Trump wading into Mideast quagmire over Turkey and Kurds in Syria

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave notice this week that the Trump administration was stepping up its military involvement in Syria and Iraq. But the military road map he laid out is in danger of leading the US even deeper into problems.

Most problematic perhaps is the fact that US forces are deepening their alliance with Kurdish militants in northern Syria. That has grave implications for a rupture with Washington’s key NATO ally Turkey, as well as the danger of an eventual confrontation with Syrian government forces.

Tillerson, the top US foreign policy official, was addressing leaders of the 68-nation American-led coalition gathered in Washington on plans to defeat Islamic State (IS or ISIS) terrorism.

Recall that President Trump had made signature promises during his election campaign that he would “knock the hell out of ISIS” – as well as “drain the swamp” of government inefficiency in Washington DC.

Keeping to his word about coming up with a master plan to defeat terrorism, the Trump administration this week announced a much more vigorous military intervention in Syria and Iraq than was seen under President Barack Obama.

@StateDept Secretary Tillerson outlines progress, successes in fight against ISIS.

The irony, however, is that while Obama spent eight years trying to get the US out of a quagmire in the Middle East created by his predecessor, GW Bush, now President Trump seems to be heading right back into the morass. Even more ironically is that Trump had used his inauguration speech on January 20 to say that his administration was done with “nation building” and costly military interventions overseas.

At least from what Tillerson announced this week during the coalition summit, it would appear that US military forces are preparing to occupy areas of Syria and Iraq for the long term. Said Tillerson: “The military power of the coalition will remain where this fraudulent caliphate has existed in order to set the conditions for a full recovery from the tyranny of ISIS.”

There seems little ambiguity about what that entails. US troops are being committed to, if not nation building, then “region building” within countries.

Secretary of State Tillerson added: “Local leaders and local governments will take on the process of restoring their communities in the wake of ISIS with our support. The development of a rejuvenated civil society in these places will lead to a disenfranchisement of ISIS and the emergence of stability and peace where there was once chaos and suffering. But none of this will happen automatically. We all need to support this effort.”

Granted, it could all be just grandiose hot air from Washington, which will blow away as soon the military going gets tough.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration appears to be indeed wading deeply into the Middle East.

The clearest sign was the major airlift this week by US forces of Kurdish insurgents to Raqqa, the strategic ISIS stronghold in Syria. Up to 1,000 US marines were reportedly involved in the operation. The development evidently goes beyond Pentagon claims that its troops are acting merely as “military advisers” to Kurdish fighters. American forces are digging in as part of the anticipated offensive to take Raqqa.

And if the plans laid out by Tillerson are held to, then the US troops will remain in the area to help the Kurds build governance. The same goes for other areas in northern Syria and Iraq where American forces are deployed to “liberate from ISIS”.

Turkey is claiming that US military supplies to Kurdish militias have been boosted. It appears that Washington has decided to throw its weight behind the Kurds as the most effective fighting force against the Islamists. Previous attempts by the US to organize Sunni Arab formations have reportedly proven lackluster, to say the least.

However, in backing the Kurds, the Trump administration is risking a rupture with NATO ally Turkey. Ankara has repeatedly warned of a “collision course” if Washington persists in working with the Kurds. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are viewed by the Ankara government as “terrorists” affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) based inside Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party fear that the Syrian Kurds will form an autonomous state in northern Syria, which in turn will serve to bolster the separatist Kurds across the border in Turkey.

When Turkey launched its incursion – dubbed Euphrates Shield – into northern Syria last August, the main reason cited by Ankara was to contain Kurdish militants and prevent them gaining a foothold around the Euphrates River.

Now it appears to Ankara that the US is sacrificing its longtime alliance by taking up arms with the Kurds – a sworn enemy of Turkey.

Reuters quotes one senior Turkish official fuming with exasperation, saying: “It appears that the US may carry out this operation with the YPG, not with Turkey. And at the same time the US is giving weapons to the YPG. If this operation is carried out in this manner there will be a cost for Turkey-US relations, because the YPG is a terrorist organization.”

In a separate report, another senior Turkish security official said Ankara had given Washington an ultimatum on the issue: “Our soldiers will not be fighting together with people who shot us and killed our soldiers and are trying to kill us… This message was delivered to the Americans.”

Turkey is demanding that the US backs Arab militias belonging to the so-called Free Syrian Army. But past experience has shown these units to be unreliable. Besides, the die seems to have already been cast, with Washington moving decisively to align with the Kurds.

US airlifts Syrian fighters in bid to surround in

If the Trump administration holds to its plan, as outlined this week by Rex Tillerson, of deploying US troops to consolidate self-governing areas, then the American presence with the Kurds will inevitably be for the long haul. That is going to intensify strains between Ankara and Washington. Just when Erdogan was hoping that the new Trump administration might be more amenable than the Obama one, which he fell afoul with over Syrian policy and the attempted coup in Turkey last July.

But a potential quagmire for Trump does not stop there. Syrian President Bashar al Assad recently warned that any US troops present in his country would be viewed as “aggressors”.

If American troops were to set up long-term missions to help the Kurds around Raqqa and northern Syria, it seems only a matter of time before the Syrian national army will be compelled to challenge the presence of US forces in the country. Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies have repeatedly said that Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity are inviolable.

Thus if Trump tries to make a gung-ho success of policy in the Middle East – and let’s face he needs to show some achievement given his domestic woes – his administration is liable to encounter multiple snafus. From the Turks, Kurds and Syrians, not to mention serious implications with regard to Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

Trump is already having wearisome trouble draining the swamp in Washington. The last thing he needs is to wade further into a Middle East quagmire.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Turkey could send 15k refugees a month to Europe to ‘blow its mind’ – interior minister

Turkey's interior minister says Ankara could send 15,000 refugees a month to Europe, to “blow its mind.” He said the bloc is “playing games” to prevent Turkey from becoming strong, taking direct aim at Germany and the Netherlands.

“I’m telling you, Europe, do you have that courage? If you want, we could open the way for 15,000 refugees that we don’t send each month and blow your mind,” Süleyman Soylu said late Thursday, according to Hurriyet.

The minister was referring to a deal between the EU and Ankara, under which Turkey agreed to help stop the flow of refugees across its border and take back migrants rejected for asylum in Europe.

 
FILE PHOTO. © Eric Vidal

Ankara agreed to the deal in exchange for billions in refugee assistance from the EU and accelerated talks on becoming a member of the bloc.

It also rallied for visa-free travel to Europe's Schengen zone as part of the deal, but was told by the EU that a list of 72 conditions must first be met – a key sticking point of which is Turkey's strict anti-terrorism laws, which Europe has said must be loosened in order for the agreement to go ahead.

The EU parliament has also expressed concern about Turkey's “disproportionate” reaction to last year's failed coup attempt, which prompted Ankara to launch a mass crackdown. Those targeted included Turkish opposition figures, teachers, journalists, and civil servants deemed sympathetic to Kurdish separatism and self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey says was the mastermind behind the unrest.

Europe's hesitation to fulfill its side of the refugee deal has led to Ankara threatening to pull out of the agreement numerous times. However, a German government spokesman said on Friday that there are no signs that the refugee deal has been suspended, Reuters reported.

Soylu went on to specifically address Germany and the Netherlands, both of which have interfered with rallies aimed at encouraging expatriate Turks to vote ‘yes’ in an upcoming referendum which would give Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers.

 
© Umit Bektas

“Who are the main ones trying to get things done? Germany and the Netherlands. Are the elections going to be held in Germany? Will the charter change in Germany or the Netherlands?” he asked, referring to the April 16 referendum.

“This is our internal issue. What do you care? Why are you getting involved in it? Did you accept Turkey into the European Union? Did you provide support to Turkey in its fight against terrorism?” he said.

“There are games being played against Turkey in order to prevent it from becoming strong in the future,” Soylu said.

He went on to state that Turkey is in its strongest period and that “some people can't handle it.”

Turkey has been particularly vocal against the Netherlands in recent days, after Dutch authorities banned ministers from addressing a rally in Rotterdam and dispersed hundreds of protests outside the Turkish consulate on Sunday.

Erdogan has made his distaste for the country well known since then, accusing it of acting like “Nazi remnants,” state terrorism, and having a “rotten” character.

Ankara has also imposed diplomatic sanctions on the Netherlands, suspending high-level talks and barring the Dutch ambassador from returning to Turkey.

  • Published in World

Wounded ISIS fighters brought to Turkey hospitals in ‘pick-up trucks’ – doctors, eyewitnesses to RT

Islamic State militants are frequently transported across the Syrian border to Turkish hospitals for treatment, according to eyewitness accounts collected by RT on the ground. Their crossing was allegedly ensured by Turkish officials.

Both Islamic State (IS, previously ISIS/ISIL) and Free Syrian Army fighters were able to cross the border from Syria into Turkey en masse and receive medical help – only to then be allowed to go back to resume fighting in Syria, the head of a local doctors’ association told RT’s Lizzie Phelan.

Phelan visited Gaziantep, a city in south-central Turkey some 60 kilometers from the Syrian border. Eyewitnesses and doctors told the RT correspondent that most of the IS fighters were treated in the border city of Kilis south of Gaziantep.

“Many wounded ISIS militants or FSA [Free Syrian Army] fighters were brought to the border in pick-up trucks, not ambulances,” Medical Association Chair in Gaziantep and Kilis Hamza Agca said. “Many were unconscious and bleeding when they were brought to us.”

The injured men were apparently driven right from a “war zone” and doctors often had to deal with things like “grenades falling out of their pockets,” Agca added.

One doctor from Kilis also confirmed to RT that they were receiving fighters from across the Turkish-Syrian border, including IS militants. The doctor said on condition of anonymity that he was just one of the doctors who treated terrorists in Kilis.

The medic described discovering suicide vests on some of the IS patients and feeling terrified as he was forced to take them off.

The doctor added that the flow of IS militants being admitted to Turkish hospitals has decreased, but they still see militants admitted every couple of weeks.

LEAKED: covers fighters’ hefty bills in Turkish hospitals

When asked how the doctors felt about treating terrorists, Agca said that as medical professionals they were under an oath to help the injured, no matter who they were. “Any doctor throughout the world would do the same,” he said.

However, after the treatment was over, the fighters were allowed to rejoin the battlefield back in Syria. “We treated these fighters and they went back to fight once they recovered, some were brought for a second or third time to our hospital,” Agca said.

He also said that Turkish government officials ensured that IS fighters were able to cross into Turkey with no obstacles. “In terms of their medical treatment, the government didn’t give us any order but their policy was to provide the opportunity to fighters to use the border crossing.”

The first reports of IS militants receiving costly and complicated medical treatment was reported in May. The information was leaked via tapped phone calls and was handed to the media by opposition MP Erem Erdem.

READ MORE: ‘All critical news media under pressure in Turkey’: Pro-Kurdish politician on blockade of Sputnik 
 
RT’s Phelan filmed the footage in Gaziantep’s Ersin Arslan hospital, one of the medical centers that has treated Islamic State extremists. The trip to the hospital was risky in light of a crackdown on opposition-minded journalists in Turkey.

“If we get stopped by police they might not be impressed by the story we’re working on and maybe will give us a bit of a hard time,” Phelan said.

Erdogan calls MP ‘traitor’ for telling RT that ISIS got chemical weapons via Turkey

The Turkish government has been fiercely trampling on any allegations of links to Islamic State, pushing for the prosecution of reporters and opposition MPs alike for reports that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refers to as “treason.”

“After broadcasting this report, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to enter the country safely again,” Phelan said.
 
READ MORE: Turkey denies press accreditation to Der Spiegel correspondent 

Russian state news agency Sputnik was recently shut down by Turkey without prior notification under “administrative measures” imposed by the country’s authorities in April based on Turkey’s internet controls law.

In March, a correspondent for the influential German magazine Der Spiegel, Hasnain Kazim, was forced to leave Turkey after his press credentials were not renewed.

Turkey has been much tougher on local journalists. In May, it sentenced a Turkish reporter to 20 months in jail and took away her parental rights for allegedly breaching the confidentiality of a court case.

Arzu Yildiz published footage over a year ago from a court hearing that witnessed four prosecutors being sued for ordering a search of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization’s trucks that were traveling to Syria back in 2014. The government, which insists the contents were “humanitarian” cargo to Turkmen tribes, intervened to prevent the trucks from being searched and a number of people have been persecuted for the attempt, which fueled allegations that the vehicles were carrying weapons to terrorists in Syria.

  • Published in World
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