Pentagon chief arrives in Egypt on Mideast tour

Updated 25 April 2013

Pentagon chief arrives in Egypt on Mideast tour

CAIRO: US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel landed in Egypt yesterday as part of a Middle East tour designed to bolster America's alliances amid growing concern over the fallout from Syria's roiling civil war.
In his first trip to the Middle East as Pentagon chief, Hagel is promoting longstanding US military ties with traditional allies, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, as a way of countering Iran and deterring militants.
Hagel, who was in Riyadh on Tuesday evening to finalize a major arms sale to Saudi Arabia, traveled to Cairo to meet his counterpart, General Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, and later hold discussions with President Muhammad Mursi.
For years Egypt was at the center of America's strategic influence in the region but since the 2011 ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the United States has had to contend with new political realities and an independent-minded government in Cairo.
US officials, however, say security ties cultivated over decades between the two countries have survived the revolution and that America's military leaders still have a direct channel to Egypt's powerful top brass.
"We can pick up the phone, the secretary of defense, and have his counterpart who we can talk to at any time," a senior defense official told reporters last week before Hagel's trip. "Despite changes in the Egyptian military and political system, that's been constant."
In the post-Mubarak era, the United States still provides more than a billion dollars in annual military aid to Egypt. The huge funding package has always been seen as a way of ensuring Cairo abide by the 1979 peace accords with Israel.
Hagel and his counterparts are expected to discuss relations with Israel, deteriorating security in the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt's domestic politics, officials said.
Hagel's visit coincides with political crises and power struggles in Egypt, including a hemorrhaging economy and threats by the opposition to boycott parliamentary elections.
"He'll have an opportunity to talk directly with Egyptian officials about the difficult times they're in," said the defense official.
Hagel's trip will mark the first meeting between US and Egyptian defense chiefs since former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta paid a visit last August.
The new Pentagon chief, who took office two months ago, came to the Middle East touting an elaborate arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel designed to bolster America's partners as a counterweight to Iran. But Syria's raging civil war has topped the agenda through much of Hagel's trip, amid renewed fears Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has turned to deadly chemical weapons in its fight with rebel forces.
The United States has said any use or transfer of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" and possibly trigger military action.

But Hagel's spokesman said the US government was still not convinced chemical agents had been employed and that the claims were being reviewed.
Hagel began his tour with a three-day visit to Israel and he stopped in Jordan before flying to Riyadh on Tuesday.
After discussions in Egypt, Hagel will head to the United Arab Emirates, which has signed up to buy nearly $ 5 billion worth of American-made F-16 fighter jets as well as sophisticated missiles that can hit targets at a long-range.

Turkey, Russia discussing Idlib airspace control: Sources

Updated 23 September 2018

Turkey, Russia discussing Idlib airspace control: Sources

  • Turkey has set up observation posts in Idlib in a bid to prevent clashes between rebels and government forces
  • After a meeting on Sept. 17 between Putin and Erdogan, agreed to create a de-militarized zone in Idlib by Oct. 15

ANKARA: The partial transfer of control of the airspace over the de-escalation zone in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib from Moscow to Ankara is being discussed by the two sides, Russian sources said. 

The aim is to enable Turkey to conduct an aerial campaign against Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which Ankara recently designated a terrorist organization. 

A former Al-Qaeda affiliate, HTS is the strongest armed group in Idlib, the last stronghold of Syrian anti-government rebels. 

In February, HTS claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian warplane in Idlib using a surface-to-air missile.

Russia, Turkey and Iran are monitoring the de-escalation zone in the province as part of a trilateral agreement. 

Turkey has set up observation posts in Idlib in a bid to prevent clashes between rebels and government forces.

“Discussions are ongoing about the details of this transfer (of airspace control). I guess it will be limited to the buffer zone in Idlib for now,” Yury Barmin, an analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Arab News.

“If Russia is taking steps to allow Turkey to use Idlib’s airspace, it will give Turkey more room for maneuver in the region.”

But airstrikes by Ankara against HTS might create another refugee influx into Turkey, which already hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees, Barmin said. 

Idlib is home to more than 1 million displaced Syrians, and its population exceeds 3 million. Turkey is concerned that the creation of a humanitarian crisis near its border would further swell its own refugee population. 

After a meeting on Sept. 17 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the two countries agreed to create a de-militarized zone in Idlib by Oct. 15.

The deal requires that all radical groups, including HTS, withdraw from the area and that all heavy weapons be removed.

Russian and Turkish troops will conduct coordinated patrols to ensure that all armed groups respect the deal.

Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, said a transfer of airspace control would mean that Ankara and Moscow are determined to implement their latest agreement regarding Idlib. 

“Until now, Idlib’s airspace has been fully controlled by Russia, which weakened Turkey’s hand in trying to convince rebel groups in the region to abandon their arms,” he told Arab News.

Transferring airspace control “would give Ankara additional diplomatic leverage in its dealings with HTS,” he said. 

“If Ankara fails to persuade HTS to comply with the Putin-Erdogan deal regarding Idlib, it’s almost certain that Russia and Syrian government forces will start a military operation in the region.”

So Turkey is sending a message to HTS that if carrots do not work, it has some sticks at its disposal, Ersen said.