Erdogan: 'Nothing will stop us' if Syrian Kurds do not leave Manbij

Turkish president intensifies warnings as US exits Syria; Islamic Jihad bends Hamas to its will; Amberin Zaman reports on Tunisia’s returning jihadis.

al-monitor A Turkish-backed Syrian rebel rides on a truck with a mounted weapon in the Manbij countryside, Syria, Dec. 28, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi.

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Feb 10, 2019

“If the terrorists in Manbij are not removed in the next few weeks, our waiting will end,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned last week. He added, “We will go our own way and nothing will stop us from implementing our plans, including a sanctions list,” Jasper Mortimer reports.

“Turkey reached an agreement with the United States for the withdrawal of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Manbij last year,” writes Mortimer. “But despite [US President Donald] Trump’s announcement in December that US forces would pull out of Syria, the town continues to be controlled by US troops and the allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — of which the YPG is the largest component. … Similarly, Turkey says the Americans have not done enough toward setting up a safe zone along Syria’s northeast border with Turkey, a zone free of the YPG.”

“If the US does not contribute to a safe zone under the control of Turkey, we will take the matter into our own hands,” Erdogan said. “We don’t accept any other formula than a safe zone where Turkey has control and other countries provide logistical support.”

The Pentagon is planning to withdraw all US troops from Syria by the end of April, according to current and former officials, and reported in The Wall Street Journal.

“Turkey finds itself in an increasingly difficult situation on two fronts in Syria,” explains Semih Idiz. “Its key priorities have boiled down to trying to keep Russian and Syrian regime forces out of Idlib on the one hand and securing the departure of US forces from Manbij and territories east of the Euphrates River on the other. … The two topics will continue to drain Turkey’s diplomatic energies in the coming weeks and months and require subtle negotiations with the United States and Russia if Ankara is to make any headway in its plans for northern Syria.”

“Moscow continues to complain that the memorandum agreed upon between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in September 2018 for Idlib is not working,” writes Idiz. “According to the memorandum, Turkey — which has established a military presence in the province — was to neutralize the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group that Moscow and Damascus have vowed to eliminate. In return, Moscow and Damascus agreed not to stage any attacks on the province. … While not accusing Turkey directly, Russia has been saying for weeks that the Idlib accord is not being fully implemented. Moscow also says that HTS has taken control of 70% of Idlib province, prompting a resumption of Russian and Syrian strikes there.”

“Aware of the increasing difficulties it faces in Idlib, Ankara has started to accuse the West of supporting HTS in order to undermine the Turkish-Russian memorandum,” adds Idiz. “Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu repeated this accusation — first brought up by Erdogan in December 2018 — during a meeting with Hurriyet editors last week. ‘I know for a fact that some Western countries are encouraging HTS and even giving it money to commit these violations in order to spoil the Idlib memorandum,’ Cavusoglu said.”

Islamic Jihad steps up in Gaza

“Over the past few months, Israeli security forces have noted the growing influence of the Islamic Jihad on Hamas,” reports Shlomi Eldar. “Seeking to avoid problems with Iran, the Hamas leadership feels it has little choice but to follow the Islamic Jihad’s dictates in their actions when dealing with Israel and Egypt.”

“Inevitably, the relationship between Islamic Jihad and Hamas was complicated,” explains Eldar. “On one hand, the two groups fully cooperated operationally in times of emergency and during armed conflicts with Israel. On the other hand, Islamic Jihad competed with Hamas over Palestinian public opinion, particularly when it came to the question of who was more loyal to the idea of a genuine armed jihad against Israel.”

“Islamic Jihad became a contractor for Hamas on more than one occasion,” adds Eldar. “In some cases, it fired rockets at Israel just to ensure there would be no Hamas fingerprints on the operation. At other times, Islamic Jihad tried to challenge Hamas in an effort to prove to the people of Gaza and their custodians in Tehran that their magnanimous funding was being put to good use.”

“So far, it looks like Islamic Jihad is managing to bend Hamas to its will,” concludes Eldar. “In the past, any shooting — which would have posed a problem to Hamas and led to the collapse of its understanding with Israel and Egypt — would have resulted in the arrest of the people who fired the shots or even of the people who sent them. This was true even when Ramadan Shalah stood at the head of Islamic Jihad. Instead, head of the Hamas political bureau Ismail Haniyeh arrived in Cairo on Feb. 4, together with [Islaic Jihad Secretary General Ziyadg al-]Nakhalah, for discussions with Egyptian intelligence officials on ways to maintain calm with Israel.”

Report from Tunis

“The subject of Tunisians who joined IS [Islamic State] remains highly sensitive in this North African nation that has, in previous years, been rocked by a series of deadly jihadi attacks,” reports Amberin Zaman. “Few ordinary Tunisians are willing to talk about the jihadis for fear of drawing the notoriously heavy-handed security services’ attention.”

IS attacks led to an official state of emergency in Tunisia beginning in 2015. “The number of attacks has sharply diminished,” Zaman writes, “thanks in large measure to help from the EU, Algeria and the United States, all of which have a vested interest in containing the threat. The border with Libya, through which jihadis and weapons once flowed, is tightly monitored by US-supplied surveillance drones and is being beefed up with sand barriers and water trenches.”

“Casting poverty and joblessness as the main sources of radicalism can also be reductive,” concludes Zaman. “Asked why he believed his brother, Jamel Ben Moussa, had joined IS, Saif said, ‘It was out of weakness of character. He was drinking every day, hanging out with girls and even taking drugs. He wasn’t looking for a job and just taking money from our mother.’ The family was comfortably well off, Saif explained. But before his disappearance in August 2014, Moussa had grown a beard and began spending long hours at a local mosque. ‘He began lecturing us. IS brainwashes people. They are the devil,’ he said.”

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