Michael MacKenzie
Feb 24 2018

Arab media: Afrin op. as an opportunity to boost Erdogan's domestic popularity

Allegations of Turkish support for weapons smuggling to Libya, as well as Turkey’s ongoing military operation in northwest Syria and its strategic implications have continued to make Arab media headlines over the past week.

The Egyptian daily newspaper Youm7 reported on Thursday that a vessel found by Tunisian authorities to be smuggling military equipment could have links to Turkey.

Youm7, Egypt’s most widely read newspaper online, closely followed reports in January of another vessel impounded by Greek authorities for smuggling weapons, allegedly to armed groups in Libya from Turkey. The incident stoked Egyptian fears that Turkey, a regional rival, could take advantage of the “security vacuum” in neighbouring Libya to direct threats across the 1,200 km border toward Cairo.

Similar fears have been raised by Tunisia’s discovery on Monday of 24 undeclared containers containing military equipment on the Panamanian-registered vessel Ural near the city of Sfax.

The ship had been on course from Russia to Cameroon, and reportedly made unplanned stops in Turkey and then passed Italy before veering off its expected course towards Libya, rather than Morocco and the Straits of Gibraltar. The Ural later arrived in Tunisian waters, where it was ordered to wait near Sfax for two days before being inspected.

Tunisian authorities discovered “military and combat equipment in 20 military trucks,” as well as 12,800 litres of fuel, subsistence materials, quantities of ammunition, shooting targets, barbed wire, 300 radios and two satellite communication devices not listed on the ship’s manifest, according to Youm7.

Tunisian police handed the case over to the country’s anti-terrorism security and judiciary authorities. Youm7 said speculation was that the illicit cargo, valued at $13.75 million, may have been on its way to armed factions within Libya, describing Tunisia as the “Western gate” for terrorist groups heading to Libya and citing a UN official report from June 2017 that it said linked Turkey to arms smuggling schemes to Tripoli.

The Russian ambassador in Tunisia, having been informed that a ship originating in Russia had been impounded, attempted to enter the port to inspect the vessel, but was prevented by Tunisian authorities, said Youm7.

The independent news site Northern Syria Observer (NSO) reported on conditions in Afrin, the northwest Syrian enclave under attack by Turkish forces in Operation Olive Branch.

Turkey’s operation is directed at the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which has been in control of the area since 2012 when forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime withdrew.

Turkey considers the YPG to be a satellite of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been in armed conflict with Turkish armed forces for three decades, and views the presence of armed Kurdish militias on the Syrian-Turkish border as a serious threat.

Earlier this week, the YPG struck a deal with the Syrian regime to assist in the defence against Turkey, and began handing over areas in Afrin to Assad’s forces on Wednesday, NSO reports.

The news report quotes witnesses, who said that the withdrawing YPG left these neighbourhoods carrying “all of their equipment”, down to furniture, internet routers and aid supplies from the Red Crescent humanitarian organisation.

The incoming Syrian regime security forces immediately began launching raids to arrest security suspects and young men who had fled to Afrin to avoid conscription, according to the NSO’s news report.

Before Operation Olive Branch launched, Afrin had been an area of calm in an otherwise-violent country. A third of its population of 324,000 people was internally displaced from other regions of the war-torn country, according to United Nations data.

In the wake of Turkey’s incursion into Syria, Jamil al-Dhiyebi’s column for the liberal Saudi daily Okaz speculates on the aims of the various regional and international actors active in the country, asking in its headline “Who are the players in Syria?”

The complex situation in northern Syria raised the possibility of a direct confrontation between NATO allies Turkey, which has vowed to break the YPG’s hold not only in Afrin but in nearby Manbij, and the United States, which sees the Kurdish force as essential allies as the civil war winds down, and has promised to maintain a military presence in Manbij despite threats from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The United States is unlikely to back down on the matter, according to Dhiyebi, since it sees its Kurdish allies as indispensable in curtailing Iranian expansion, one of its primary regional objectives.

Tacit Russian support for Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch reflects a “marriage of convenience,” said Dhiyebi, that it hopes will achieve the dual aims of bolstering Moscow’s international prestige through successful Russian-backed peace talks in Sochi, while simultaneously undermining NATO from within.

The Sochi peace talks began in January, as an alternative to the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva that the United States backs.

Turkey’s course of action in Syria is motivated firstly by the desire to establish a strong presence as the war winds down from which to oppose Kurdish groups’ longstanding aspiration of an independent entity in the region, wrote Dhiyebi. It also aims to create a corridor north of the Euphrates river to force many of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees hosted in Turkey to return to Syria, according to the Saudi writer.

Finally, he said, Erdoğan sees the military operation as an opportunity to boost his domestic popularity in advance of the presidential elections, which are due by November 2019 but may be held earlier at the government’s discretion.