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.


‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

Updated 19 June 2019
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‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

  • Tehran regime has fanned sectarian flames in region for four decades, analyst tells Arab News
  • IRGC chief says Iranian missiles capable of hitting "carriers in the sea" with great precision

JEDDAH: Iran “will not wage war against any nation,” President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday — hours after two drones launched by Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen targeted civilians in southern Saudi Arabia.

Rouhani's statement sounded a note of restraint after the United States announced more troop deployments to the Middle East.

“Iran will not wage war against any nation,” he said in a speech broadcast live on state TV. “Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful.”

But he was also contradicted by the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Hossein Salami, who said Iran’s ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

“These missiles can hit, with great precision, carriers in the sea ... they are domestically produced and are difficult to intercept and hit with other missiles,” Salami said.

He said Iran's ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

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Before both men spoke, Saudi air defenses intercepted and shot down two Houthi drones packed with explosives. One targeted a civilian area in the southern city of Abha, and the second was shot down in Yemeni air space. There were no casualties, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said.

Rouhani’s offer to avoid war was “the height of hypocrisy,” the Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News.

“Rouhani is the biggest hypocrite in the world,” he said. “On the one hand, he is saying that Iran does not seek a conflict with anybody, and on the other it is launching attacks through its militias on oil tankers, oil pipelines, civilian airports and holy cities.

“This is nothing but the height of hypocrisy. Who does he think he is fooling with those words? Why are they enriching uranium? Why are they seeking nuclear bombs? What have they done over the past four decades? They have only caused trouble. They have only fanned sectarian flames in the region.”

The Saudi Cabinet, meeting in Jeddah, also condemned the Houthi attacks on Saudi civilians, and last week’s terrorist attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, widely blamed on Iran. 

 

Confrontation fears

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and its long-time foe the United States have mounted since Thursday when two oil tankers were attacked near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane, which Washington blamed on Tehran.

Iran denied involvement in the attacks and said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under a 2015 nuclear deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Exceeding the uranium cap at the heart of the accord would prompt a diplomatic crisis, forcing the other signatories, which include China, Russia and European powers, to confront Iran.

The standoff drew a call for caution from China. Its top diplomat warned that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced US pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of the landmark nuclear deal.

Russia urged restraint on all sides.

On Monday, Iranian officials made several assertive comments about security, including the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who said Tehran was responsible for security in the Gulf and urged US forces to leave the region.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday announced the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

The new US deployment is in addition to a 1,500-troop increase announced last month in response to tanker attacks in May. Washington previously tightened sanctions, ordering all countries and companies to halt imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.


'Nuclear blackmail'

Iran’s announcement on Monday that it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under the deal was denounced by a White House National Security Council spokesman as “nuclear blackmail.”

The move further undermines the nuclear pact, but Rouhani said on Monday the collapse of the deal would not be in the interests of the region or the world.

The nuclear deal seeks to head off any pathway to an Iranian nuclear bomb in return for the removal of most international sanctions.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi said the United States should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran.

Wang told reporters China, a close energy partner of Iran, was “of course, very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and called on all sides to ease tension.

“We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s box,” Wang said.

“In particular, the US side should alter its extreme pressure methods,” Wang said. “Any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law. Not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis.”

Wang also said the Iran nuclear deal was the only feasible way to resolve its nuclear issue, and urged Iran to be prudent.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU would only react to any breach if the International Atomic Energy Agency formally identified one.

The Trump administration says the deal, negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama, was flawed as it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish it for waging proxy wars in other Middle East countries.