Af­ter mil­i­tary shake-up, Turkey to tackle Kurds

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Days af­ter a reshuf­fle of Turkey’s top mil­i­tary com­man­ders, Pres­i­dent Tayyip Er­do­gan has re­vived warn­ings of mil­i­tary ac­tion against Kur­dish fight­ers in Syria that could set back the US-led bat­tle against Is­lamic State. Kur­dish mili­tias are spear­head­ing an as­sault against the hard­line mil­i­tants in their Syr­ian strong­hold Raqqa, from where Is­lamic State has planned at­tacks around the world for the past three years. But US back­ing for the Kur­dish YPG fight­ers in Syria has in­fu­ri­ated Turkey, which views their grow­ing bat­tle­field strength as a se­cu­rity threat due to a decades-old in­sur­gency by the Kur­dish PKK within in its bor­ders.

There have been reg­u­lar ex­changes of rocket and ar­tillery fire in re­cent weeks be­tween Turk­ish forces and YPG fight­ers who con­trol part of Syria’s north­west­ern bor­der. Turkey, which has the sec­ond largest army in NATO af­ter the United States, re­in­forced that sec­tion of the bor­der at the week­end with ar­tillery and tanks and Er­do­gan said Turkey was ready to take ac­tion. “We will not leave the sep­a­ratist or­ga­ni­za­tion in peace in both Iraq and Syria,” Er­do­gan said in a speech on Sat­ur­day in the east­ern town of Malatya, re­fer­ring to the YPG in Syria and PKK bases in Iraq. “We know that if we do not drain the swamp, we can­not get rid of flies.”

The YPG de­nies Turk­ish al­le­ga­tions of links with Kur­dish mil­i­tants in­side Turkey, say­ing it is only in­ter­ested in sel­f­rule in Syria and warn­ing that any Turk­ish as­sault will draw its fight­ers away from the bat­tle against Is­lamic State which they are wag­ing in an al­liance with lo­cal Arab forces. Er­do­gan’s com­ments fol­low the ap­point­ment of three new lead­ers of Turkey’s army, air force and navy last week - moves which an­a­lysts and of­fi­cials said were at least partly aimed at pre­par­ing for any cam­paign against the YPG mili­tia.

Turk­ish forces swept into north Syria last year to seize ter­ri­tory from Is­lamic State, while also cut­ting off Kur­dish-con­trolled north­east Syria from the Kur­dish pocket of Afrin fur­ther west. They thereby pre­vented Kur­dish con­trol over al­most the whole sweep of the bor­der - Ankara’s worst-case sce­nario. Re­cent clashes have cen­tered around the Arab towns of Tal Ri­faat and Min­nigh, near Afrin, which are held by the Kur­dish YPG and al­lied fight­ers. Er­do­gan said Turkey’s mil­i­tary in­cur­sion last year dealt a blow to “ter­ror­ist projects” in the re­gion and promised fur­ther ac­tion. “We will make new and im­por­tant moves soon,” he said.

‘More ac­tive’ fight

His com­ments fol­low weeks of warn­ings from Turkey of pos­si­ble mil­i­tary ac­tion against the YPG. Wash­ing­ton’s con­cern to pre­vent any con­fronta­tion which de­flects the Kur­dish forces at­tack­ing Raqqa may help stay Ankara’s hand, but a Turk­ish gov­ern­ment source said last week’s changes in mil­i­tary lead­er­ship have pre­pared the ground.

“With this new struc­ture, some steps will be taken to be more ac­tive in the strug­gle against terror,” the source said. “A struc­ture that acts ac­cord­ing to the re­al­i­ties of the re­gion will be formed”. The bat­tle for Raqqa has been un­der­way since June, and a se­nior US of­fi­cial said on Fri­day that 2,000 Is­lamic State fight­ers are be­lieved to be still de­fend­ing po­si­tions and “fight­ing for every last block” in the city.

Even af­ter the re­cap­ture of Raqqa, US De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis has left open the pos­si­bil­ity of longer-term Amer­i­can as­sis­tance to the YPG. The in­flu­ence of Turkey’s once-dom­i­nant mil­i­tary has de­creased dra­mat­i­cally since Er­do­gan came to power nearly 15 years ago. A purge in se­nior ranks since last year’s failed mil­i­tary coup has stripped it of 40 per­cent of top of­fi­cers. —Reuters

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