Ankara, Moscow coordinate steps ahead of new round of Astana talks

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he arrives to address the lawmakers of his ruling party in Ankara, Turkey, on Oct. 24, 2017. Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin were said to have discussed the latest developments in Syria by phone on Friday ahead of the seventh round of peace talks in Astana. (Turkish Presidential Press Service, pool photo via AP)
Updated 29 October 2017
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Ankara, Moscow coordinate steps ahead of new round of Astana talks

ANKARA: Ankara and Moscow continued their coordination on Syria ahead of the seventh round of peace talks in Astana on Monday.
On Oct. 28, according to presidential sources quoted in Turkish media, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin discussed the latest developments in Syria by phone.
They reportedly underlined the significance of closely coordinating in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, where the Turkish military recently began building observation posts as part of a “de-escalation” deal brokered by Ankara, Moscow and Tehran last month.
Experts say they expect Idlib to dominate the agenda of the upcoming Astana meeting, which is due to last for two days.
“The Turkish Army is working very closely with Russia to secure and monitor the de-escalation zone in Idlib,” Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, told Arab News.
“Russia expects Turkey to play an influential role there in keeping rebel groups away from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham.”
Turkey’s alleged plan to launch an operation against Kurdish forces in the neighboring region of Afrin is also likely to be discussed.
“It’s not clear whether Moscow is ready to give Ankara a free hand over Afrin yet,” said Ersen.
“This is mainly because Russia has remarkably improved its relations with the Syrian Kurds in the last few years, in the belief that they’d play a crucial role in the reconstruction of post-Daesh Syria,” he added.
“Although Moscow perceives the YPG (People’s Protection Units) as under the influence of Washington, it still wants to maintain its leverage over the Syrian Kurds.”
Ersen said the draft constitution prepared by Russia a few months ago, which includes greater autonomy for Syrian Kurds, will continue to be the main point of disagreement between Ankara and Moscow.
The Astana talks have been led by Turkey, Russia and Iran. Representatives of the Assad regime, armed opposition groups, the UN, the US and Jordan are expected to attend the upcoming meeting.
Ersen said Moscow and Tehran know that they need active Turkish cooperation, at least in the short term, in order to keep Syrian rebel groups under control.
“So they might try to appease Ankara with a few minor concessions regarding Afrin,” he added.
“Considering the latest rapprochement between Turkey and Iran over the Kurdish independence referendum in northern Iraq, they might use this new momentum to reach an understanding about the Syrian Kurds.”
So far, Turkish troops have installed two observation posts in northern Syria, and the number is expected to reach 14.
Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, head of the Ankara-based think tank ANKASAM, said Turkish and Russian interests converge on the need to develop an efficient dialogue mechanism regarding current and potential developments in their neighborhood.
“The Astana peace process confirmed that both parties will cooperate to end the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and to preserve their territorial integrity,” Erol told Arab News.
“I don’t think there’s a divergence between Moscow and Ankara over the YPG and its political wing the PYD (Democratic Union Party),” he said.
“They just differ on one thing: Turkey doesn’t consider any terror group a counterpart in the negotiations, while Russia doesn’t want to leave the PYD/YPG to the US.”
But Erol said the Turkish-Russian partnership in Syria will be tested if Ankara launches a military offensive in Afrin and Manbij.
“During this seventh round of Astana talks, I expect the parties to underline that they won’t tolerate any terror corridor along Syria and Iraq, and they’ll call for a joint stance against separatist movements,” he said.
Russia will also give a green light to Turkey’s ongoing security and anti-terror operations in Idlib, Erol added.


In Jerusalem’s Old City, conflict means buyer and seller beware

Updated 22 min 16 sec ago
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In Jerusalem’s Old City, conflict means buyer and seller beware

  • ‘Can we be held accountable for something that was sold over two years ago?’
  • The land conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is also a battle over Jerusalem and its Old City
JERUSALEM: In an alley in Jerusalem’s Old City, a three-story building has become a symbol of Palestinian fears they are losing precious ground in the historic area.
Adeeb Joudeh Al-Husseini says he did nothing wrong, but even his status as a member of one of Jerusalem’s most prominent Palestinian families did not shield him from the blowback.
The 55-year-old was accused of being behind the sale of the Mamluk-style building in the Old City’s Muslim quarter to Israeli settlers — something most Palestinians consider treason.
“Can we be held accountable for something that was sold over two years ago?” he asks as he sits at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built at the spot where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried.
Joudeh, as his family is known, is one of the keepers of the keys of the church and has faced calls to relinquish that role over the sale.
He proudly brandishes the long, arrow-shaped key — which the Muslim family says it has handed down from father to son since the 13th century — as proof of his innocence.
Joudeh says he sold the property to another Palestinian in 2016 for $2.5 million and cannot be held responsible if it was passed on to settlers, who moved there in late 2018.
But the building he once owned is not the only one triggering Palestinian concerns.
The land conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is also a battle over Jerusalem and its Old City, home to sites holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Israel took over mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.
It now considers the entire city its capital, citing the Jewish historical and biblical connection there.
The Palestinians see east Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, as the capital of their future state.
They consider each property sale to Israeli settlers there as another blow to their cause.
Some 320,000 Palestinians live in east Jerusalem, while the Israeli settler population there has now grown to 210,000.
Israel bars the Palestinian Authority from operating in Jerusalem, but it seeks to maintain influence, however limited.
Such sales can in theory carry the death penalty under PA law.
In one high-profile case in recent weeks, an American-Palestinian man, Issam Akel, was sentenced to life in prison by a PA court in the occupied West Bank over a property sale in the Old City.
Akel’s lawyer, Oday Nawfel, said he was simply trying to help another Palestinian family sort out inheritance issues with the building, down the street from the one Joudeh sold.
Akel’s case has drawn criticism from David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, who has been a supporter of settlements and has called for Akel’s release.
It also led to calls in Israel for authorities there to act.
Following Akel’s arrest, Israel detained the Palestinian governor of Jerusalem a number of times over suspicions of involvement in the affair.
Another 32 Palestinians were arrested by Israeli forces on similar grounds that they were supporting the PA in the matter, but eventually all were released.
Akel was reported to have been released this past week on condition he leaves for the US, though neither his lawyer nor the US embassy confirmed the deal.
In a separate case in November, the highest Muslim authority in Jerusalem, Grand Mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, refused to allow a Palestinian killed in a car accident to be buried in a Muslim cemetery over suspicions he had once sold property to Jews.
Israeli settler groups push to make deals happen as part of their efforts to increase the Jewish population in east Jerusalem, sometimes offering exorbitant sums to pressure owners to sell.
The groups use a variety of means such as middlemen or shell companies, anti-settlement activists say.
“These are not open, transparent transactions,” said Yudith Oppenheimer, who heads Ir Amim, an Israeli anti-settlement NGO focused on Jerusalem.
Daniel Luria of Ateret Cohanim, which works to increase the Jewish population of east Jerusalem, defended its actions.
“Everyone should be able to buy and sell” in areas under Israeli sovereignty, said Luria.
Joudeh displays documents that he says show the PA validated the sale of his home to another Palestinian.
He says the buyer “betrayed me, betrayed the Palestinian Authority and Palestine.”
The Palestinian who in 2016 bought the house, Khaled Al-Atari, refused to speak with AFP citing an ongoing investigation on the Palestinian side.
Regardless of who was responsible, neighbors fear more such sales are ahead.