‘Intense’ strikes pound east Damascus after opposition assault

An opposition fighter fires a machine gun in Jobar, on the outskirts of Damascus. (AFP)
Updated 20 March 2017
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‘Intense’ strikes pound east Damascus after opposition assault

BEIRUT: Syrian warplanes hammered opposition-held neighborhoods of Damascus on Monday after regime forces pushed back a surprise assault that saw opposition try to fight their way into the city center.
The opposition, led by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh Al-Sham Front, launched an attack early Sunday on regime positions in east Damascus, initially scoring key gains.
But forces loyal to President Bashar Assad drove them back by nightfall and began a fierce bombing campaign on Monday morning.
“There have been intense air strikes since dawn on opposition-held positions in Jobar from which the offensive was launched,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“The government and allied forces have retaken the initiative and are striking the groups that launched yesterday’s assault,” he added.
Abdel Rahman said it was unclear whether regime forces or their Russian allies were carrying out Monday’s raids on Jobar.
Control of Jobar — which has been a battleground for more than two years — is divided between the opposition and the regime.
On Sunday, opposition fighters seized several buildings in Jobar before advancing into the neighboring Abbasid Square area — the first time in two years that the opposition had advanced so close to the capital’s center.
The clashes left dead at least 26 regime forces and 21 opposition and jihadists, Abdel Rahman said, but he did not have an immediate toll for Monday morning’s air strikes.
Sniper fire and air strikes were heard across the city on Sunday as civilians cowered inside their homes and schools announced they would close because of the violence.
But by Monday, the front line had been pushed back, and AFP correspondents said activity in the typically bustling Abbasid Square was returning to normal levels.
Airplanes could still be heard circling above but many of the roads that had been sealed off by army troops the previous day were reopened.
According to the Observatory, regime forces managed to recapture most of the territory overrun by the opposition in their assault.
Opposition forces still controlled several key points in an industrial zone lying between Jobar and the besieged northeastern district of Qabun to the north, according to the Britain-based monitor.
State news agency SANA said Syrian regime troops were targeting opposition bases around Jobar on Monday.
“The military operations north of Jobar targeted the areas from which the terrorists set out, and a large number of them were killed,” it said.
The Islamist Faylaq Al-Rahman opposition group and the Fateh Al-Sham Front — known as Al-Nusra Front before it renounced its ties to Al-Qaeda — have a presence in Jobar.
Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with protests against Assad’s rule but has morphed over the years into a complex civil war.
More than 320,000 people have been killed and millions more have been displaced by the conflict.


Turkey’s ruling party taunts opposition over early election

Updated 21 April 2018
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Turkey’s ruling party taunts opposition over early election

  • By bringing the vote forward by more than a year, Erdogan hopes to capitalize on nationalist support for the military advances by Turkish troops in north Syria
  • Since AK Party first won a parliamentary election in November 2002, Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics, first as prime minister and then as president

ANKARA: Turkey’s ruling AK Party taunted the main opposition party on Thursday to name a candidate to challenge Recep Tayyip Erdogan for June elections which are expected to tighten the president’s 15-year hold on power.

Government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said the secularist opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) was reluctant to put its leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, forward for the June 24 vote “because they do not believe he can compete with our president.”

Erdogan called the snap election on Wednesday, bringing the vote forward by more than a year so that Turkey can switch to the powerful new executive presidency that was narrowly approved in a divisive referendum last year.

While many people expected the presidential and parliamentary elections to be held early, the new date leaves barely two months for campaigning and may have wrong-footed Erdogan’s opponents.

“Our chief has donned his wrestling outfit, so if Mr.Kilicdaroglu says ‘I’m a soldier,’ then he should put on his wrestler’s tights and come out,” Bozdag said. The CHP says it will decide on a candidate in the next 10 days, and the pro-Kurdish HDP said it would convene on Sunday to discuss its plans. The nationalist MHP party has said it is backing Erdogan.

Only former Interior Minister Meral Aksener, who broke away from the MHP last year to form the Good Party, has announced her plans to stand for the presidency.

“A politician does not run from elections,” Bozdag said, adding he believed Erdogan would win in the first round. “We as the AK Party are ready for elections.”

Since AK Party first won a parliamentary election in November 2002, Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics, first as prime minister and then as president, transforming his poor, sprawling country on the eastern fringes of Europe into a major emerging market.

But Turkey’s rapid growth has been accompanied by increased authoritarianism, which critics at home and in Europe say has left the country lurching toward one-man rule.

Since an abortive military coup in July 2016, authorities have detained more than 160,000 people, the UN says. Nearly two years after the coup attempt Turkey is still ruled under a state of emergency, and the crackdown continues.

The US voiced concern on Thursday about the timing. “During a state of emergency, it would be difficult to hold a completely free, fair and transparent election in a manner that is consistent with ... Turkish law,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a briefing.

Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said on Wednesday authorities had identified 3,000 armed forces personnel believed to be linked to the US-based cleric Ankara blames for the failed coup. He said they would be dismissed in the coming days.

Media outlets have also been shut down and scores of journalists have been jailed.

 

Early advantage

By calling the vote nearly a year and half early, Erdogan can capitalize on nationalist support for the military advances by Turkish troops in north Syria, where they drove out Kurdish YPG forces, said Goldman Sachs senior economist Erik Meyersson.

The tight schedule “also gives less time for the opposition to organize and choose presidential candidates,” Meyersson wrote in a research note.

The head of a Turkish polling company seen as close to the AK Party said a poll conducted this week had put the AKP on 41.5 percent, with 6 percent for its ally, the MHP.

Mehmet Ali Kulat, chairman of MAK Danismanlik, said that in a presidential election support for Erdogan could outstrip support for his party.

Erdogan’s announcement helped the lira, which has plumbed record lows this month on widening concern about double-digit inflation and the outlook for monetary policy. The currency surged 2.2 percent on Wednesday, its biggest one-day advance in a year. Turkish stocks also rose more than 2 percent.

Economists said the lira rally reflected a belief that the quick timeline for the election reduced the prospect of extra stimulus to maintain economic growth ahead of the vote.

The economy expanded 7.4 percent last year, fueled by stimulus measures including tax changes and an increase in government credit support for small businesses. The government forecasts 5.5 percent growth in 2018 though economists polled by Reuters expect more modest growth of 4.1 percent.