Syrian Democratic Forces: US-Backed Kurdish-Arab Alliance

Raqqa

London – Kurdish fighters represent the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which seized on Tuesday control of the city of Raqqa from the ISIS terrorist group after a four-month offensive.

Comprised of Arab and Kurdish fighters, the SDF was formed in October 2015 in order to confront the extremist organization.

Backed by the US, it is considered the international coalition’s key ally in its war against ISIS. Washington has helped the SDF with airstrikes, weapons and expertise, which bolstered its ability to fight the extremists.

According to AFP, the alliance between the SDF and US has sparked major tensions with Ankara, which has not hesitated in the past in targeting the forces.

However, despite the various war fronts, all warring parties share ISIS as their common enemy.

The SDF was formed after US-backed Kurdish units achieved several victories against the extremists, most notably expelling them from the city of Kobane (Ain Arab) and Tal Abyad in 2015.

The advance has however created tensions with opposition factions that have accused the Kurds of forced displacement against Arab residents. It also raised fears in Ankara that the Kurds would seek autonomous rule in territories along the Turkish border.

To counter these tensions, the SDF was formed to include 30,000 fighters, among them 5,000 Arabs. Kurds however assume the command of the forces.

After the US-led coalition launched its first air strikes against ISIS in Syria in September 2014, Washington struggled to find a reliable partner on the ground.

A much-touted $500-million program to build a rebel army to fight ISIS collapsed. The SDF was the next best choice, especially after the Kurds proved to be fierce fighters.

After the SDF was formed, the White House announced the first sustained deployment of US special forces to Syria, reversing a longstanding refusal to put boots on the ground.

Around 50 special operations personnel were deployed in northern Syria, and the number has now grown to around 500 US troops. Senior US commanders and Washington’s envoy to the coalition Brett McGurk have met top SDF chiefs during visits to northern Syria.

Washington said in June it would supply weapons directly to the People’s Protection Units, the main Kurdish backbone of the SDF, despite objections from ally Turkey.

In November 2016, the SDF announced its operation “Wrath of the Euphrates” aimed at ousting ISIS from Raqqa province, including the group’s de facto Syrian capital Raqqa.

In the months that followed, the alliance gradually closed in on the city, first sweeping into territory to the north before closing in from the east and west.

In early June, SDF forces entered Raqqa for the first time, penetrating its Old City a month later after airstrikes by the US-led coalition smashed two holes in the ramparts.

By late September, SDF forces had taken control of 90 percent of the city, cornering ISIS fighters in Raqqa’s stadium, a few surrounding buildings and a major hospital.

On October 17, SDF spokesman Talal Sello told AFP the US-backed fighters finally had “taken full control of Raqqa” from ISIS.

Ankara Offers Washington ‘Goodwill Gesture’ to End Visa Crisis

Topuz

Ankara – Turkish and American authorities kicked off on Tuesday talks to end the visa dispute that erupted after Ankara arrested Metin Topuz, an employee at the US Consulate in Istanbul.

Ankara offered a gesture of goodwill to the Washington by releasing from custody the wife and daughter of another consulate employee, who authorities want to question over his alleged links to the banned Fethullah Gulen group.

The authorities had summoned for interrogation the second employee over his relatives’ alleged links to the failed 2016 coup. The wife and daughter were held for a week before their release and are currently barred from leaving the country.

Topuz was arrested in early October for also having connections to Gulen’s group.

The Turkish-American talks got underway at the Foreign Ministry in Ankara. The US delegation at the discussions is headed by Jonathan Cohen and the Turkish side is headed Ahmet Muhtar Gun.

Washington suspended visa services to Turkey after Topuz’s arrest. Ankara reciprocated by also suspending visa services and efforts have been underway by both sides to avert any escalation in the crisis.

The judiciary has ordered Topuz’s imprisonment for his links to the coup and for alleged spying.

Tensions spiked further, when on Monday, the General Prosecution in Istanbul announced that it had summoned another consulate employee, who does not enjoy diplomatic immunity. He was summoned over the same charges as Topuz.

Gulen has been exiled in the US since 1999. Ankara has accused him of orchestrating last year’s failed coup, an allegation he denies.

Seven Miners Killed in Coal Mine Collapse in Southeastern Turkey

At least even miners were killed and another was missing after part of a coal mine in Turkey’s southeastern province of Sirnak collapsed on Tuesday, government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said.

Reuters cited Turkey’s energy ministry as saying that the coal mine was unlicensed and had been operating illegally.

“The activities of the mining field in Sirnak where the accident took place were stopped by the General Directorate of Mining Affairs in 2013 because it carried operational and security risks,” the energy ministry said.

Workplace accidents are not unusual in Turkey. Its rapid growth over the past decade has seen a construction boom and a scramble to meet soaring energy and commodities demand, with worker safety standards often failing to keep pace.

More than 3,000 people have been killed in mining accidents across Turkey since 1941, mostly due to fires, landslide or explosions.

A report from 2010 stated that the number of deaths in mine accidents in Turkey outnumbers those in the world’s biggest coal producers, the Unites States and China, in terms of fatalities per ton.

Its worst ever mining disaster took place in May 2014 in the western town of Soma, where 301 workers were killed.

Eighteen Injured in Bomb Attack on Police Vehicle in Turkey’s Mersin

A bomb blast wrecked a bus carrying police officers on Tuesday in the southern Turkish province of Mersin.

According to the report cited by Reuters, the blast injured 18 people in an attack that security sources blamed on Kurdish militants.

Seventeen of those hurt were police officers, Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Bekir Bozdag told parliament, branding it a terrorist attack.

“Turkey’s battle against terror will continue under any circumstances in a strong and determined way,” Bozdag said.

Security sources said militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were believed to have carried out the attack. They also said that none of those wounded were in a critical condition.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Local mayor Burhanettin Kocamaz told broadcaster Haberturk the attack took place on a street where the local governor’s office was located and had hit the police vehicle as it passed.

Images from NTV showed smoke billowing from the area, in Mersin’s Yenisehir district. Ambulances, police and fire trucks were sent to the site of the attack, security sources said.

Turkey is battling a three-decade insurgency in its mainly Kurdish southeast. The PKK frequently carries out bomb attacks on security forces in the southeast and elsewhere.

The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union as well as by Turkey. More than 40,000 people, most of them Kurds, have died since it first took up arms against the state in 1984.

Hamas Runs a Regional PR Campaign

Fatah’s Azam al-Ahmad (right) and Saleh al-Aruri of Hamas kiss after signing a reconciliation deal in Cairo on Thursday.

Ramallah- Gaza ruling party Hamas is steadily on the track of restoring its ties with former allies while maintaining current friends. The move by no means is risk-free, as conflict pits parties Hamas views as valuable against each other.

It is no secret that the Islamist movement, which lost allies and won others, is planning broader and better relations with Egypt. It looks forward to opening up as much as possible to Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But it also strives to do the same with Qatar and Turkey, and to restore ties with Iran and Hezbollah, and perhaps the Syrian regime at a later date.

Officially, Hamas says it wants to maintain advanced relations with all Arabs in the region, as well as other countries, so long that it serves the best interest of the Palestinian cause.

Many Hamas officials, including Hamas Leader Khaled Meshaal, confirmed that this goes beyond playing along politics axes.

Hamas-affiliated writer and political analyst Ibrahim Madhoun said the movement will partially succeed in its endeavors.

“There are countries and people who understand the positions of the movement and there are other countries that are conservative, but this will not push Hamas to take a hostile stance or to back down,” said Madhoun.

“The movement will try to knock on these doors, and open areas with everyone in one way or another, especially central countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Egypt, as they stand to be the real supporter of the Palestinian cause,” he added.

According to Madhoun, “Hamas’ response to Egyptian efforts was not at the expense of Turkey or Qatar or of any other party, and neither will contact with Tehran be at the expense of Riyadh or the Gulf.”

“I believe that talking to Russia does not mean antagonizing the United States, although the latter takes a negative attitude. There are efforts by Hamas to infiltrate the American wall itself.”

Contacts made by the head of Hamas’ political bureau in the last two days, made it clear that Hamas actually tried to communicate with all sides openly as if it were sending out a message in every direction in this regard.

US Working to Defuse Tensions in Kirkuk

Iraq

Ankara, Washington, Irbil – With the end of the 48-hour deadline given by Baghdad for the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to withdraw from the oil fields in Kirkuk, Washington decided to intervene with an attempt to defuse a possible confrontation between the two sides.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday that Washington is working to reduce tensions between Iraqi federal and Kurdish forces, urging them to remain focused on the war against militants, according to AFP.

The US meddling came as Commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani visited on Saturday the tomb of former Iraqi president and PUK leader Jalal Talabani in Sulaimani.

Meanwhile, Kurdish sources confirmed on Saturday that US-led coalition jets have increased their hovering above Kirkuk.

Separately, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s scheduled visit to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, where he was expected to meet with his counterpart Haider al-Abadi this weekend was postponed.

The presidency of the Turkish government announced the postponement but did not offer any justifications for the decision.

Both men were expected to discuss the latest developments related to the Kurdistan referendum on independence and the joint measures for retaliating against the vote.

The two sides were also planning to tackle the presence of the Turkish troops in the Bashiqa military camp, near the city of Mosul.

Last week, the Turkish prime minister spoke about the presence of his country’s troops in the camp, a matter that had created tension between Ankara and Baghdad.

He said that Turkey’s Bashiqa military camp in Iraq should not be a matter of debate between the two countries, especially that both are fighting ISIS.

Diplomatic sources told Asharq Al-Awsat on Saturday that one of the reasons behind the postponement of the visit could be the failure to reach an agreement between Ankara and Baghdad in this regard.

Turkish Forces Say Installing ‘Observation Posts’ in Syria’s Idlib

The Turkish army has begun setting up “observation posts” in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province in its efforts to create a de-escalation zone, the military said on Friday, although the move was seen partly aimed at containing the Kurdish YPG militia.

“On October 12, we began activities to establish observation posts,” the military said in a statement.

Over 100 soldiers, including special forces, and 30 armored vehicles entered Idlib, Turkey’s Hurriyet daily reported on Friday, as it speculated more troops could be sent to the province over the next few days.

Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which has ousted more moderate rebels in recent months.

The Turkish army is backing the pro-Ankara Free Syrian Army that will need to oust HTS members in the area to allow Iranian, Russian and Turkish forces implement the de-escalation zone.

The move comes after the Turkish army launched a reconnaissance mission on Sunday as part of efforts by Ankara along with Moscow and Tehran, to set up the zone in line with accords in Astana peace talks.

They agreed on four such ceasefire zones in Syria as a prelude to negotiations.

Three zones are already in place — in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, in central Homs, and in parts of southern Syria — which are being monitored by Russian military police.

However, the Turkish deployment is also intended to rein in the Kurdish YPG militia, which holds the Afrin region next to Idlib, a senior rebel official involved in the operation said.

“(It is) in line with Astana 6 resolutions to ensure the area is protected from Russian and regime bombing and to foil any attempt by the separatist YPG militias to illegally seize any territory,” said Mustafa Sejari, an official in an FSA rebel group.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed late Thursday that a military convoy of Turkish forces entered Idlib before heading towards the western part of Aleppo province.

The fourth de-escalation zone includes Idlib but also parts of the neighboring Latakia, Hama and Aleppo regions.

Turkey, US Decide to Meet to Solve Diplomatic Row

Turkey- US

Turkish and US authorities decided to meet to settle the strategic emergency between the two NATO partners, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Thursday.

The spat erupted last week when Turkey arrested a Turkish employee of the American consulate on suspicion of links to the group blamed for last year’s failed coup.

In response, the United States suspend non-immigrant visa services there. Hours later, Ankara issued a similar suspension on visas for US citizens in a tit-for-tat move.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke by telephone with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday to discuss the reciprocal suspension of visa services — their first talks since the eruption of one of the worst crises between Washington and Ankara in years. Tillerson expressed his “profound concern” about the arrests, the US State Department said in a statement.

“Talks between the foreign minister and (US Secretary of State) Tillerson were very constructive. Representatives from both sides decided to meet and work together,” Bozdag said in an interview with broadcaster Haberturk.

He also said a US consulate employee arrested in Turkey had not demanded lawyer access and the US mission could apply to send a lawyer to see him.

During the conversation, Tillerson said Turkey needed to present evidence for the accusations against the consulate employee, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday that US and Turkish military forces continue to work well together amid the diplomatic row.

“We maintain a very close collaboration, very close communication, the military-to-military interaction and integration has not been affected by this,” Mattis told reporters as he traveled to a military headquarters in Florida.

“We are doing good work with them, military to military,” he stressed.

On Tuesday, a Pentagon spokesman said the spat had not affected NATO or US military ties with Turkey.

The United States relies heavily on an air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey to launch air strikes against the ISIS group in neighboring Syria and Iraq. Yet, US-Turkish relations have been strained over US military support for Kurdish fighters in Syria and the United States’ unwillingness to extradite Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally whom Ankara views as the mastermind behind last year’s failed military coup.

Sudan’s Al-Mahdi Calls for Saudi-led Arab Security Treaty with Turkey, Iran

Khartoum- A prominent Sudanese political leader called for the signing of an Arab treaty led by Saudi Arabia, in which both Egypt and Turkey take part on one hand, and Iran on the other.

The proposed treaty will be based on coexistence and respect for each of the signatories sovereignty.

Ending the “sharp polarization in the Gulf,” the signed declaration will stipulate comprehensive non-interference in internal affairs of each of the signing states, support for the Palestinian cause and the fight against terrorism and extremism, within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab Summit, said former Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi.

“The visit of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques to Russia is an introduction to openness that contributes to regional reconciliations that end wars and military confrontations through dialogue and political solutions,” he said in a press conference held in Khartoum on Tuesday.

“In terms of internal openness, the Kingdom and the rest of Gulf countries reject the Muslim Brotherhood-styled regime as it undermines the authority of state institutions.”

The right choice is adopting a healthy approach that reconciles with awareness and modernization.

Al-Mahdi called for Sunni-Arab countries to establish a treaty under the leadership of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia alongside Egypt and Turkey with Iran based on coexistence and respect for national sovereignty.

He said that the visit of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz to Russia could lead to reconciliation, contribute to ending the war in Yemen and taking military confrontations to the dialogue table.

“The region can enjoy peace if Sunni Arabs, led by the Kingdom, Egypt and Turkey, are to conclude an Arab, Turkish and Iranian security treaty for coexistence and respect for national sovereignty.

“This is what we have been calling for and it seems that its time has come,” added al-Mahdi.  

He renewed the call for parties to the treaty to commit themselves to supporting the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, stop talking about normalization of ties with Israel, and commit everyone not to establish any relationship with Israel without first having Tel Aviv responding to Arab and Palestinian rights.

Baghdad Pressures Kurdistan by Reopening Oil Pipeline

Baghdad- Baghdad announced on Tuesday its first practical steps to besiege the oil of the Kurdistan Region, as part of a move taken in collaboration with Turkey to retaliate against the Sept. 25 referendum which came in favor of independence.

Iraq’s Oil Ministry said on Tuesday that it decided to restore and reopen its export pipeline to Turkey’s Ceyhan port by passing through the two provinces of Salahuddin and Nineveh.

Iraqi Oil Minister Jabbar al-Luiebi instructed the North Oil Company [NOC], the State Company for Oil Projects [SCOP], and the Oil Pipelines Company to prepare an urgent plan to implement an urgent rehabilitation operation, according to an Oil Ministry statement Tuesday.

The move is a sign that Baghdad wants to prevent exporting its oil through the Kurdistan Region.

The instruction of the oil minister came as the Iraqi government officially asked Turkey and Iran last Monday to stop all their commercial dealings with Irbil, especially those related to the region’s oil.

The statement issued by the Iraqi oil ministry also mentioned that al-Luiebi met on Monday with the Turkish ambassador to Iraq, Fatih Yildiz, and discussed development of bilateral relations, particularly in the oil and energy fields.

“Yildiz told us that the Turkish government has decided to limit its oil business to the Iraqi government and that the Turkish petroleum company TPAO would soon resume activities at Mansuriya gas field in Diyala province,” the Iraqi oil ministry said in its statement.

In a related development, members of the Shi’ite National Alliance inside Iraq’s Parliament demanded that officials accused of smuggling oil be legally pursued.

Member of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Iraqi parliament Samira al-Moussawi said she was able to gather the signatures of 93 deputies to “ask the government to present a list of all officials involved in the operation of selling and smuggling oil,” in an allusion to some officials from the Kurdistan Region.

Moussawi also demanded the government to speak with Turkey, the US and other states to freeze the foreign bank accounts of officials from the region’s government and to transfer the money to the Iraqi state treasury.