Trump and the FBI memo. Berlusconi possible kingmaker. Germany close to coalition decision. By Hamish McDonald.

Turkey moves to push back Kurds in Syria

Members of the Free Syrian Army, backed by the Turkish army, in the mountains of Syria’s Afrin region this week.
Members of the Free Syrian Army, backed by the Turkish army, in the mountains of Syria’s Afrin region this week.
Credit: Mohamamad Nour Alkasem / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

In late January six Royal Australian Air Force strike jets ended three years of attacks on Daesh positions in Iraq and Syria and flew back to Australia. But it’s still not time to declare “mission accomplished”. In the Middle East, it never is. As soon as one front shuts down, another opens.

Daesh may have lost the territory it declared its caliphate in 2014, but could still regroup, especially if Iraq’s elections in May end up further alienating the country’s Sunni minority. Meanwhile, the Kurdish YPG fighters, who did much of the ground fighting that the RAAF helped support, now face attack from behind.

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent his army two weeks ago to attack the YPG forces holding an enclave around the city of Afrin, in the north-western border region of Syria. He claimed tacit support from Russia, which controls the air space there. Though he hasn’t yet taken Afrin, he’s threatening to move against the Kurds holding the town of Manbij, to the east, which is part of a much larger enclave held by the YPG and allied militias, together known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Erdoğan’s move came after reports that Washington was planning to build up and sustain a force of 30,000 mostly Kurdish fighters in Syria’s north to prevent a Daesh revival and to improve its bargaining position in a Syrian peace settlement. The Turkish move was to head off what Erdoğan fears will be the basis of a permanent Kurdish enclave, supporting Turkey’s domestic Kurdish insurgents.

It may yet be a quagmire of Turkey’s own. The Kurds, meanwhile, have become a cause for the world’s romanticists of the military persuasion. About 150 foreigners have joined up with the YPG to help hold the northeast Syrian region they call Rojava, certainly including some from the United States and Britain, and perhaps Australia.

The Kurdish question is helping pull the US and Turkey further apart, despite common NATO membership. Erdoğan is veering to Russia, his leadership taking on the same character as Vladimir Putin’s and his military eyeing a Russian air defence system.

Putin has seized control of the Syrian peace process, which has been going nowhere under United Nations auspices. In the Black Sea resort of Sochi early this week, a conference attended by 1600 delegates resolved to form a commission to draw up a new constitution for Syria. The largest group opposed to Bashar al-Assad staying in power, known as the High Negotiations Committee, boycotted the meeting, but it’s being left in the dust.

Trump and the FBI

Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday got him marks for sticking to script, but before he even left Capitol Hill he was deep in a new controversy about his election campaign’s contacts with Russia.

He endorsed “100 per cent” a move by the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, one of Trump’s staunchest Republican backers, to release a memo slurring Federal Bureau of Investigation officials looking into Trump’s pre-election contacts with Russia. The FBI said it has “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy”.

The Pentagon has meanwhile ordered its special inspector-general for Afghanistan reconstruction to stop publishing data on how the Taliban are extending control, despite Trump’s extra US troops and air strikes and cuts to Pakistan’s aid. The insurgents are also mounting spectacular suicide raids into Kabul itself.

Berlusconi revival

It could be “bunga bunga” time again in Italy, as Silvio Berlusconi, 81, shapes up to be the kingmaker in formation of government after elections four weeks from now.

Berlusconi himself is barred from public office until 2019 because of a conviction for tax fraud, and the scandal from his partying with hired, very young women hangs over his hair-grafted head.

Yet with Italian political sentiment driven far to the left and right by economic stagnation and waves of boat people arriving from Africa, his pro-business Forza Italia party is looking relatively moderate and centrist. With about 15 per cent voting support, it could emerge as the swing factor in the new parliament.

Merkel deal close

In Germany, Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic group this week cleared the latest obstacle to forming a coalition government with the left-centre Social Democratic Party, following the inconclusive result of September’s elections.

Migration was the sticking point there as well. Martin Schulz, the SDP leader, faced what has been called a “dwarf uprising” in his party ranks over proposals for strict limits on the number of family members that refugees from war-torn countries can bring in – an issue that in September helped the Alternative für Deutschland gain the first post-1945 presence of a far-right party in the Bundestag.

The parties have now agreed that a moratorium on such family reunions will continue at least until August, to satisfy conservatives, but to placate the socialists, thereafter 1000 family members will be admitted each month, plus an unspecified number of hardship cases.

Pyne for Payne?

While welcoming the jets back from the Middle East, Defence Minister Marise Payne faces some turf wars at home.

Reports suggested she herself was considered for the ejector seat in Malcolm Turnbull’s recent ministerial reshuffle, with appointment as ambassador to the European Union and NATO for compensation. Apparently the hardworking and modest Payne was not making enough khaki political mileage for the Coalition.

By contrast, her junior as minister for defence industry, Christopher Pyne, was out of the blocks immediately as the silly season ended this week announcing a $3.8 billion fund to help propel Australia into the top 10 ranks of arms exporters. For this otherwise pro-market government, money and ideology are no problem when it comes to the defence industry. But surely, to get anywhere against exporters such as the French, British or Russians, some exceptions to our anti-corruption provisions would be required.

There’s also a contest over one of the jewels in the defence crown, the Australian Signals Directorate, following its recent transformation into a statutory body. Defence brass seem worried this will draw the directorate from its traditional tasks intercepting and cracking military data flows into the expanding fields of cybersecurity, counterterrorism, financial tracking and criminal activity. Peter Dutton’s new Home Affairs ministry is moving all over these areas like a cane toad invasion.

This week the defence forces chief, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, announced a new signals intelligence and cyber commander would be inserted alongside civilians into the ASD “to ensure support to military operations remains the agency’s highest priority”.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2018 as "Turkey moves to push back Kurds in Syria".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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