Turks reject US, Paris call for Afrin ceasefire in Syria

EU demands end to Ghouta fighting

Syrian civil defence volunteers carry away a victim’s body who died during a building collapse following reported regime bombardment in Haza, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on Feb 26. (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Feb 28, (Agencies): Turkey forcefully rejected on Wednesday Western calls to suspend its offensive in northwest Syria, saying the United States misunderstood the extent of a UN ceasefire resolution and accusing France of giving “false information” on the issue. Ankara has said the United Nations resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire across Syria does not apply to its five-week-old military operation in Afrin against the Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey says is a terrorist group. In strongly worded statements to two NATO allies, Turkey’s foreign ministry spokesman said a US State Department appeal that Turkey “go back and read” the ceasefire resolution was unfounded, and he also denied that Paris had told Ankara that the truce also applied to its Afrin campaign.

On Monday French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said he had told Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan that the UN demand “applied to all of Syria, including Afrin, and should be implemented everywhere and by all without any delay”. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy challenged that account, saying Macron did not specifically mention Afrin in their telephone conversation about the ceasefire resolution. “Our reaction regarding the error of giving false information to the public was conveyed to French authorities,” Aksoy said.

The UN Security Council resolution demands all parties “cease hostilities without delay … for a durable humanitarian pause for at least 30 consecutive days throughout Syria”. It does not apply to military operations against Islamic State, al Qaeda and groups associated with them or other groups designated as terrorist organisations by the Security Council. Turkey says the YPG militia which controls Afrin is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which is deemed a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.

The YPG is not designated as a terrorist group by the Security Council. US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters on Tuesday that Turkey should read the ceasefire resolution, to “see what the world … is saying about this”. Aksoy said the resolution did not specifically mention Afrin, and Turkey’s operation there was “a fight that is carried out against the terrorist organisations that target Turkey’s national security and Syria’s unity”.

Nauert’s statement “is unfounded and it shows that they are not able to understand the focus of the resolution, or they want to distort it”, Aksoy said. US support for the YPG militia in north Syria has pushed relations between Turkey and the United States to crisis point. Ankara says that after Afrin it will target the Syrian town of Manbij, where YPG and US forces are deployed together. The European Union’s top diplomat has written to the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey urging them to uphold a ceasefire in eastern Ghouta and allow aid into besieged areas.

Appealing to the trio as the leaders of the Syrian peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called on them to “implement a genuine humanitarian pause for at least 30 consecutive days throughout Syria.” In the Feb. 26 letter seen by Reuters, Mogherini also urged Russia, Turkey and Iran to “take all necessary steps to ensure that the fighting stops, that the Syrian people are protected, and finally that urgent humanitarian access and necessary medical evacuations are taking place.” Mogherini said in the letter, which was also sent to all 28 EU foreign ministers and to the secretary-general of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, that a ceasefire would give a chance for UN-led peace talks to make progress.

After helping turn the tide of the war in Syria in favour of its ally President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has cast itself as a Middle East peace broker. Mogherini appealed to Moscow to make good on a July agreement for “de-escalation” zones, saying the United Nations Security Council resolution for a 30-day countrywide ceasefire was an opportunity to “consistently implement the spirit of the decisions taken in Astana.” As the region’s top aid donor, the European Union believes it can use an international conference on Syria in Brussels on April 24-25 to persuade Moscow to stop the fighting if it wants international money to rebuild Syria. “The EU will continue to play its part fully and to mobilise all political and humanitarian tools at its disposal,” Mogherini said in the letter. A donor’s conference last year for Syria saw the European Union pledge 1.2 billion euros ($1.5 billion) for 2017 and the bloc, as well as some 70 other countries, is expected to offer fresh money this year.

Bloody fight
The Syrian government’s battle to recapture the rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus is likely to be a long and bloody fight because of the presence of thousands of battle-hardened fighters who have had years to prepare. Many of the fighters entrenched in eastern Ghouta are originally from the area and move around using an elaborate network of underground tunnels, giving them an advantage against President Bashar Assad’s forces and their Russian- and Iranian-backed allies. The territory of some 400,000 residents is the last major opposition controlled area near Assad’s seat of power, and the rebels have been targeting the capital with volleys of mortar shells, disrupting life in a reminder that they can deprive the city of peace as the government, backed by Russia, rains down bombs and carnage on the besieged area.

If government forces retake eastern Ghouta, only one small pocket south of the capital held by the Islamic State group will remain out of government control. Among the more than 20,000 fighters in eastern Ghouta, a few hundred belong to the al-Qaeda-linked Levant Liberation Committee, giving the government a pretext to continue with its assault. Rebel factions want the al-Qaeda- linked fighters to leave and blame the government for preventing it. In a letter on Monday to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the three main rebel factions in eastern Ghouta said they were committed to making al-Qaedalinked fighters and their families leave within 15 days. An official with one of the most powerful groups, the Army of Islam, said that if the al-Qaeda-linked fighters don’t leave or abandon the fight, “all options” are open against them, including the use of force.

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