Turkey fears further refugee influx as Assad threatens Idlib offensive

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Internally displaced woman sits outside a tent in Idlib province, Syria, on July 30, 2018. (REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi)
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Internally displaced boys run outside a tent in Idlib province, Syria, on July 30, 2018. (REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi)
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A Syrian man reads a leaflet dropped by Assad regime helicopters in the northwestern Syrian town of Binnish on August 9, 2018, saying the war is about to end and calling for reconciliation. (AFP / OMAR HAJ KADOUR)
Updated 10 August 2018
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Turkey fears further refugee influx as Assad threatens Idlib offensive

  • Idlib is designated as a de-escalation zone by Turkey, Russia and Iran
  • Experts interviewed by Arab News underline the need to resolve this imminent crisis with regional and international partners diplomatically

ANKARA: Amid news of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime’s current preparations for a military operation in the opposition-held northwestern province of Idlib, experts anticipate a massive influx of civilians into neighboring Turkey. There are currently around 2.5 million displaced civilians in Idlib, according to the UN.

Idlib is designated as a de-escalation zone by Turkey, Russia and Iran, and Turkish Armed Forces have so far built 12 observation posts in the region, as part of the Astana deal that was brokered between the three countries. The majority of Idlib is currently held by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which is led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, the extremist militant group Jabhat Al-Nusra.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to visit Ankara on Aug. 13 to hold talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on recent developments in Syria.

Experts interviewed by Arab News underline the need to resolve this imminent crisis with regional and international partners diplomatically. The UN will ask Ankara to keep its borders open to the refugees fleeing the regime attack on Idlib, according to press reports.

Metin Corabatir, a former spokesman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Turkey and president of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration in Ankara, thinks that, as there could be armed elements among the refugees, Turkey may decide against taking them in, due to domestic security concerns.

“Ankara should negotiate with their international partners over this humanitarian situation, and ask that the burden be shared, rather than struggling alone with a potential refugee influx,” he told Arab News.

Besides security concerns, Turkey’s economic downturn, and a surge of anti-refugee public sentiment also mean Ankara will likely be unwilling to open its borders to refugees from Idlib. Turkey already hosts over 3.5 million Syrian refugees, according to the latest figures.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are expected to meet in September, and the refugee issue will top Turkey’s agenda for that meeting.

Corabatir believes that any military offensive by the Syrian regime in Idlib would draw Turkey into the conflict.

“Turkey will either protect the security of its military personnel in the observation towers, or decide to withdraw from the area where it is a guarantor country — which would mean the collapse of the Astana deal,” he said.

Sinan Hatahet, a senior fellow at Al-Sharq Forum in Istanbul, said Ankara is worried that an attack on Idlib will provoke a new influx of refugees, at a time when it is seeking to stabilize northern Aleppo to accommodate repatriated refugees from southern Turkey.

“Moreover, Ankara does not wish to host more Syrian refugees as their integration is increasingly becoming a topic of heated debate on the domestic scene,” he told Arab News.

According to Hatahet, Ankara does not consider all areas of Idlib to be of equal importance, and does not intend to maintain a presence beyond a narrow buffer along its borders.

“Ultimately, Turkey will seek a grand bargain in the north and would not shy away from using Idlib as a bargaining chip in exchange for stabilizing Afrin and the Euphrates Shield areas,” he noted.

Experts suggest that Turkey will expect Russia to restrain Assad’s potential offensive in Idlib. Russia, however, prioritizes the extermination of extremists in the region. Lavrov recently stated that it was “necessary to deal a final blow to terrorists near Idlib.”

Hatahet believes Turkey and Russia could arrange a deal whereby Russia is able to attack extremists in Idlib, but will otherwise remain on the periphery of the territory.

“Erdogan recently spoke to Putin and warned him that targeting civilians in Idlib could destroy the spirit of the Astana accord,” he said, but added that Assad’s regime is growing in confidence and that containing its forces is no easy task.


UN expert held in Tunisia over ‘espionage’ freed on bail: sources

Updated 6 sec ago
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UN expert held in Tunisia over ‘espionage’ freed on bail: sources

TUNIS: A United Nations arms expert held in Tunisia since late March on espionage charges was released Tuesday on bail, the prosecution service said.
Moncef Kartas is a member of the UN panel of experts investigating allegations of violations of an arms embargo and other sanctions imposed on Libya.
The Tunisian-German dual national was detained on arrival in Tunis on March 26.
“The indictment division has decided to release Moncef Kartas on bail,” prosecution spokesman Sofiene Sliti said.
But Kartas was still being prosecuted for the “unofficial collection of information related to terrorism, which constitutes a dangerous crime,” he told AFP.
The investigation had uncovered equipment used to control civil and military air traffic and whose use “requires authorization,” he added.
Kartas’s defense team has said the charges are linked to the arms expert’s possession of a device allowing him to have access to data on flights of civil and commercial aircraft.
The device, an RTL-SDR, was used “only for monitoring air traffic to Libya, in order to identify flights that could be linked to violations of the arms embargo,” said his lawyer, Sarah Zaafrani.
Last week, the United Nations rejected Tunisia’s reasons for Kartas’s arrest and demanded charges be dropped and his immediate release.
It argued that, as a UN employee, Kartas was subject to diplomatic immunity, but Tunisia challenged this.
The UN panel investigating the alleged sanctions breaches has reported that arms and ammunition deliveries still reach warring parties in Libya — with the involvement of member states — despite the embargo.
Libya, which borders Tunisia, has seen an uptick in violence since military strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive on April 4 to take the capital Tripoli from the UN-recognized government.
An arms embargo has been in force since Libya’s 2011 revolt that toppled its longtime ruler Muammar Qaddafi.