Russia urges caution on US plan for safe zones in Syria

Internally displaced refugees from al-Bab town gather to receive food aid in Ekhtreen town, northern Aleppo countryside, Syria, on January 21, 2017. Russia and Turkey on Thursday expressed caution over the Trump administration’s interest in setting up safe zones for civilians in Syria. (REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi)
Updated 27 January 2017
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Russia urges caution on US plan for safe zones in Syria

BEIRUT: The Trump administration’s expressed interest in setting up safe zones for civilians in Syria was greeted Thursday with caution by Russia and Turkey, who have taken the lead in the latest peace efforts to end the Mideast country’s devastating six-year war.
Turkey said it had always supported the idea, but both Ankara and Moscow said such plans would require careful consideration while a senior European Union official said the bloc would consider such plans “when they come.”
The idea of safe zones, proposed by both Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton during the US election campaign, was ruled out by the Obama administration for fear it would bring the United States into direct conflict with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russia, which has been waging an air campaign to aid Assad’s forces since September 2015.
In October, the Russian military specifically warned the US against striking Syrian government forces, saying its air defense weapons in Syria would fend off any attack.
The recent rapprochement between Russia and Turkey, a key backer of Syrian rebels which now has thousands of troops in northern Syria, in theory makes the creation of safe zones more achievable. So does Trump’s pledge to mend ties with Moscow.
But enforcing them could risk pulling in the US deeper into Syria’s conflict and heightens the risk of an inadvertent clash in Syria’s crowded skies involving warplanes from various countries bombing targets in Syria.
There was no indication on how a safe-zone would look or how it would be enforced.
Asked to comment on a draft executive order that President Trump is expected to sign this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said it was important to “weigh all possible consequences” of the measure.
Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with reporters that the US hasn’t consulted with Russia on the subject and noted that “it’s important not to exacerbate the situation with refugees.”
While suspending visas for Syrians and others, the order directs the Pentagon and the State Department to produce a plan for safe zones in Syria and the surrounding area within 90 days. It includes no details.
A Turkish official said his country has always supported the idea of safe zones in Syria but would need to review any US plans before commenting. Foreign Ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu told reporters that Turkey has “seen the reports on a request for a study on the safe zone,” adding that “what is important is to see the result of these studies.”
He pointed to the Syrian city of Jarablus, near the Turkish border, where thousands of Syrians have returned after Turkish-backed opposition forces drove out the Daesh group, as a good example of what can be achieved.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, speaking at a press conference in Beirut on Thursday, said it was too early to comment.
“I will not comment on things ... that are for the moment reports of the beginnings of a process of reflection,” she said. “We will consider plans when they come.”
She said the EU was mainly concerned with pushing a political solution to Syria’s six-year-old war so that a political transition can start so that “every single Syrian inside or outside Syria” can return.
“We need to turn this from a proxy war to a proxy peace and our role is to facilitate,” she said.
Russia has welcomed Trump’s pledge to mend ties with Moscow and potentially partner with it against the Islamic State and other extremist groups.
But Trump has provided few details about how he plans to approach Syria’s complex conflict, and the Kremlin, which was bitterly at odds with the Obama administration, has said that rebuilding trust will take time.
Peskov said no agreement has been reached on a Trump-Putin phone call and that there have been no contacts between their administrations yet beyond routine diplomatic exchanges.
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Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.


In Jordan’s ancient Petra, sirens warn of flash floods

Updated 1 min 39 sec ago
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In Jordan’s ancient Petra, sirens warn of flash floods

PETRA, Jordan: In ancient times, Arab tribesmen dug diversion tunnels to protect their low-lying trading post of Petra against desert flash floods. More than two millennia later, an alarm system warns visitors if flood water rushes toward what has become Jordan’s main tourist attraction.
Earlier this month, the alarms were activated for the first time, said Hussein Al-Hasanat of the Petra Development & Tourism Region Authority. Sirens blared minutes before a torrent fed by heavy rains approached the UNESCO World Heritage site carved into rose-hued rock face.
Hundreds of tourists were able to seek higher ground and were later evacuated, he said.
Amateur video posted online at the time showed visitors running through a steep, narrow canyon leading to the Treasury, Petra’s main draw, as guides urged them to hurry. Later, visitors were seen standing on a higher patch near the Treasury as knee-high water poured through the canyon.
Elsewhere in Jordan, such alarms are still missing. Thirty-four people were killed in flash floods in late September and early November.
The last fatal flash flood struck Petra in 1963 when 22 French tourists and a local guide were killed by rapidly rising waters. In response, Jordan’s Department of Antiquities built a dam to keep water from entering the canyon leading to the Treasury.
In 2014, the alarm system was installed as added protection, with sirens set to go off when flood water rises above four meters (yards).
On Nov. 9, the system was triggered for the first time, through a computer in the Petra Authority’s control room. The computer is connected to eight rain forecast systems and two water detection stations placed in the area, within 8 kilometers (5 miles) of Petra.
The network generates instant data allowing officials to measure possible danger and warn people by the time the water reaches Petra.
Omar Dajani, a meteorologist at the Arabia Weather company, said alarms should be installed in all vulnerable areas in Jordan.
He said urban sprawl has exacerbated the flood risk, which is particularly high in dry areas.
“Now towns have spread so much and many of them were not built with respect for the geography of the region, such as valleys for example, where the water has naturally caused floods for millions of years,” Dajani said.