Turkey shelves Syrian offensive after Russian objection

Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters parade in Aleppo province on July 2, 2022. Turkey has postponed its planned new offensive against Kurdish forces because of Russia's objections. (AFP)
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Updated 02 July 2022

Turkey shelves Syrian offensive after Russian objection

  • Regional actors voice concerns over potential military operation in Tal Rifaat and Manbij 
  • “No need for hurry. We don’t need to do that,” Turkish President Erdogan told journalists in Madrid

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that Turkey is in no rush to stage a new military operation against armed Kurdish militants.

But regional actors have voiced their concerns over the potential Turkish offensive against the towns of Tal Rifaat and Manbij.

“No need for hurry. We don’t need to do that,” Erdogan told journalists in Madrid, where he met with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the NATO summit. Erdogan offered no timeline for the planned operation.

The stakes are high. Experts believe that Turkey still lacks Russian backing for a military intervention against Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers to be a terror group with direct links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the ORSAM think tank in Ankara, said that Russia’s failure to back the operation remains its major obstacle.

“Ankara decided to launch a military offensive on Syria while the world’s attention is focused on the war in Ukraine — and after thousands of Russian troops withdrew from Ukraine. However, Russia cannot risk looking weak in both Ukraine or Syria by giving the greenlight to a Turkish operation now,” he told Arab News.

Orhan noted that Turkey only hit targets along the Turkish-Syrian border as retaliation against attacks by the YPG.

“I don’t expect a larger-scale operation in which the Syrian National Army would serve as ground forces and the Turkish military would give aerial support,” he said.

Ankara has previously conducted three military operations in the area: Euphrates Shield in 2016, Olive Branch in 2018, and Peace Spring in 2019.

Troop numbers from both Russia and the Syrian regime have been increasing in northern Syria since early June ahead of a potential Turkish operation.

Iran has also been very vocal in its opposition of any Turkish military operation in the area.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saaed Khatibzadeh recently said: “The Syria file is a matter of dispute between us and Turkey.”

On Saturday, Iran’s foreign minister paid a visit to Damascus following Turkey’s threats to launch the new offensive.

“Both from an ideological and strategic perspective, Iran accords importance to protecting Shiite settlements — especially the two Shiite towns of Nubl and Al-Zahra. And there are also some Shiite militia fighting along with the YPG in Tal Rifaat,” Orhan said.

“However, at this point, Russia’s position is much more (important to Turkey) than Iran’s concerns, because Russia controls the airspace in northern Syria and it would have to withdraw Russian forces before approving any Turkish operation,” he added.

Some experts have suggested that Turkey used its potential Syria operation as a bargaining chip during its recent negotiations with Washington. When Erdogan met Biden on June 29, they discussed the importance of maintaining stability in Syria, according to the White House readout.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), mainly led by the YPG, still holds large areas of northeast Syria. Syrian Kurds are regarded by Washington as an important ally against Daesh.

Although the Biden administration has repeatedly said that it acknowledges Turkey’s security concerns, it has also warned that any Turkish operation in northern Syria could put US troops at risk, and undermine the fight against Daesh.

Hamidreza Azizi, CATS fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, thinks that, given the course of events, the Turkish operation is inevitable.

“It (will) happen sooner or later. Because Turkish leaders have been maneuvering on what they see as threats Turkey is facing from northern Syria, we should expect some kind of military operation,” he told Arab News.

“But the scope of the operation has been a matter of speculation because, in the beginning, Turkish officials were talking about a vast area from Tal Rifaat and Manbij to east of the Euphrates, but they reconsidered after US opposition to the expansion of the operation east of the Euphrates,” Azizi said.

Azizi expects a limited operation to happen, the main aim of which would be to expand Turkey’s zone of influence in the area.

Turkey’s original plan had been to establish a 30 kilometer-deep security zone along its southern border both to push back the YPG and to repatriate around 1 million Syrian refugees in a wider safe zone.

President Erdogan recently announced a reconstruction plan to enable Syrians to return to their homeland.

Azizi believes that “the main friction” over this potential operation would be between Iran and Turkey.

“Iran is worried because if Turkey — or Turkish-backed troops — control Tal Rifaat, they have access to Aleppo, where Iran is present, which will give them further access to central Syria.”

Iran is still a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but also an important trade partner for Turkey.

Unless Turkey is able to come up with a new plan that alleviates Iran’s concerns, Azizi expects a response from the Iranian side — albeit an indirect one via proxy forces.

“Such a move could push Turkey to further strengthen ties with Arab states and cooperate further with Israel,” he said.


Braced to crush unrest, Iran’s rulers heed lessons of Shah’s fall — analysts

Updated 06 October 2022

Braced to crush unrest, Iran’s rulers heed lessons of Shah’s fall — analysts

  • Kasra Aarabi: ‘The one striking similarity the current protests have with 1979 is the mood on the streets, which is explicitly revolutionary ... They don’t want reform, they want regime change’
  • Alex Vatanka: ‘Today, the Bazaar has nothing to defend, as it no longer controls the economy which is now in the hands of the Guards’

DUBAI: Iran’s clerical rulers will likely contain the country’s eruption of unrest for now, and prospects of the imminent dawn of a new political order are slim if history is any guide, four analysts said.
The protests, which began over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini her arrest by morality police, have spiralled into a revolt against what protesters said was the increasing authoritarianism of its ruling Islamic clerics.
However, the chances of this snowballing into the kind of uprising that rapidly unseated veteran Egyptian and Tunisian rulers in 2011 seem remote any time soon, since Iran’s rulers are determined to maintain their grip on power at any cost.
For decades, the clerical establishment has used its loyal elite force, the Revolutionary Guards, to violently crush ethnic uprisings, student unrest and protests against economic hardship. So far the Guards have been relatively restrained, but they could be mobilized quickly.
If the protests persist, the Islamic Republic will turn to its usual solution: “unrestrained violence against unarmed civilians to quash the protests this time around,” said Kasra Aarabi, the Iran Program Lead at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
Already, the protests have lasted nearly three weeks – turning into one of the biggest demonstrations of opposition to Iran’s Islamic clerical rule in years.
Although the volume of protests cannot be compared to the 1979 Islamic revolution, when millions took to the streets, the solidarity and unanimity of protesters calling for the downfall of the clerical establishment are reminiscent, analysts said.
“The one striking similarity the current protests have with 1979 is the mood on the streets, which is explicitly revolutionary ... They don’t want reform, they want regime change,” said Aarabi.
“Of course, no one can predict when this moment will happen: it could be weeks, months or even years ... But the Iranian people have made up their mind.”
Challenging the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy, protesters have burned pictures of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and chanted “Death to the Dictator,” unfazed by security forces using tear gas, clubs and, in many cases, live ammunition.

But Iran’s top rulers are determined not to show the kind of weakness they believe sealed the fate of the US-backed Shah.
To human rights campaigners at that time, the Shah’s great error was to alienate the population with torture and bloodshed. But in hindsight some historians say the Shah was too weak, slow and irresolute in repression.
“The regime’s approach is far more reliant on repression than the Shah,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute.
Rights groups said the state crackdown on protests has so far led to the death of at least 150 people, with hundreds injured and thousands arrested.
Officials say many members of the security forces have been killed by “thugs and rioters linked to foreign foes,” echoing Khamenei’s comments on Monday in which he blamed the United States and Israel for fomenting the “riots.”
Shortly before the revolution, Iran’s Shah appeared on national TV, saying: “As Shah of Iran ... I heard the voice of your revolution ... I cannot but approve your revolution.” His opponents saw that as a sign of fragility. “Khamenei had learned the lesson, as he lived through the revolution, that if you tell the people you’ve heard their voices and that you are wrong, this is the end of your leadership. He doesn’t want to do that,” said Vatanka.
Nevertheless, Khamenei’s unyielding rhetoric also carries risk, Vatanka said. “If Khamenei does not listen ... and stop this nonsense that protests are all foreign-led, there will be more protests,” he said. Demonstrations have spread from Amini’s native Kurdistan province to all of Iran’s 31 provinces, with all layers of society, including ethnic and religious minorities, joining in.
“These broad-based protests have attracted almost all segments of the population whose grievances have not been addressed by the regime,” said Vahid Yucesoy, a specialist on political Islam based in Canada.
A popular political Kurdish slogan used in the Kurdish independence movement, “Woman, Life, Freedom” that was first chanted at Amini’s funeral on Sept. 17 in the Kurdish town of Saqez, has been used globally in protests against her death.
Fearing an ethnic uprising, the establishment has adopted a restrained repression instead of the iron fist strategy it displayed in the past, analysts said.

The protests are “secular, non-ideological to some extent anti-Islamic,” said Saeid Golkar, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“Iranians are revolting against the clergy ... who use religion to suppress the people,” he said.
The anti-Shah revolt reverberated around provincial cities, towns, and villages. But what paralyzed his rule was strikes by oil workers, who turned off the taps on most of the country’s revenue, and by bazaar merchants, who funded the rebel clerics.
While university students have played a pivotal role in current protests with dozens of universities on strike, there has been little sign of the Bazaar and oil workers joining in.
“Bazaaris were important during the 1979 revolution as, at the time, they saw the Shah’s economic reforms as against their interests and therefore backed the revolution,” Vatanka said.
“Today, the Bazaar has nothing to defend, as it no longer controls the economy which is now in the hands of the Guards.”
The Guards, loyal to Khamenei, is an industrial empire as well as being a powerful military force. It wields political clout and controls Iran’s oil industry.

Lebanon announces first cholera case in almost 30 years

Updated 06 October 2022

Lebanon announces first cholera case in almost 30 years

  • The announcement comes as neighboring war-torn Syria is struggling to contain a cholera outbreak
  • The person infected is from Lebanon's impoverished predominantly rural northern province of Akkar

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s health ministry on Thursday announced the crisis-hit country’s first case of cholera in decades.
The announcement comes as neighboring war-torn Syria is struggling to contain a cholera outbreak that has spread across the country over the past month.
Lebanon began a downward spiral in late 2019 that has plunged three-quarters of its population into poverty. Rampant power cuts, water shortages, and skyrocketing inflation have deteriorated living conditions for millions.
The Health Ministry said the person infected is from Lebanon’s impoverished predominantly rural northern province of Akkar, which borders Syria, adding that it was the first case of the waterborne disease since 1993.
Caretaker Health Minister Firas Abiad has met with authorities and international organizations following the confirmed case to discuss ways to prevent a possible outbreak.
According to the World Health Organization, a cholera infection is caused by consuming food or water infected with the Vibrio cholerae bacteria, and while most cases are mild to moderate, not treating the illness could lead to death.
Richard Brennan, Regional Emergency Director of the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region, told The Associated Press that the organization has been in talks with authorities in Lebanon and other countries bordering Syria to bring in the necessary supplies to respond to possible cases in the country.
“Cross-border spread is a concern, we’re taking significant precautions,” Brennan said. “Protecting the most vulnerable will be absolutely vital.”
Brennan added that vaccines are in short supply relative to global demand.
Impoverished families in Lebanon often ration water, unable to afford private water tanks for drinking and domestic use.
The UN and Syria’s Health Ministry have said the source of the outbreak is likely linked to people drinking unsafe water from the Euphrates River and using contaminated water to irrigate crops, resulting in food contamination.
Syria’s health services have suffered heavily from its yearslong war, while much of the country is short on supplies to sanitize water.
Syrian health officials as of Wednesday documented at least 594 cases of cholera and 39 deaths. Meanwhile, in the rebel-held northwest of the country, health authorities documented 605 suspected cases, dozens of confirmed cases, and at least one death.

Iran woman accuses state of killing daughter at Mahsa Amini protest

Updated 06 October 2022

Iran woman accuses state of killing daughter at Mahsa Amini protest

  • Nasrin Shahkarami also accused the authorities of threatening her to make a forced confession over the death of 16-year-old Nika
  • A crackdown by the security forces on the women-led protests has claimed dozens of lives, according to human rights groups

PARIS: The mother of an Iranian teen who died after joining protests over Mahsa Amini’s death accused the authorities of murdering her, in a video sent Thursday to foreign-based opposition media.
Nasrin Shahkarami also accused the authorities of threatening her to make a forced confession over the death of 16-year-old Nika, who went missing on September 20 after heading out to join an anti-hijab protest in Tehran.
Protests erupted across Iran over the death of Amini, a 22-year-old Kurd, after her arrest by the morality police in Tehran for allegedly breaching the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women.
A crackdown by the security forces on the women-led protests has claimed dozens of lives, according to human rights groups.
After Nika Shahkarami’s death, her family had been due to bury her in the western city of Khorramabad on what would have been her 17th birthday, her aunt Atash Shahkarami wrote on social media.
But Persian-language media outside Iran have reported that the girl’s family were not allowed to lay her to rest in her hometown, and that her aunt and uncle were later arrested.
The aunt later appeared on television saying Nika Shahkarami had been “thrown” from a multi-story building.
But her sister said “they forced her to make these confessions and broadcast them,” in the video posted online Thursday by Radio Farda, a US-funded Persian station based in Prague.
“We expected them to say whatever they wanted to exonerate themselves... and they have in fact implicated themselves,” said Nasrin Shahkarami.
“I probably don’t need to try that hard to prove they’re lying... my daughter was killed in the protests on the same day that she disappeared.”
The mother said a forensic report found that she had been “killed on that date, and due to repeated blunt force trauma to the head.
“I saw my daughter’s body myself... The back of her head showed she had suffered a very severe blow as her skull had caved in. That’s how she was killed.”
Nasrin Shahkarami said the authorities had tried to call her several times but she has refused to answer.
“But they have called others, my uncles, others, saying that if Nika’s mother does not come forward and say the things we want, basically confess to the scenario that we want and have created, then we will do this and that, and threatened me.”
Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights (IHR) on Thursday said it held the Islamic republic responsible for Nika Shahkarami’s death.
“Contradictory claims by the Islamic republic about... Nika Shakarami’s cause of death based on grainy edited footage and her relatives’ forced televised confessions under duress are unacceptable,” it said
IHR director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam called for an independent investigation.
“The evidence points to the government’s role in Nika Shakarami’s murder, unless the opposite is proven by an independent fact-finding mission under the supervision of the United Nations,” he said in a statement.
“Until such a committee is formed, the responsibility for Nika’s murder, like the other victims of the current protests, rests with (Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah) Ali Khamenei and the forces under his command.”

Turkey names former Jerusalem envoy as new ambassador to Israel

Updated 06 October 2022

Turkey names former Jerusalem envoy as new ambassador to Israel

  • A career diplomat with decades of experience, Torunlar was Turkish Consul General in Jerusalem from 2010 until 2013

ANKARA: Turkey appointed Sakir Ozkan Torunlar as its new ambassador to Israel late on Wednesday following a mutual decision taken last month to restore full diplomatic ties, two Turkish foreign ministry officials said.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu briefed Torunlar on Wednesday night as part of the ministry’s new appointments abroad, the officials told Reuters.
A career diplomat with decades of experience, Torunlar was Turkish Consul General in Jerusalem from 2010 until 2013.
Israel has already named Irit Lillian as its next ambassador to Ankara.
Relations between Turkey and Israel have been rocky since 2011, when Ankara expelled Israel’s ambassador following a 2010 Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara aid ship to Gaza, which killed nine Turkish citizens.
The rift healed when full diplomatic relations were restored in 2016 and the two countries exchanged ambassadors.
Tensions escalated again in 2018 when Israeli forces killed a number of Palestinians who had taken part in the “March of Return” protests in the Gaza Strip.
Turkey recalled all diplomats and ordered Israeli envoys to leave the country.
The latest developments come five months after Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Ankara as part of his first visit to Turkey by an Israeli leader since 2008.

Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban

Updated 06 October 2022

Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban

  • Sali Hafiz last month broke into a BLOM Bank branch with activists from the Depositors’ Outcry
  • Hafiz was widely celebrated as a hero, and went into hiding for weeks

BEIRUT: A Lebanese judge on Thursday fined and issued a six-month travel ban to a woman who stormed her bank with a fake pistol and took her trapped savings to cover her sister’s cancer treatment.
Lebanon’s cash-strapped banks have imposed strict limits on withdrawals of foreign currency since 2019, tying up the savings of millions of people. About three-quarters of the population has slipped into poverty as the tiny Mediterranean country’s economy continues to spiral. The Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar.
Sali Hafiz last month broke into a BLOM Bank branch in Beirut with activists from the Depositors’ Outcry protest group, and stormed into the manager’s office. They forced bank employees to hand over $12,000 and the equivalent of about $1,000 in Lebanese pounds.
Hafiz was widely celebrated as a hero, and went into hiding for weeks.
Her lawyer, Ali Abbas, said that Hafiz turned herself in Wednesday night, and that the bank had pressed charges. Another sister involved in the heist was with Sali.
“The judge decided to let them go on a bail of 1 million pounds each, and a six-month travel ban,” Abbas said in a phone interview from the Justice Palace.
One million Lebanese pounds was once worth over $666, but has since devalued to $25.
Following the incident last month, the Depositors’ Outcry had vowed to support more bank raids, and about a dozen of similar incidents have since occurred.
On Wednesday, Lebanese lawmaker Cynthia Zarazir staged a sit-in at her bank branch with a lawyer, demanding to withdraw $8,500 to cover expenses for a surgery.
These developments have rocked the Lebanese banks, who say they have been unjustly targeted for tiny Mediterranean country’s fiscal crisis. The Association of Banks in Lebanon temporarily closed for a week, before partially reopening last week, citing security concerns.
Lebanon for over two years has been struggling to implement a series of reforms to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout program and make its battered economy viable again.