Michael MacKenzie
Jan 21 2018

Arab media: Turkey arms rebels and surrounds Afrin

This week, much of the Arabic-language news on Turkey focused on the possible Turkish military operation the northwest Syria near the town of Afrin, while Egyptian media continued their coverage of the shipment of weaponry discovered by Greek coastguards en route to Libya.

The prospect of a Turkish assault on Afrin unsurprisingly dominated the coverage of Turkey in regional newspapers. Turkey began preparations to launch a military operation against the majority-Kurdish area after news emerged of a U.S.-backed 30,000-strong joint-border force including fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), considered an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey.

The London-based Al-Quds Al-Araby newspaper said on Friday that went into Turkish preparations for the assault at some length.

Around 7,000 Turkish soldiers, as well as artillery and anti-aircraft guns, have been deployed in the countryside north and west of Aleppo, adjacent to YPG-controlled areas, according to a source quoted by the newspaper from the Northern Syrian Observer website.

It said the Turkish military operation would reportedly be supported by around 6,500 fighters from the same Syrian opposition factions that collaborated in the 2016-17 Euphrates Shield operation, in which Turkish forces intervened in northern Syria in the region west of the Euphrates River. Turkey’s preparations with these forces are “almost complete”, the newspaper said.

Al-Quds Al-Araby said heavy fighting had already begun between Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces and Kurdish units in the region of Azaz, north of Aleppo, and that Kurdish militias had exchanged artillery fire with the Free Syrian Army elsewhere.

The Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat ran a story on Friday headlined “Russian silence on Turkish preparations to strike Afrin”, covering the Turkish attempts to gain Russian consent to begin an air assault.

The report said Turkey had “intensified” its coordination with Russia and Iran on using Syrian airspace to strike targets in Afrin.

Russian forces are stationed near Afrin, making coordination between the two countries essential in the case of a Turkish air strike, as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu noted in a statement on Thursday.

Al-Hayat said that coordination over air strikes was one of the main points discussed during Thursday’s meeting in Moscow between Turkish Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar, Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

The Qatari network Al-Jazeera’s Arabic-language site reported on the same story on Thursday, and included a comment by Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad who said Syria would consider any Turkish offensive on Afrin as an act of aggression, and had prepared its air defences to target Turkish planes in the event of an air assault.

Al-Jazeera’s piece said the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces had broadcast images of reinforcements arriving in the city of Manbij, northeast of Aleppo, and said more forces were expected to bolster defences against the impending threat of a Turkish offensive.

The press in Egypt has continued to pursue the story of the Andromeda, a Tasmanian-registered vessel that was impounded by the Greek coastguard while carrying tonnes of explosives and weaponry from Turkey to the Libyan port of Misrata.

The United Nations and European Union have embargoed the supply of weapons to Libya, where fighting has raged since the 2011 uprising to overthrow despot Muammar Gaddafi, and a Libyan human rights group called on the UN Security Council to take action against Turkey on the matter this January.

Al-Ahram, Egypt’s influential state-owned newspaper, published an opinion piece by Gamal Afifi on Friday reiterating that call, and saying the incident had proved “beyond any doubt” that Turkey was “the main sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East, working to stir up chaos”.

Turkey and Egypt’s relations have been tense since the 2013 overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi by the current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described as an “illegitimate tyrant”.

Turkey is taking advantage of the “security vacuum” in Libya, and the 1,200 km border it shares with Egypt, to direct threats at Egypt, said the opinion piece. Libya has become a “safe haven” for terrorist organisations, including returning fighters from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the Nigerian jihadist organisation Boko Haram.

The shipment of weapons, therefore, represents a “direct threat to Egyptian national security”, since it could result in weapons reaching these groups, who “seek in various ways to infiltrate Egyptian territory.”