Syria peace deal threatened as Iran and Turkey clash in Idlib

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters walk as the sun sets in Eastern Afrin countryside, Syria. (Reuters)
Updated 06 February 2018
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Syria peace deal threatened as Iran and Turkey clash in Idlib

ANKARA: A deadly attack carried out by Iranian militias on Turkish troops deep inside Syria has cast renewed doubt on the survival of a de-escalation agreement meant to ease tensions between three of the main powers enmeshed in the long-running conflict.
The assault on the outpost in Idlib province, southwest of Aleppo city, on Monday night killed one Turkish soldier and injured five others. The Turkish military retaliated with rocket fire, but experts have told Arab News that the bloodshed could be a sign of further trouble to come.
Last year officials from Ankara, Tehran and Moscow agreed to set up a series of de-escalation zones in Syria that were supposed to reduce violence between anti-government insurgents and forces fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The UN backed the move but all three countries remain deeply involved in the conflict and Monday night’s attack was just the latest indication that their detente is in danger of collapsing into a new wave of violence.
Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, said the deal — struck in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana — was “still valid” but “the three guarantor countries should immediately meet and discuss the ongoing problems with each other.”
He anticipated more clashes between Iran’s proxy forces and Turkish troops in the coming weeks, as both powers seek to exert their influence over Idlib — a province controlled by the former Al-Qaeda affiliate group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham.
The outpost that was attacked on Monday had only been established that morning. It is the fourth observation point the Turkish military has set up in Idlib, with a further eight still due to be built under the terms of the Astana deal, but its construction came at a particularly delicate time.
On Jan. 20, the Turkish military launched Operation Olive Branch against Kurdish fighters belonging to militias including the People’s Protection Units (YPG) stationed in the nearby Syrian district of Afrin. Ankara has since portrayed the offensive as a successful attempt to root out separatists threatening its sovereignty but Damascus fears Turkish troops are moving deeper into Syrian territory in an attempt to establish a permanent presence in the country.
The Syrian civil war has turned into a battleground for regional and international powers since it first began with a wave of civil unrest against the Assad regime in 2011. The regime responded to the peaceful protests in brutal fashion, arresting and killing thousands of its opponents and deliberately stoking the flames of an Islamist insurgency.
Under the guise of fighting terrorism and protecting one of its main allies, Iran has become increasingly involved in the war. There was further evidence of this close relationship after Monday night’s attack, with the Syrian army yesterday (Tuesday) deploying anti-aircraft missiles to the front lines in Aleppo and Idlib in an apparent warning to Ankara not to retaliate further.
Tehran has also urged Turkey to stop its military offensive against the Kurdish separatists, accusing it of breaching Syrian sovereignty and destabilizing the region.
Meanwhile, Russia still finds itself mired in the conflict almost three years after first launching airstrikes against opposition groups fighting the Assad regime. Last Saturday, one of its pilots blew himself up with a grenade to avoid being captured by insurgents after his plane was shot down over Idlib.
Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at the Moscow-backed Russian International Affairs Council, told Arab News that the latest clash between Turkey and Iranian-sponsored militias might yet develop into a major new fault-line in the war.
“It would not be unrealistic to expect confrontation between Turkey-backed groups and pro-Assad forces in the coming days. The decisive factor, however, will be the absence of Russian air support in any offensives against Turkish interests,” he said.


Israeli forces wound 77 Palestinians at protest near Gaza Strip border

Protesters run for cover from teargas during Friday’s protests in Gaza. (AP)
Updated 20 October 2018
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Israeli forces wound 77 Palestinians at protest near Gaza Strip border

  • Palestinians have been protesting along the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of the territory and the right to return to lands that Palestinians fled or were driven from upon Israel’s founding in 1948

GAZA: Israeli soldiers shot and wounded 77 Palestinians during protests near the Gaza Strip border on Friday, the enclave’s Health Ministry said.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said about 10,000 demonstrators massed at the border and that some threw burning tires, grenades and explosive devices at the troops across the fence. About 30 Palestinians suffered tear gas inhalation, the Gaza Health Ministry said.
But the protest was relatively small — some of the previous gatherings included about 30,000 people, a sign that tensions that have built up in the past few days may be easing.
On Thursday, Israel had ramped up armored forces along the Gaza border, a day after a rocket fired from the enclave destroyed a home in southern Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed “very strong action” if attacks continued. A Palestinian official said Egyptian security officials had held separate meetings in the past few days with Israeli counterparts and with leaders of the Palestinian Hamas group that rules Gaza in an effort to prevent an escalation in violence.
Palestinians have been protesting along the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of the territory and the right to return to lands that Palestinians fled or were driven from upon Israel’s founding in 1948. About 200 Gazans have been killed by Israeli troops since the protests started, according to Palestinian Health Ministry figures. Pale stinians have launched incendiary balloons and kites into Israel and on occasion breached the Israeli frontier fence. More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal enclave. Israel pulled troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders.
Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border. Nickolay Mladenov, the UN’s Mideast peace envoy, earlier urged Israel and the Palestinians to exercise restraint ahead of the protests. Mosque loudspeakers in the Palestinian enclave urged Gazans to attend Friday’s demonstrations, despite statements by Gaza’s leaders that Hamas seeks to rein in the protests. “In light of today’s planned Gaza march, I urge all to exercise restraint, to proceed in a peaceful manner, and to avoid escalation,” Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement. “The UN is working with Egypt and its partners to avoid violence, address all humanitarian issues and support reconciliation.”
Egyptian intelligence officials met with Hamas and Israeli officials on Thursday in efforts to broker a cease-fire and ease months of deadly border protests. Egypt and the UN have attempted to negotiate a truce between Israel and Hamas for weeks in a bid to ease tensions in the beleaguered Gaza Strip.
Hamas has organized weekly protests since March that seek, in part, to secure an easing of the Egyptian-Israeli blockade of the Palestinian enclave imposed after the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in 2007 in an armed coup.
At least 156 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire at the protests, and an Israeli solider was killed by a Palestinian sniper.
The protests have intensified in recent weeks as Egyptian and UN cease-fire negotiations have faltered, and cross-border violence earlier this week has brought tensions to a simmer.
On Wednesday, a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip destroyed a house in the Israeli city of Beersheba in the worst bout of violence in recent weeks. Israel retaliated with airstrikes and has beefed up its military forces along the border. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet resolved to retaliate more severely to cross-border attacks, but has thus far refrained from further action, suggesting it was giving the Egyptians a chance to restore calm.