18, 2018

Erdoğan is running for president, of course, but who else is in the running for control?

What is happening in Turkey?

The country will hold presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 June. If no candidate wins an outright majority in the first round of the presidential elections, a second round will be held on 8 July between the top two candidates in the race.

Why are the elections being held now?

The elections were supposed to be in November 2019. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, called for early elections back in April. He said that Turkey needed to “overcome uncertainty” at a troubled time in the region, amid its ongoing military operations in Syria and Iraq.

Critics, however, say the race was brought forward because Turkey’s currency and economy are suffering and the president wanted to preempt the downward trend. He may also be hoping to capitalise on nationalist sentiment after military victory in Syria, where rebels backed by Turkey defeated Kurdish militias near the border in a region called Afrin.

Why are these elections important?

This is arguably the most important election in Turkey’s modern history. The new president will assume an office imbued with sweeping executive powers that voters narrowly approved in a constitutional referendum last year. These include the power to issue decrees with the force of law, appoint the cabinet and vice-presidents as well as senior judges. If he wins, Erdoğan will continue to shape Turkey and its society for years to come.

Who is running for president?

Erdoğan, of course. He remains the most popular political leader in Turkey. But he faces several important opponents who have done unexpectedly well so far in the campaign, and, as a result, a second-round contest is now the most likely outcome.

There is Muharrem İnce, a charismatic physics teacher who is the candidate of the main opposition group, the Republican People’s party (CHP), and Meral Akşener, nicknamed the ‘she-wolf’. She is the leader of the new nationalist Iyi (Good) party and is popular with both youth and working-class Turks.

Temel Karamollaoğlu, the leader of the Islamist Felicity party, is also running, and has emerged as a key critic of Erdoğan even though their parties share ideological roots. Selahattin Demirtaş, a charismatic politician once dubbed the ‘Kurdish Obama’ and who leads the leftist and Kurdish issue-oriented People’s Democratic party (HDP), is running for the presidency from his prison cell in the city of Edirne. He awaits trial on terrorism charges.

What’s happening in parliament?

There are two main coalitions running for parliament.

The first includes the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) of Erdoğan, which are in a coalition with the nationalists.

On the opposite side is an alliance that includes the secularists of the CHP, the breakaway nationalists of the Iyi party, and the Islamists of the Felicity party. They make strange bedfellows in a political system where secularists and Islamists have traditionally been bitter enemies, but such is the importance of these elections that former rivals have banded together to oust the president and his entourage. The HDP is running by itself.

The Turkish constitution requires that parties obtain at least 10% of the national vote to enter parliament, a law that favours larger parties. A new bill recently allowed the formation of election alliances like those described above, which will allow smaller parties like Felicity to win some seats in the legislature if their alliance as a whole crosses the 10% threshold.

If the opposition alliance performs as expected, and the HDP gets over 10% of the popular vote, the ruling AKP could lose its majority in parliament.

So who will win?

Erdoğan was hoping to catch his opponents by surprise when he called for a vote, but attendance at ruling party rallies has been lacklustre, and the Turkish leader does not appear to be at the top of his game. The economy has also caused headaches, with the Turkish lira falling in value against the dollar, concerns mounting over the long-term health of the economy, and fears over the Central Bank’s independence.

Still, Erdoğan is the most popular Turkish politician, and is likely to win the presidential race. Polls are notoriously unreliable in Turkey, but for now it looks like he will easily win the first round, but without an outright majority. A second-round race against Ince or Aksener still favours the president, but is increasingly looking too close to call. It will depend on whether the opposition can draw away conservative and nationalist voters, as well as Kurdish voters angry about Erdogan’s alliance with the nationalists.

Also, there is a very real possibility that Erdoğan will win the presidency but lose parliament to the opposition, which has promised to roll back the constitutional amendments passed last year.

But, under those same amendments, the president can dissolve parliament, and the legislature can call new presidential elections in response. According to some ruling party officials, that’s exactly what Erdoğan might do, which would give his party a chance at a do-over, but plunge Turkey into uncertainty.

Can Voters Bring Down Turkey’s Erdogan?

June 9, 2018

When Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian president called snap elections, many people thought he’d steamroll his opponents. But they’ve drawn together, and he just might lose.



June 8, 2018

Muharrem Ince was having a good week. The boisterous, silver-haired Ince is the main opposition candidate running against Turkey’s longtime leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan for president of Turkey. He was speaking to a crowd in the overwhelmingly ethnic Kurdish town of Van on June 4. And he was letting the incumbent have it.

Ince played a video of Erdogan giving a speech to a Kurdish audience the day before, then suddenly stopping and leaving the podium when his teleprompter malfunctioned.

“Those who speak from the teleprompter cannot solve the Kurdish issue,” Ince said. “Those who speak from the heart can.”

Erdogan called the snap June 24 elections in April, likely hoping to catch his opponents off guard and consolidate power as president following a referendum last year that grants new powers to the head of state and transforms the nation of 83 million from a parliamentary to a presidential system.

The election comes at a time when Turks and international observers have grown worried about Erdogan’s arrogation of power, especially after a failed July 2016 coup attempt that ignited a crackdown by the president against opponents, journalists and civil society. Since then, Turkey has been governed under emergency law. Thousands of people have been arrested, tens of thousands purged from the civil service, and the press severely restricted. After these elections were announced, Erdogan’s opponents initially feared the president would steamroll his opponents to consolidate even more power.

But Turkey’s embattled opposition for once has failed to follow the script. Three important opposition parties have joined together with a smaller party to form a block that includes liberals, Islamists, and nationalists, and they have pursued a strategy to woo the minority Kurds who are seen by many analysts as the lynchpin of the elections.

Both Ince and Meral Aksener, the elegant auburn-haired female leader of the new nationalist party called Iyi, are charismatic on the stump, taking square aim at Erdogan, who will be running for reelection on the same day as voters decide on a new parliament. Their alliance includes the Islamist Felicity Party, which is led by one of Erdogan’s former fellow travelers, and another minor party.

All the major opposition parties appear to be coordinating strategies to energize their bases and maximize their shares of seats in parliament against the ruling Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, while seeking to deny Erdogan an outright majority in the presidential race in order to trigger a July 8 runoff.

“The opposition has been rejuvenated,” says Sinan Ulgen, a Turkey specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Now the opposition is driving the agenda. In the past it was the Erdogan and the AKP. Erdogan is still most likely to win. But there is enough reason to think that the outcome is far from being pre-ordained.”

The election is the first since the referendum last year and will immediately trigger the changes, transforming Turkey’s government by eliminating the post of prime minister and shifting authorities between parliament and the executive. Critics say the new system will be more autocratic, giving the president too much power, while Erdogan’s supporters say it will make the government more democratic and accountable.

Truth is, no one’s quite sure how the new system will operate in practice. But anxiety over a potential watershed moment in Turkey’s political history has galvanized Erdogan’s opponents.

For once Turkey’s opposition parties are trying to break out of their various bubbles. Ince, the secularist, is noting that his sister wears the hijab and that he doesn’t oppose religious piety. Aksener, head of a political trend traditionally hostile to Kurdish aspirations, has called for allowing the jailed Kurdish presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, out of prison. Felicity, the Islamist party, holds campaign events featuring music and dancing.

To be sure, Erdogan remains Turkey’s most popular politician, and not just because his fiery fusion of Islamist and nationalist populism appeals to a broad swathe of voters. Over the 16 years that Erdogan and the AKP have dominated Turkish politics, the country’s GDP has tripled, pulling poor, rural Turks into the ranks of the urban middle class. His path to winning a majority of votes appears far clearer than that of the opposition. AKP members and supporters say they are content to run on their track record, including Erdogan’s ability to generate giant public works projects like airports and hospitals.

“The opposition doesn’t have a great vision or clear vision for what they will do; they don’t promise any hope to people,” Harun Armagan, an AKP spokesman, told The Daily Beast. “We will work for a society where everybody will able to go to university, get the best health care. We are working for nuclear power plants to make 100 percent of Turkey’s energy produced here.”

Polls show Erdogan winning in a head-to-hand match with Ince, the candidate of the secular liberal People’s Republican Party, known as the CHP, which is Turkey’s second largest party. But it’s only a slight majority. Many Turks have been concerned about Erdogan’s heavy-handed rule over the last five or six years. Plus, Turkey’s economy has been faltering, with the lira hitting all-time lows and inflation at double digits, burdening consumers in Erdogan’s base.

“They’ve stumbled because the economic numbers are bad,” said Aaron Stein, a Turkey specialist at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “Life is more expensive. The government blames outside powers for the troubles. But people are savvy enough to understand the government is largely responsible.”

In contrast to his usual energetic, combative image, the 64-year-old Erdogan appears tired and easily flustered on the campaign trail, as shown by the teleprompter mishap. In the past he’s been blessed with colorless opponents who made him look good. His main rival in 2014, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, was a bland chemist who refused to hold rallies during the holy month of Ramadan. Even then Erdogan won with less than 52 percent of the vote. The referendum last year adopting a presidential system passed by about the same margin.

“Of course, Erdogan may lose,” Veli Agbaba, a CHP lawmaker and party leader, told The Daily Beast. “At the end of 16 years there is an AKP that is old, outdated and cannot offer anything new to the public. All they do is promise a bad copy of our election manifesto.”

In Ince, the president has met a worthy opponent, a streetfighter who’s 10 years younger and has roots in the same rough Black Sea town of Rize that Erdogan’s family comes from. “He’s such a shot in the arm for the opposition—charismatic, a good speaker,” said Stein. “He attacks Erdogan on substantive issues.”

Aksener, 61, also plays a vital role. She broke away from the National People’s Party, or MHP, after its leader Devlet Bahçeli aligned with Erdogan. She could pull nationalist voters away from the president’s camp. The Felicity party gives quavering pious voters queasy about Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies an excuse to vote against him.

Notwithstanding the fact its leader is in jail, the People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, which draws Kurdish and leftist votes, will be key. Demirtas, a brash and outspoken 45-year-old, was locked up in November 2016, accused of supporting armed Kurdish separatists in their decades-long war against the Turkish state. So he is unable to campaign himself except through brief social media appearances. Erdogan also competes for the votes of pious and traditional Kurds, so whether and how they vote will be a crucial factor in the election outcome.

For the opposition to deny the AKP a majority in parliament, under current rules the Kurdish-led HDP likely needs to win more than 10 percent of the vote, which would allow it to form a bloc in parliament.

“Kurds are the ones that will determine the outcome,” said an analyst at one research organization, who spoke on condition she not be identified. “The rest of the vote are consolidated. But the Kurds—no one knows which way they will sway.”

Opposition candidates see this election as the best chance they have to weaken Erdogan, if not defeat him, by at least snatching away control of parliament. Opposition parties have promised a return to the parliamentary system, bolstering of democratic institutions, and an end to Turkey’s combative regional role and what they describe as Erdogan’s divisive domestic policies. Askener, who has hired Google AdWords to promote her candidacy and the party, has promised among other things to lift Erdogan’s outlawing of Wikipedia.

“Erdogan politics, which is constantly fighting both inside and outside, will end,” said Agbaba, the CHP lawmaker. “We will bring about social peace among the divided sections of our country, and we will repair our neighbors’ and international relations.”

Erdogan supporters acknowledge recent economic troubles, but say they’re confident that voters will continue to trust the president based on his lengthy track record. Erdogan has been either president or prime minister of Turkey since 2003, and previously served as the highly popular mayor of Istanbul, the country’s commercial and cultural heart. Armagan, of the AKP, said that volunteers flood the party’s offices asking to help out with the elections. He dismissed the opposition’s gestures toward embattled groups, including Kurds, that the AKP has sought to draw into politics over the years by addressing mundane concerns such as irrigation in rural areas and housing costs.

“The strategy the opposition has is very cheap,” he said. “They think they will get the pious vote if they have a candidate who wears hijab, that if you put up a Kurdish candidate you get the Kurdish vote. It’s like a white American saying, ‘I have black friends.’”

University crackdown raises fears for Turkish academic freedom

April 11, 2018

Detention of antiwar students seen as indicative of growing intolerant of dissident

Erdogan has called them “communist, traitor youth”.

Image may contain: 1 person

By Laura Pitel in Ankara
Financial Times (FT)

The hilltop campus of prestigious Bogazici University in Istanbul was long viewed as a sanctuary. But in recent weeks, its tranquility has been shattered.
Armoured vehicles have entered the campus, police have raided libraries and accommodation blocks and more than two dozen students have been detained.The clampdown was triggered by a fight over Turkey’s military operation in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin. A student society set up a stand offering sweets in honour of those killed in the operation. Other students objected and a scuffle broke out.

The dispute prompted a furious response from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who slammed the antiwar protesters as “communist, traitor youth”.

“We won’t give these terrorist youth the right to study at these universities,” he vowed.

Turkish officials insist that the arrests are a legitimate security measure aimed at quashing support for the outlawed Kurdish militant group that was the target of Afrin campaign.

But critics view the clampdown at the state institution as a fresh salvo in a wider assault on academic freedom in Turkey.

“Students don’t want to come to university because there are still undercover police on campus,” said Cihangir Oz, a first-year student. “People don’t feel safe. Everyone is asking: how can we create a scholarly environment when police are in the library and in the dorms?”

Everyone knew that Bogazici and the private universities could not remain unscathed. And now it has started

Umut Ozkirimli, political science professor at Lund University

Image may contain: 1 person, closeup

Bogazici staff are proud of the university’s reputation for liberalism and have staunchly guarded its independence. In the 1990s, they defied the secularist generals by allowing female students to wear the Muslim headscarf on campus. But now, many fear, the university will no longer be able to avoid the growing pressure.

Umut Ozkirimli, a Bogazici graduate and political science professor at Lund University in Sweden, said: “This is just the latest step in a process that has been going on for some time now. Everyone knew that Bogazici and the private universities could not remain unscathed. And now it has started.”

The early years under Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) were viewed by many as a golden era for scholarly freedom, with space opened up for debate on subjects long considered taboo. But critics say that as the Turkish president has adopted an increasingly majoritarian style of leadership, infused with a religious form of Turkish nationalism, he has grown more intolerant towards dissidents.

Mr Erdogan was enraged by a petition in 2016, signed by more than 2,000 academics, that criticised his government’s military operations against an outlawed Kurdish militia. The Turkish president described the signatories as terrorist supporters, prompting a wave of sackings and arrests.

The crackdown accelerated in the wake of the violent coup attempted in 2016, which was followed by a vast purge of state institutions.

A total of 5,800 academics were dismissed from their jobs, according to a tally by Turkey’s Human Rights Joint Platform. Some had ties to the Gulen movement, the Islamic fraternity accused of orchestrating the putsch, but others were leftists and liberals who maintain that they have no links to the group.

Mr Erdogan also used the special powers granted under a state of emergency imposed in the wake of the failed coup to bestow himself with the power to directly select university rectors. One of his first appointments was at Bogazici, where he chose an engineering professor whose sister is an AKP member of parliament.

Dismayed by the atmosphere at home, many critical academics have left Turkey. Universities in Europe and the US have received a surge in applications from Turkish scholars. “Pretty much 50 per cent of my academic friends, young and old, are abroad right now,” Mr Ozkirimli said.

Academics opposed to the government who have remained in Turkey say that they work under a cloud of suspicion and fear. “I am extremely careful about what I say in class,” says one professor at a provincial university. “People are self-censoring.”

Students say that even the most benign clubs and societies can be outlawed by university authorities, and panels and conferences must be cleared by the university management.

Staff feel anxious that they could be reported by their students or colleagues if they are seen as overly critical. Last week, the academic community was shaken by a deadly shooting at a university in the western city of Eskisehir. The gunman, a research assistant, had reported several colleagues to the police on the accusation of being Gulenists.

The Turkish government rejects the idea that there is fear on campus. “Turkish universities are full of critical professors who hate this government,” said one senior official. “They don’t have any problems in expressing their opinions. In fact, I have met conservative students who support the government who feel that they cannot express their views in the classroom because their teachers are so hostile to our president.”

But critical academics say it is their voices that are being silenced. They accuse the ruling party of trying to shape the entire education system in its own image, with no space for differing views.

At Bogazici, the arrests have stunned students and staff who hoped their university’s distinguished history would offer a measure of protection.

“We are very proud of the institution and we try to protect it from outside intervention,” said one senior professor. “But now I don’t know what the future will hold.”


Fight Bashar Assad’s ‘state terrorism,’ opposition urges US

April 7, 2018


Image result for syria, photos, april 2018

Above: Fie photo of U.S. forces in Syria

  • Syrian troops begin new offensive on rebel-held areas outside Damascus as truce collapses
  • New wave of violence leaves at least 36 people dead, including women and children
Jeddah: Even as President Donald Trump hints at a US pullout from Syria, insisting that Daesh is “almost completely defeated,” the terrorist group is showing signs of a revival.
After being forced out of the main towns they once occupied near the Iraqi border, the militants have regrouped elsewhere and revised their tactics, recently mounting a brazen attack on a border city in eastern Syria and expanding their footprint inside the Syrian capital itself.
FILE photo provided by the Syrian rebel group Army of Islam. AP Photo
Yahya Al-Aridi, the Syrian opposition spokesman, told Arab News that the Kurds had been “taken hostage” by Kurdish groups including PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and PYD (Democratic Union Party), but were also “victims of those with interests in the region — US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and the regime (of Bashar Assad).”
He said: “They were used by the US at a certain point and when the US threatened to pull out its forces, they got worried because somebody out there would fill the vacuum. Their fears are justified.”
The plight of Kurds had been heightened because after years of suffering, they thought the US had come to their rescue, Al-Aridi said.
“The US had its own interests, and if the US and its allies have to fight any party, they have to fight Assad’s state terrorism.”
Meanwhile, Syrian troops began a ground offensive under cover of airstrikes on rebel-held areas outside Damascus on Friday after a 10-day truce collapsed following a dispute over evacuation of opposition fighters.
The new wave of violence left at least 36 people dead, including women and children, according to state media and opposition activists.
By sunset on Friday, artillery pieces, multiple rocket launchers and warplanes had pounded the city of Douma, which is home to tens of thousands of people. Live television footage showed thick smoke rising above sections of the city after intense airstrikes.
Arab News:
See also:

As Trump Mulls a Pullout, IS Attempts to Re-emerge in Syria


Pulling all US troops out of Syria would be a gift to Iran

April 6, 2018

President Trump reportedly has ordered the Pentagon to withdraw all US troops from Syria as soon as possible — within months. That risks giving a giant gift to Iran.

Trump is right that the defeat of ISIS is “close to 100 percent” completed, and spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders says that once that’s done, “there’s no longer a need” for the 2,000 remaining US troops “to be there.”

But pulling all forces out would be a big mistake — like the one Trump warned against a few months ago, when (in announcing a troop surge in Afghanistan), he declared: “A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists — including ISIS and al Qaeda — would instantly fill.”

The same holds true in Syria, and more — because a vacuum there would be filled by Iran and Russia, as well as clearing the way for Turkey’s campaign against the Kurdish fighters who helped defeat ISIS. It would also free President Bashar al-Assad to conclude his bloody war of atrocities against his own people.

It’s one thing for Trump to keep America out of the work of reconstruction and ensuring long-term stability, and to demand that Mideast allies put “more skin in the game.”

But it’s another thing entirely to ignore his military team’s fear that a complete US pullout could bring either Iranian dominance of the entire northern Middle East, or a wider regional war.

We understand Trump wants an end to US military involvement in the Middle East; truth be told, an early withdrawal would be politically popular.

But a continued US military presence will act as a much-needed check against more menacing powers like Iran. It need not risk keeping America trapped in a quagmire.

In a situation with no good alternatives, a complete pullout would be the worst one.



Russia, Iran and Turkey struggle to find common ground on Syria

April 3, 2018


ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Three foreign powers who have shaped Syria’s civil war – Iran, Russia and Turkey – will discuss ways to wind down the fighting on Wednesday despite their involvement in rival military campaigns on the ground.

The leaders of the three countries will meet in Ankara for talks on a new constitution for Syria and increasing security in “de-escalation” zones across the country, Turkish officials say.

Image result for Putin, erdogan, Rouhani, photos

Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have met before — This FILE Photo is from during a meeting in the Russian city of Sochi on November 22, 2017.

The Syria summit brings together two powers which have been President Bashar al-Assad’s most forceful supporters, Iran and Russia, with one of his strongest opponents, Turkey.

Cooperation between the rival camps raised hopes of stabilizing Syria after seven years of conflict in which 500,000 people have been killed and half the population displaced.

But the violence has raged on, highlighting strategic rifts between the three countries who, in the absence of decisive Western intervention, hold Syria’s fate largely in their hands.

Syria’s army and Iran-backed militias, with Russian air power, have crushed insurgents near Damascus in eastern Ghouta – one of the four mooted “de-escalation zones”.

Turkey, which sharply criticized the Ghouta offensive, waged its own military operation to drive Kurdish YPG fighters from the northwestern Syrian region of Afrin. It has pledged to take the town of Tel Rifaat and push further east, angering Iran.

“Whatever the intentions are, Turkey’s moves in Syria, whether in Afrin, Tel Rifaat or any other part of Syria, should be halted as soon as possible,” a senior Iranian official said.

Iran has been Assad’s most supportive ally throughout the conflict. Iran-backed militias first helped his army stem rebel advances and, following Russia’s entry into the war in 2015, turn the tide decisively in Assad’s favor.

A Turkish official said Ankara will ask Moscow to press Assad to grant more humanitarian access in Ghouta, and to rein in air strikes on rebel-held areas. “We expect … Russia to control the regime more,” the official told reporters this week.


Ankara’s relations with Moscow collapsed in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane but have recovered since then – to the concern of Turkey’s Western allies.

Turkey was one of the few NATO partners not to expel Russian diplomats in response to a nerve agent attack on a former Russian agent which Britain blamed on Moscow – an allegation which Turkey said was not proven.

Improved political ties have been reflected in Turkey’s agreement to buy a Russian missile defence system and plans for Russia’s ROSATOM to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.

Turkey has also expanded relations with Iran, exchanging visits by military chiefs of staff, although its deepening ties with Tehran and Moscow have not translated into broader agreement on Syria’s future.

Iran remains determined that Assad stay in power, while Russia is less committed to keeping him in office, a regional diplomat said. Turkey says Assad has lost legitimacy, although it no longer demands his immediate departure.

At a meeting in Russia two months ago, boycotted by the leadership of Syria’s opposition, delegates agreed to set up a committee to rewrite Syria’s constitution and called for democratic elections.

Turkey says Wednesday’s meeting will discuss setting up the constitutional committee, humanitarian issues and developments in Syria’s northern Idlib region, which is under the control of rival rebel factions and jihadi groups, and where Turkey has set up seven military observation posts.

“There are issues where all three countries have different policies in Syria,” another Turkish official said. “In this regard, an aim is to find middle ground and create policies to improve the current situation.”

Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Writing by Dominic Evans, Editing by Angus MacSwan

US-backed fighters on high alert in Syria’s Manbij — “It’s premature to speak of any American withdrawal.”

April 3, 2018

A picture taken on March 22, 2018 shows Turkish-backed Syrian fighters in a street in the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin. (AFP)
MANBIJ: On the outskirts of Syria’s Manbij, Kurdish-led fighters have dug trenches and US-led coalition soldiers patrol from land and sky after Turkey threatened to overrun the northern city.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to launch an attack on the city, near which US troops are stationed as part of their support to a Kurdish-led alliance fighting extremists.
Pro-Ankara Syrian rebels control territory to the north and west of the city held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance.
The rebels control Jarabulus near the Turkish border to the north, as well as Al-Bab to the west of Manbij.
On its northern flank, only a few hundred meters (yards) separate the positions of the pro-Ankara rebels and the SDF, which has spearheaded the fight against Daesh.
Outside Manbij, as spring turns the surrounding hills bright green, Kurdish fighters have been consolidating their positions in preparation for a possible assault.
On the front line, the facade of a derelict home sheltering SDF fighters was riddled with bullet holes.
“We’re on high alert. There are always skirmishes at night,” Kurdish fighter Shiyar Kobani said. “They fire mortar rounds and shell our positions.”
At a US military base near the city, three armored cars bearing the US flag were driving back to camp after completing a mission.
A helicopter flew overhead after taking off in a swirl of dust from the base, fortified with mounds of rubble between olive trees.
Coalition forces carry out regular patrols on the frontline and “have increased their patrolling tours recently,” SDF commander Khalil Mustafa told AFP.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor with sources on the ground, says around 350 members of the US-led coalition — mostly American troops — are stationed around Manbij.
Military sources on the ground, the Observatory and pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan say the coalition has sent in reinforcements, heavy artillery and other military equipment to the area.
An AFP correspondent saw the US troops even after President Donald Trump said Thursday that he would pull forces out of Syria “very soon.”
Trump was speaking the same day that two members of the coalition — an American and a Briton — were killed by an improvised explosive device in Manbij.
Since 2014, the coalition has provided weapons, training and other support to forces fighting Daesh extremists in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
Turkey-led forces last month seized control of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin to the west of Manbij after a two-month assault that killed dozens of civilians and displaced tens of thousands of civilians.
Ankara views the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia that controlled Afrin as “terrorists,” although the YPG formed the backbone of the US-backed SDF that has ousted Daesh from much of Syria.
Erdogan has warned that Turkey could extend the Afrin offensive to Manbij.
Trenches have been dug outside the city and checkpoints erected to thoroughly scan the identity papers of those entering the city.
“We’re taking the Turkish threats seriously,” Mohammed Abu Adel, the head of the Manbij Military Council — a part of the SDF — told AFP.
“The international coalition has increased the number of its forces in Manbij,” he said.
Abdelkarim Omar, a top foreign affairs official with the Kurdish semi-autonomous administration in northern Syria, said US forces were not likely to leave the country any time soon.
“It’s premature to speak of any American withdrawal,” he said.
“Terrorism is still present,” he added, referring to Daesh fighters.
Two offensives — one by the SDF and another by the regime — have expelled the extremists from much of Syria.
But Daesh fighters still cling to pockets of territory in eastern Syria and maintain the ability to launch deadly attacks.
They carried out a spate of attacks that killed 19 pro-government fighters last week in eastern Syria, and in March seized a district of the capital.


Turkey says France sending troops to Syria would be ‘invasion’

April 1, 2018

The front line of Halawanji village, north of Manbij town in Syria, was tense on Friday as Turkey threatened to advance on the town to clear it of the US-backed fighters. (AP)
ANKARA: Turkey on Saturday warned France against increasing its military presence in Syria, saying it would be an “invasion,” as tensions between Paris and Ankara remained high.
Temperatures were raised after French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday met a delegation of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) made up of Kurdish and Arab fighters.
Kurdish officials said afterwards that France was planning to send new troops to Manbij — a northern Syrian town held by the Kurdish YPG militia — which Paris denied.
“If France takes any steps regarding its military presence in northern Syria, this would be an illegitimate step that would go against international law and in fact, it would be an invasion,” Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said.
Image result for Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli, photos
Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli
“Especially if they intend to support terror group elements or give direct or indirect protection with armed forces, this would be a really calamitous step,” he added during a visit to the northeastern province of Giresun.
Turkey itself sent troops into Syria and launched an operation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in its Afrin enclave on January 20 and drove out the group from the city on March 18.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly warned that Turkey could extend the offensive to Manbij, which is east of Afrin. But Macron’s office on Friday said Paris was not planning any new military operation on the ground in northern Syria outside the international coalition against Daesh.
Ankara views the YPG as a “terrorist” offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an over three-decade insurgency in Turkey.
The PKK is blacklisted as a terror organization by Turkey and its Western allies. But the US, as well as France, have worked closely with the YPG in the fight against Daesh in Syria, much to Ankara’s anger.
Erdogan on Friday criticized France’s “wrong stance” and rejected Macron’s offer of establishing a dialogue between Ankara and the SDF. “We have no need for mediation,” Erdogan said.
Manbij is highly strategic: The main town on westernmost edge of the stretch of Syrian territory held by the US-backed Syrian Kurds, running along the border with Turkey.
Mixed Kurdish-Arab Syrian forces liberated Manbij from the rule of Daesh in 2016 with help from the US-led coalition. But Kurdish control of the town infuriated Turkey.
US troops first deployed in the area about 16 months ago, after Turkish-backed Syrian forces advanced on areas near Manbij, in a race for control of territories as Daesh collapsed. The deployment prevented repeated clashes between the two rival forces.
The US-backed Syrian fighters at Halwanji say their Turkish-backed rivals downhill increasingly open fire on them, trying to provoke a fight and create a pretext for an incursion.
One commander said it happens as often as three times a week. Another said the “provocations” increased after Turkish troops and their allies successfully captured another town further west, Afrin, from the YPG.
The commanders say their forces do not respond to the fire.
On Thursday, one commander, Abu Ali Nejm, said US troops have increased their presence “in a noticeable way” in the area in recent days to prevent an eruption of violence, following the capture of Afrin, Turkey’s threats and a recent build-up of Turkish troops and their allies.
“They have become part of the front line to reassure the people in Manbij and the military forces and to raise morale,” said Abu Ali, who uses his nom de guerre and is a leading member of the Manbij Military Council, the joint Kurdish-Arab body leading the US-allied forces here.
US Col. Ryan Dillon, of the US-led coalition, said there were no new US bases in the area.
“Our patrols move around. They are not static,” he said.
“The purpose of our forces is to prevent the re-emergence of (Daesh)” and prevent “any type of incursion from any other group in the area.”
Turkey and the US have held talks aimed at defusing the standoff. But a solution remains unclear. Turkey says the YPG power across northern Syria is a threat, and Erdogan has vowed to roll back the Kurdish fighters, starting from Manbij all the way to the Iraqi border.
Abu Ali said the Turkish-backed fighters fired on his forces Thursday, using heavy machine guns and small arms. His troops did not respond, in accordance with orders, and instead reported the incident to US troops nearby, he said.
“We inform, and they come to the front and see for themselves. They have their own contacts or coordination with the Turkish forces, something they don’t have to tell us about,” he said, adding that when the rival side sees the Americans they don’t fire.

Six Turkish security force members killed in Kurdish militant attack

March 30, 2018


Syrian Kurds, Turkey, Afrin, new force

Turkey has moved dozens of new artillery pieces, armored vehicles and tank units to Kurdish-held Afrin, in Syria

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) – Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants staged an attack near a military base in southeast Turkey’s Siirt province, killing six Turkish security force members and wounding seven, security sources said on Friday.

They said the attack occurred in the area of a military base in the Eruh district of Siirt and that those killed were from a village guard militia which supports the Turkish military. The sources initially said five soldiers were killed.

© Ilyas Akengin, AFP | File photo of Turkish forces in the area of Siirt, where six soldiers were killed on March 30, 2018.

It was not clear when the attack occurred. State-run Anadolu news agency said four soldiers and three village guards were also wounded in the attack, which occurred in an area where road construction work was being carried out.

The PKK is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. Conflict in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey generally escalates as spring arrives in the mountainous region.

More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK, which launched a separatist insurgency in 1984. The conflict intensified after a ceasefire collapsed in 2015.

Earlier this month, Turkey captured the northern Syrian town of Afrin after a two-month offensive against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara views as an extension of the PKK.

Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans