Archive for September 17th, 2018

Turkey asks Israel envoy to leave country

May 15, 2018

Turkey on Tuesday asked the Israeli ambassador to leave the country following indiscriminate violence and killings by Israeli soldiers along the Gaza border, diplomatic sources said.

The Foreign Ministry summoned Ambassador Eitan Naeh and told him it would be “appropriate” for him to return to his country “for a while”, said the sources, who refused to be named due to restrictions on speaking to the media, reports Anadolu Agency.

At least 60 Palestinian demonstrators were martyred and thousands more injured by Israeli forces.

Thousands of Palestinians have gathered on Gaza Strip’s eastern border since Monday morning to take part in protests aimed to commemorate the Nakba anniversary and protest relocating of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Since the border rallies began on March 30, more than 90 Palestinian demonstrators have been martyred by cross-border Israeli gunfire, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

The rallies are to culminate on Tuesday, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s establishment — an event Palestinians refer to as the “Nakba” or “the Catastrophe”.

Last week, the Israeli government said the ongoing border protests constituted a “state of war” in which international humanitarian law did not apply.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180515-turkey-asks-israeli-envoy-to-leave-country/.

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“Last” stand: Syria’s rebel Idlib prepares for a “losing” battle

September 17, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — They dug trenches around towns, reinforced caves for cover and put up sand bags around their positions. They issued calls to arms, urging young men to join in the defense of Idlib, the Syrian province where opposition fighters expect to make their last stand against Russian- and Iranian-backed government troops they have fought for years.

This time, it’s “surrender or die.” As the decisive stand for their last stronghold looms, this motley crew of tens of thousands of opposition fighters, including some of the world’s most radical groups, is looking for ways to salvage whatever is possible of an armed rebellion that at one point in the seven-year conflict controlled more than half of the country.

In its last chapter, just as it has throughout the long, bloody war, the Syrian rebellion’s fate lies in foreign hands. This time, the splintered and diverse rebels have only Turkey. “The whole world gave up on us, but Turkey will not,” said Capt. Najib al-Mustafa, spokesman for the Turkish-backed umbrella group known as the National Front for Liberation.

Idlib, with its 3 million residents and more than 60,000 fighters, is Turkey’s cross to bear. Ankara has appealed to Russia and Iran, its uneasy negotiating partners, for a diplomatic resolution to the ticking bomb. At the same time, it has sent reinforcements of its troops ringing Idlib, a move designed to ward off a ground assault, at least for now.

A wide offensive is only likely after a green light from Russia. But delicate diplomatic moves are at work. Moscow is keen on strengthening ties with Turkey, at a time when Ankara’s relations are at their lowest with the United States. Turkey, by calling on the United States and Europe for support, seems to be playing on that interest to pressure Russia to accept its proposals for a solution on Idlib that avoids an attack.

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets for the second time in 10 days with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, this time in Sochi, Russia. “After proving its influence in Syria and the Middle East, Russia wants to pull Turkey away from the West much more than achieve a military victory over the armed Syrian opposition,” Mustafa Ellabbad, an expert on Turkish-Arab relations, wrote in Kuwait’s al-Qabas newspaper.

The province, the size of Lebanon, has been the beating heart of the rebellion for years. In rebel hands since 2015, it is the largest contiguous territory they controlled. It has access to Turkish borders, securing supply lines for weapons, fighters and aid.

For the past two years, Idlib became the shoe-box into which were pushed an estimated 20,000 rebel fighters from around the country, after their losses to government troops and surrender deals negotiated with Russia and Damascus following devastating sieges. Civilians who refused to go back under government rule were also bussed there, nearly doubling the province’s population.

Among the estimated 60,000 opposition fighters in Idlib are at least 10,000 radicals affiliated with the al-Qaida-linked group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee). Thousands of foreign fighters, from China, Europe and the Middle East, are the backbone of the radical groups.

The Turkish reinforcements are going to 12 observation points that Ankara set up around Idlib last year under a deal with Russia and Iran creating a “de-escalation zone.” The deal also effectively stopped an earlier government advance and set Turkey up as Idlib’s protector.

Separately, Turkey has troops stationed in the enclave under its control north and east of Idlib, where it backs Syrian opposition fighters and a civilian administration. It is part of its plan to create a safe area along the border where some of the more than 3 million Syrian refugees it hosts may return.

Ankara initially sent in its troops more than two years ago to push out the Islamic State group and Syrian Kurdish fighters. For Ankara, the increasingly assertive, U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds were an existential threat that encourages the aspirations of its own Kurdish insurgents.

“In the mind of the rebellion, the hope is that from Turkish support they can have … a republic of northern Syria, protected by Turkey like Northern Cyprus,” said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria watcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

These Turkey-administered areas are likely to be the destination of the displaced and rebels of Idlib in case of an offensive. An Idlib offensive holds multiple threats for Turkey right on its border — a humanitarian crisis, a security nightmare with thousands of gunmen loose and a defeat to its plans for the safe zone. If Syrian forces retake Idlib with no agreement on the fate of the opposition fighters, they could threaten the Turkey-controlled enclave, and Ankara would lose credibility with the fighters and leverage with Damascus on any future deal.

“There is really no way for the Syrian military and Damascus’ allies to launch a military offensive on Idlib that doesn’t have deeply negative, injurious effects on Turkey. There is no real way they can cushion this for Turkey,” said Sam Heller, a Syria expert in the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Turkey’s strategy in the opposition areas has been complicated by the presence of radical fighters. By backing the National Front, it argued it can draw fighters away from the al-Qaida-linked HTS, the dominant power in the province, forcing it to dissolve and creating a new opposition force ready to negotiate with the Syrian government.

The strategy has had limited success. The National Front in recent months gained control of territory in Idlib from HTS, which still controls nearly 70 percent of the province. HTS began to show signs of splits and two weeks ago, Turkey declared it a terrorist group.

But with the onset of a military offensive, HTS has set up joint operation rooms with different National Front factions. Making a rare video appearance in late August, HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani — wearing an olive-green military uniform — vowed to fight Assad’s forces and said Turkish observation points were no protection.

The HTS spokesman in Idlib said now was not the time to talk about dissolving into Turkish-backed rebel groups. He underlined that an arrangement must eventually be made for the foreign fighters in the group.

“Right now, no sound is louder than that of the battle,” Imad Eddin Mujahed said. “We have many military surprises; enough to upset the balance and ward off aggressors.” In rallies around Idlib the last two weeks, protesters took to the streets to deny that the province is a hotbed of extremists. Thousands raised only the flag of the Syrian revolution, a reminder that there was once a popular uprising against Assad, and Idlib is now its last bastion.

Some raised banners reading: “The rebels are our hope and the Turks are our brothers.” Syrian forces and Iranian-backed militias are likely to avoid a clash with the Turkish troops. But the stance of the Syrian government and Iran is clear-cut: they vow to recapture all Syrian territory and are loath to see an expansion of Turkish and American influence. They argue the West fueled jihadis with past support of the opposition and now must let Syria get rid of them.

“Assad and Russia gave the choice to the international community: first we kill everybody. Second thing, (they said) if you want to protect (Idlib) then take those people you think are nice … It is cynical but puts the international community before its contradictions,” said Balanche.

Al-Mustafa, the National Front spokesman, said the rebels are prepared for a battle he called “existential.” But, he added, “our cause will not end if we lose this battle.”

Defying dangers, Idlib residents protest Syria’s Assad

September 14, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — In cities and towns across Syria’s last opposition-held province, Idlib, residents poured into the streets on Friday to demonstrate against President Bashar Assad’s government in defiance of an expected offensive to retake the territory.

In the provincial capital, Idlib city, and in towns including Kafranbel, Dana, Azaz, Maaret al-Numan and al-Bab, demonstrators filled the streets after noon prayers and chanted against Assad, raising the tri-color green, white and black flag that has become the banner of Syria’s 2011 uprising, activists said.

“The rebels are our hope; Turks are our brothers; the terrorists are Bashar, Hezbollah and Russia,” read a banner carried by residents in the village of Kneiset Bani Omar, referring to Turkey which backs the opposition, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Russia that have joined the war along with Assad’s forces.

“There will be no solution in Syria without Assad’s fall,” read another banner carried in the northern village of Mhambel. The demonstrations were reported on the activist-run sites Aleppo Media Center, Orient News, and other social media pages.

Fridays have become the customary day for protests throughout the Arab world since the 2011 uprisings that swept through the region. Assad’s government and its backers, Russia and Iran, say Idlib is ruled by terrorists, and have threatened to seize it by force.

Wissam Zarqa, a university teacher in Idlib, said demonstrators were flying the tri-color flag to rebut the government line that Idlib is dominated by the al-Qaida linked Levant Liberation Committee group.

The province, population 3 million, is now the final shelter for close to 1.5 million displaced Syrians that fled fighting in other parts of Syria. Many say they will not return to government-ruled areas.

Government and Russian forces bombed towns and villages in the province earlier this week, killing more than a dozen civilians and damaging two hospitals. But the strikes eased on Wednesday amid talks between the opposition’s main regional sponsor Turkey, and Russia and Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are slated to meet Monday, said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “We will continue our efforts with Iran and with Russia. … (and) on international platforms as well,” said Cavusoglu in comments carried live on Turkish television.

Turkish media said the two leaders would meet in the Russian city of Sochi. Turkey has warned strongly against military action, saying it would trigger a humanitarian catastrophe. Its military and defense chiefs visited border areas on Friday to inspect troop reinforcements sent to its Hatay and Gaziantep provinces.

Turkey has 12 military posts inside Idlib province, and activists reported on Thursday that Turkish reinforcements crossed over into Syria to fortify the installations. The United Nations said that in the first 12 days of September, over 30,000 people have been internally displaced by an intense aerial bombing campaign. Most of the displaced headed toward the border with Turkey, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, packing already overcrowded camps there.

The U.N.’s World Food Program said it, alongside partners, were already delivering monthly food rations for nearly 600,000 people. It said it was prepared to deliver emergency food assistance for up to 1 million people.

Save The Children said in a statement that it will continue to support extensive humanitarian programs through Syrian partner organizations in the country’s northwest. It added that this includes running primary healthcare clinics and a maternity hospital, vaccination and food security programs, supporting a network of schools and carrying out child protection work.

“One million children are trapped in Idlib facing what could be the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the long and bloody history of Syria’s seven-year war,” said Syria Response Advocacy Manager Caroline Anning.

Also Friday, The Elders, an international non-governmental organization of public figures, called on Russia, Turkey and Iran to work “hand-in-hand to prevent heavy civilian casualties in Syria’s Idlib region.”

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