Arab media slams Turkey-backed rebels for ditching Assad fight

As Turkey’s military operation in the northwestern Syrian enclave of Afrin came to the end of its first week, much of the Arabic-language media’s focus on Turkey has been on this assault, including interviews revealing the human cost of the fighting. Meanwhile, Egyptian news has reported that suspects in two assassination attempts on the Egyptian president have been active in Turkey.

The Qatari news network Al-Jazeera reported on the operation on Jan. 24, including the noteworthy information that the Free Syrian Army, a Syrian opposition group that has long enjoyed Turkish backing, had captured the village of Hammam, which lies between Afrin and Idlib near the border with the Turkish province of Hatay.

Syrian opposition factions are an important part of Turkey’s strategy in Afrin, with thousands of fighters who took part in Turkey’s 2016-17 Euphrates Shield operation in northern Syria engaged to participate in the Turkish offensive as this column reported last week.

The Guardian reported on Jan. 26 that rebel groups had been forced to “put their own aims aside to fight Turkey’s battles”, quoting nine Syrian rebel commanders and officials who expressed their determination to stand by Turkey in spite of the distraction this could prove to their own campaign in the Idlib region.

Idlib governorate in northwestern Syria is the largest area in the country that is still held by rebels fighting President Bashar Assad. However, the opposition groups backed by Turkey are already fighting on two fronts in the region, against government forces on one side, and extremist jihadist groups on the other.

One such group, the alleged al Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), is the dominant force in Idlib city. Rebel commanders interviewed by the Guardian said the Afrin offensive “would open a ground corridor to Idlib … allowing them to launch a full-scale attack to purge al Qaeda from the area”.

Meanwhile, the Eba’a news agency, the media organ of HTS, published a report on the fighting in Abu al-Duhur airbase in Idlib, accusing the rebels mobilising on Afrin of abandoning the fight against the regime in “the last bastion of the Syrian revolution” and neglecting the “5 million displaced people from different regions” who it implies have taken refuge in Idlib

The London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Araby also carried news of displaced people in a report containing interviews with residents of villages on the Syrian-Turkish border near Afrin.

Villagers from Jandaris, near the border with Turkey to the west of Afrin, describe how their homes were bombarded by Turkish artillery for days, until they were finally forced to flee the area and seek shelter in Afrin, which is still far from the front lines of the fighting.

“The shells hit our neighbourhoods, generators, even the bakery. There was nothing left”, said a Jandaris resident. “If I did not get out of my house, I would be dead.”

Another of the displaced villagers from Jandaris, a young pregnant woman named Zarifa, told the newspaper that she had spent a night hiding in her home’s basement with her family, to discover their house had been destroyed when they emerged. They arrived in Afrin without any belongings, the newspaper said.

In Egypt, high profile trials have been ongoing since 2016 of hundreds of people charged with being members of the “Province of Sinai”, the Egyptian affiliate of the Islamic State, which is fighting Egyptian troops in the Sinai Peninsula.

Among the defendants are former police officers and militants accused of orchestrating two separate assassination attempts, in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the general who deposed former President Mohamed Morsi in a coup with popular backing in 2013.

The Saudi newspaper Al Arabiya English reported on Nov. 21 2016 that the group had planned to kill Sisi during a pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in August 2014. The plot in Egypt was hatched by six police officers and a dentist, who planned to target Sisi’s motorcade.

The trials have turned up information on wide-ranging terrorist activities by the group in Egypt and abroad, including terrorist attacks on security personal and public buildings; the manufacture of explosives; and training jihadist militants to fight in Egypt, Syria and Libya.

Youm7, Egypt’s most widely read news website, reported on the trials on Jan. 26, including information on one of the accused, who it says had taken refuge in Turkey.

Abdul Rahman al-Azzazi, who Youm7 reports lives in Turkey, is alleged to have been a key member of a cell that is said to have received funding from the Province of Sinai to train new recruits in guerrilla warfare, weapons use, and monitoring targets. The cell was also purchased weaponry, manufactured bombs and harboured fugitives, it said.

The recruits were reportedly to be sent to Syria and Libya, where they would make contact with preachers affiliated to the organisation.

Another witness in the trial recounted a 48-hour journey from Turkey to the Syrian city of Aleppo, which at the time was held by the Islamic State, Youm7 reported.

Turkey’s relations with Egypt have been at a low since Morsi was deposed by Sisi, who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses of being a “tyrant”. Egyptian unease with Turkey’s role in the region is reflected in the media, with frequent accusations that the Turkish government is assisting terrorist organisations, as this column reported last week.