Turkey and Russia ‘form secret alliance’ over Syria war

Syrian regime has recaptured more than 90 percent of Ghouta, and is draining the last opposition pockets with negotiated pullouts. (AFP)
Updated 29 March 2018
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Turkey and Russia ‘form secret alliance’ over Syria war

ANKARA: Turkish troops are making sweeping territorial gains in northern Syria, fuelling speculation that Ankara and Moscow are secretly working together to establish greater control over the war.
Sections of the Turkish media reported that the center of Tel Rifaat city in northern Syria was encircled on Tuesday after up to 100 Russian police officers mysteriously pulled out of the area, allowing the soldiers and members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to enter.
Although Ankara has yet to confirm this, Arab News sources said that Tel Rifaat’s collapse is imminent, with negotiations still continuing.
These latest developments have caused military analysts to suggest that Moscow is deliberately ceding control of the area, betraying Kurdish fighters it once protected, in a bid to stop Turkey from edging closer to the US.
They told Arab News it may be the clearest sign yet that the countries are secretly working together in a double game, swapping territory and selling out guerrilla factions that they had previously supported, in an attempt to improve their strategic footholds in the country.
Magdalena Kirchner, of the Istanbul Policy Center, told Arab News that while there was no definitive proof of a quid pro quo, the fact that Russian forces left Tel Rifaat “just hours before the operation started points to fairly close coordination and ongoing negotiations”.
Relations between Turkey and Russia have fluctuated wildly since Moscow intervened in the Syrian civil war in September 2015 to support the regime of President Bashar Assad, which Ankara had vowed to help topple. In November that year, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane near its border with Syria, causing Russia to respond with sanctions.
In June 2016 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized for downing the plane and relations began to thaw. Since early 2017 the two countries, together with Iran, have been cooperating in what they say is an attempt to bring about a political end to the conflict by establishing “de-escalation zones” throughout Syria. But Tel Rifaat’s targeting by Turkish forces this week may be a sign that both sides are more interested in furthering their geopolitical interests than keeping the peace, analysts told Arab News.
Kerim Has, a lecturer in Turkish-Russian relations at Moscow State University, said that there have been indications elsewhere in Syria that an unofficial, mutually beneficial arrangement, has been reached between the two countries.
This may have caused Turkey to smooth the UN-backed evacuation of fundamentalist insurgents from Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, to Idlib, southwest of Aleppo, he said. The evacuation, which remains ongoing, seems almost certain to allow the Syrian regime to claim a key victory in the war, following a ferocious siege that has killed hundreds of civilians in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, Moscow has quietly allowed Turkish forces to press ahead largely unchallenged with a major military offensive in the north of the country. Operation Olive Branch began on Jan. 20 with the aim of seizing territory from Kurdish separatists in the region.
The Syrian city of Afrin fell to Turkish forces on March 18, with the UN estimating that 50,000 children in the surrounding area now need humanitarian aid.
Turkey has promoted Operation Olive Branch as an offensive against Kurdish rebels belonging to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It claims to have killed more than 3,500 Kurdish fighters.
Has told Arab News: “Russia’s green light for Operation Olive Branch and Turkey’s apparent silence on Eastern Ghouta shows some of the parameters in the bargaining process.”
Tel Rifaat, which lies 13 miles southeast of Afrin, has been an important logistical hub for Kurdish fighters. It was one of the last areas under the YPG’s control and included a Russian airbase.
While officials have yet to confirm the city’s fall, the Turkish army recently used its Twitter account to claim that people wanted it “to be cleared of terrorist organizations.”
Omer Ozkizilcik, an analyst at the Middle East Foundation in Ankara, told Arab News that Russia had made significant efforts to involve the YPG in a political solution to the war.
He said Moscow gave up on this approach when it emerged that the US is training 30,000 personnel, including elements of the YPG, to secure the Syrian border, a move that has infuriated Ankara. The US denies that the YPG and PKK are closely linked.
On Tuesday Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan discussed plans for a Syria summit they are due to hold in Ankara next week. Iran will also attend the meeting.
Unlike much of the international community, Turkey has said it has no plans to expel Russian diplomats following the poisoning of a Russian double agent in Britain earlier this month.


Iran govt faces angry online backlash over activists’ abuse claims

Since protests began in December, Iranians have had their internet access disrupted and have lost access to the messaging app Telegram. (Reuters)
Updated 18 February 2019
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Iran govt faces angry online backlash over activists’ abuse claims

  • The Arab minority in southwest Iran has long claimed that it faces discrimination from the central government

GENEVA, LONDON: In early January, labor activist Esmail Bakhshi posted a letter on Instagram saying he had been tortured in jail, attracting support from tens of thousands of Iranians online.
Bakhshi, who said he was still in pain, also challenged the intelligence minister to a public debate about the religious justification for torture. Late last month, Bakhshi was rearrested.
Sepideh Qoliyan, a journalist covering labor issues in the Ahvaz region, was also rearrested on the same day after saying on social media that she had been abused in jail.
Bakhshi’s allegations of torture and the social media furor that followed led Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to call for an investigation, and the intelligence minister subsequently met with a parliamentary committee to discuss the case, a rare example of top officials being prompted to act by a public backlash online.
“Each sentence and description of torture from the mouths of #Sepideh_Qoliyan and #Esmail_Bakhshi should be remembered and not forgotten because they are now alone with the torturers and under pressure and defenseless. Let us not forget,” a user named Atish posted on Twitter in Farsi on Feb. 11.
“When thousands of people share it on social media, the pressure for accountability goes up,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director at the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Sham investigations won’t put it to rest. Social media is definitely becoming a major, major public square in Iran.”
Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said last month, without naming Bakhshi, that allegations of torture online constitute a crime.
His comments follow growing pressure from officials to close Instagram, which has about 24 million users in Iran. Iran last year shut down the Telegram messaging app, which had about 40 million users in the country, citing security concerns.
“Today you see in cyberspace that with the posting of a film or lie or rumor the situation in the country can fall apart,” Dolatabadi said, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency. “You saw in recent days that they spread a rumor and announced the rape of an individual or claimed suicide and recently you even saw claims of torture and all the powers in the country get drawn in. Today cyberspace has been transformed into a very broad platform for committing crimes.”
The arrests of Bakhshi and Qoliyan are part of a crackdown in Ahvaz, center of Iran’s Arab population. Hundreds of activists there pushing for workers’ and minority rights, two of the most contentious issues in Iran, have been detained in recent weeks.
The Arab minority in southwest Iran has long claimed that it faces discrimination from the central government.