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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Ankara jette de l’huile sur le feu

by Pierre Barbancey

Erdogan & His Saudi Allies Play Pyromaniac Firefighters In Syria

Ankara pours oil on the Syrian fire.

Translated Monday 15 February 2016, by Isabelle Métral

While a fragile agreement has been reached in Munich over the cessation of hostilities in Syria within a week and the immediate delivery of humanitarian assistance to the populations that have fallen victims to the conflict, Turkey’s warmongering aggravates the risks of a regional conflagration.

Spurred on by the Western chancelleries’ complicit silence, Ankara is further exacerbating tensions in the Middle-East. After its pitiless crackdown on Turkish Kurds over several months – to which the martyred town of Cizre is a bloody witness - the Turkish army is now pointing its cannons towards northern Syria. Since Saturday last, the positions of the loyalists troops, of the Kurdish fighter units and their allies, of Arab groups that have joined the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have been pounded. Especially hard hit is the Syrian town of Azaz in the province of Alep, as well as the Menagh air base that the Kurds have taken over from the jihadists. On Saturday the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, ordered the Syrian Kurds to withdraw from the sectors north of Alep that they had just regained from the jihadists! “If Turkey is threatened, we will not hesitate to take the same measures in Syria that we took in Iraq and in Quandil,” he promised, pointing to the offensives against the PKK in the last years. “And we would depend on our allies’ support”, he added.

Saleh Muslim, co-president of the PYD, rejected the Turkish prime minister’s demands, saying that he has no right to intervene in Syrian affairs. Before if fell into the Kurdish fighters’ hands, he explained, the Menagh air base that was bombed by the Turkish military last Saturday was held by the Al-Nosra front, a Syrian branch of Al Qaeda. “Did they want the Al-Nosra front or the regime to occupy it?” he wondered. Saleh Muslim immediately contacted Joe Biden, the US vice-president, who seems to share his views concerning the PKK. The US has exhorted Ankara to cease its strikes.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the main supporters of the armed Islamist groups in Syria.

So the Turkish regime has decided to commit itself even further to fighting the Kurdish forces. In this it seems to enjoy the backing of Saudi Arabia, which has deployed planes on the Turkish Incirlik base. Riyadh maintains that the move is aimed at bracing defenses against ISIL, but the Turkish-Saudi strategy is crystal-clear. The two countries are the main supporters of all the armed Islamist groups deployed in Syria, and like the Western powers, they patronize part of the Syrian opposition under the pretext that US and French statements pleaded for the “intervention of regional forces” on Syrian territory.

Turkey’s attitude was to be expected

Turkey’s attitude was predictable. Ankar is quite clear- as Bachar Al Assad said in an interview with AFP- that the offensive on Alep is not aimed only at regaining the town, but also at cutting off the road to Turkey from which the arms, logistic supplies as well as fighters come. The rebellion has just announced it has received ground to ground missiles. The aim of Turkey’s president, Erdogan, is to prevent all connection between Rojava’s Kurdish districts (Syrian Kurdistan) as well as to stalemate YPG’s advance to the West towards Afrin, now being besieged by Islamist forces for months.

A far deeper imbroglio

While all the shooting takes place in the north of Syria, the great international powers, notably the US and Russia, reached an agreement in Munich last Friday on a cessation of hostilities in Syria within a week and the immediate delivery of humanitarian aid to the people trapped in the conflict. Despite this agreement, no one thinks a complete cease-fire is possible. As Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Serguei Lavrov, pointed out in turn, the agreement leaves ISIL out, as well as certain Islamist groups, mainly the al-Nosra front, which is al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. And here things are obviously more complicated. The “moderate” rebels the Western chancelleries like to speak of, upon closer inspection, in view of the agreements struck between the different groups, are evidently not so worthy the label. For within the opposition forces sanctioned by the Gulf countries and the West will be found representatives of Islamist armed groups allied to al-Nosra, whose ultimate aim is more or less the same. In the ongoing battle round Alep, the bulk of the military opposed to the Syrian army and to the different militias (Iranian, or the Lebanese Hezbollah) who are making headway into the city, with the support of the Russian army, is mostly constituted of al-Nosra fighters some of whom left their positions around Lattaquie to reinforce the al-Nosra front.

By pouring oil on the Syrian fire, Erdogan is seeking to prevent the implementation of the recent fragile agreement that owes much to the Russians’ and Americans’ determination, even though each party is pursuing its own ends. But the liability of a general conflagration is real enough. Dmitri Mdvedev, the Russian prime minister, evoked “a new cold war”. Last Saturday in Munich, at the conference on security, while mentioning NATO’s “unfriendly” declarations against Russia he asked: “Do we want a third world war?” These are not mere words. All the conflicts extant in the world are being concentrated around Syria. Not the least paradox is to see a country like Saudi Arabia, even though it supports Salafists of all shades and propels these violent groups to the forefront, now boast of being the best shield against ISIL. As a matter of fact, even though Manuel Valls will not admit it, Riyadh means to export his opposition to Tehran’s mounting power on to Syrian territory. To which the antagonism between Shi’ite and Sunni serves as a convenient screen. Which suits ISIL well enough.

400,000 Syrians killed since the beginning of the civil war

“What we absolutely want to see in the next days is material progress towards peace,” John Kerry declared, and added that “short of a political transition, peace will remain out of reach.” Which Serguei Lavrov corroborated, adding that “peace talks towards the resolution of the Syrian crisis must start again in Geneva as soon as possible and that all opposition groups should take part in them." But he also said that it would be a difficult task to reach a cessation of hostilities in Syria. Some parties on the Western side would not mind slamming the trap shut on Moscow. “The Russians said they were going to pound the terrorists,” a French diplomat said. “They are taking a political risk in accepting a negotiation in which they are committed to working towards a cessation of hostilities. If nothing has changed within a week because of their bombings, they will bear the blame.” An argument that clearly smacks of the cold war, and might sound anachronistic.

The reason for the Turkish strikes is therefore clear: Especially as Bachar Al Assad warned that his own forces “would strike back as he believes a Turkish and Saudi military intervention in Syria is possible.

Some 400,000 Syrians have been killed since the civil war broke out in this country five years ago and 70,000 more have died for lack of drinking water, food, or drugs, according to a report of the Syrian Centre for Political research, an NGO that mainly works with UNO’s High Committee for the Refugees. There can be no end to the carnage outside a political solution. Yet the noise of war is more audible by far. News came yesterday that the armed forces of twenty countries were expected in the north of Saudi Arabia for the most important maneuvers ever held in the region.

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