Erdogan urges Russia, Iran to stop ‘disaster’ in Syria’s Idlib

The destruction caused by the regime bombings in the town of Al-Habit on the southern edges of the opposition-held Idlib province. (AFP)
Updated 12 September 2018
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Erdogan urges Russia, Iran to stop ‘disaster’ in Syria’s Idlib

  • Erdogan has called for a cease-fire in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last opposition stronghold in Syria, as an assault by Syrian regime forces is expected any day
  • The comments came four days after the Turkish president met his Russian and Iranian counterparts for a summit in Tehran

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday called on Russia and Iran to halt a looming “humanitarian disaster” in Idlib, saying Syrians there could not be left to the mercy of President Bashar Assad.

Erdogan has called for a cease-fire in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last opposition stronghold in Syria, as an assault by Syrian regime forces is expected any day.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Erdogan said the West had an “obligation to stop the next bloodshed” but that regime allies Moscow and Tehran were “likewise responsible for stopping this humanitarian disaster.”

The comments came four days after the Turkish president met his Russian and Iranian counterparts for a summit in Tehran, where Erdogan sought to avert a bloody assault in Idlib. 

Analysts said Erdogan failed at the summit to achieve his aim, and his comments appear to indicate growing frustration in Turkey that Iran and Russia are not reining in Assad.

While Turkey has been one of the main supporters of the Syrian opposition and called for Assad’s ouster, Ankara has until now worked closely with Assad’s allies Moscow and Tehran to find a political solution to the conflict. 

The UN has warned a large-scale military operation could create “the worst humanitarian catastrophe” of this century in Idlib, home to some 3 million people — about half of them displaced from other parts of the country.

“The consequences of inaction are immense. We cannot leave the Syrian people to the mercy of Bashar Assad,” Erdogan wrote.

The Turkish leader also criticized Assad’s bid to legitimize the fight in Idlib as a counter-terrorism operation.

“Innocent people must not be sacrificed in the name of fighting terrorism,” he wrote.

Idlib’s most powerful armed faction is the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) group, which Ankara officially designated a “terrorist” group last month.

Erdogan acknowledged that groups such as HTS “remain active in this area” but insisted that such fighters “account for a fraction of Idlib’s population.” 

He called for a “comprehensive international counter-terrorism operation” and said that the assistance of pro-Ankara moderate fighters will be “crucial” in Idlib.

Turkey has already taken in more than 3 million refugees from Syria and Ankara fears any large offensive will lead to a new influx of up to two million people from Idlib.

The civil war has claimed about 350,000 lives since 2011.

Meanwhile, an ambush by Daesh has killed 21 regime fighters in Syria’s southern province of Sweida, a Britain-based war monitor said on Tuesday.

The attack occurred late on Monday in the rural Tulul Al-Safa area of the province, about 100 km southeast of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Eight radical fighters were also killed in subsequent clashes in the area, which is the militants’ last bastion in Sweida, the observatory said.

State news agency SANA reported heavy clashes with Daesh in the area, adding that regime aircraft and artillery “targeted hideouts and positions” held by the group.

Regime forces have been fighting Daesh on Sweida’s arid plains since terrorists carried out a wave of attacks in the mainly Druze province on July 25, killing 250 people, according to the Observatory.

During their rampage, which targeted the provincial capital as well as rural areas, the insurgents also took about around 30 hostages, mostly women and their children.

At least 27 are believed to still be held, according to Human Rights Watch, after Daesh said it had beheaded a 19-year-old man and announced an elderly woman had died. Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the hostages were believed to be held captive in Tulul Al-Safa.

A source in Sweida told AFP that families had had no word of their kidnapped relatives in weeks.

Daesh has lost nearly all of the great swathes of territory straddling Iraq and Syria which it seized in 2014, but retains a presence in the vast desert that lies between Damascus and the Iraqi border, and holds a pocket in the Euphrates Valley in the east.

A Kurdish-Arab alliance launched an assault on the pocket’s main town of Hajjin on Monday, with support from the US-led coalition fighting Daesh.


Kurds split on next Iraqi president and throw government formation into further turmoil

Updated 26 September 2018
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Kurds split on next Iraqi president and throw government formation into further turmoil

  • The failure of the Kurds to agree on a single candidate will threaten the stability of the Kurdish region
  • A close ally of KDP leader Massoud Barzani has been backed as a presidential nomination

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s main Kurdish political forces have failed to agree on a candidate for the post of president, highlighting the depth of the rift  between them and redrawing their map of influence in Baghdad, negotiators told Arab News.

Electing the president is the second step in the process of forming a government. According to the political power sharing agreement adopted by Iraqi political parties since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the post is allocated to the Kurds.

By the end of Monday, the last day for nominations, more than 30 candidates, including a woman, had declared their nominations for the post but the absence of consensus between the Kurdish parties on a single candidate, meant the vote was delayed until Thursday.

The president in the Iraqi constitution does not have wide executive powers, but could play a pivotal role in resolving disputes between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, and between the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish powers in Baghdad. 

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the largest Kurdish parties in Iraq control more than 50 seats in parliament. The two parties have shared the federal posts allocated to the Kurds for the last 15 years. Voting for the PUK’s presidential candidate had become a tradition, but the insistence of the KDP to compete for the post this time has confused Iraq’s parties and forced them to renegotiate.

“It is time to get this position back to the larger Kurdish bloc,” Irdlan Noor Al-Deen, a KDP leader and MP said. “We are insisting to compete for the post ... and we will not discuss the option of stepping down.”

The failure of the Kurds to agree on a single candidate will threaten the stability of the Kurdish region and deepen the disagreement between the two Kurdish parties that arose in October last year when Kurdish forces associated with the PUK refused to fight Iraqi security forces after they launched a campaign to regain central government control over the disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil. The offensive was in response to the independence  referendum held a month earlier.

The two parties are squaring up in elections scheduled for next week for the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Azad Warti, a PUK leader, said that if the political “fire” from the KDP continued after the elections “we will review our relationship with them.”

“There are a lot of joints areas between us ... and continuing with this approach means that we may not continue with them in the same front,” he said.

Last week, the PUK’s leadership nominated the Kurdish veteran politician Barham Salih, while the KDP nominated Fuad Hussein, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Presidency Office and personal secretary of Massoud Barzani, the most prominent Kurdish leader and former president of the Kurdish region.

It is not clear why Barzani, who headed the KDP, suddenly insisted on the presidential candidacy. Some observers see this step as an attempt to seek revenge against the Kurdish and Shiite forces that rejected the independence referendum and supported Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi when he imposed a series of financial and administrative sanctions on Kurdistan.

“Barzani is looking to get revenge from the leaders of the PUK because he believes that they let him down in his battle with Baghdad when he held the referendum,” Abdulwahid Tuama, a political analyst told Arab News.

“Also, getting the post for the KDP candidate will reinforce the divisions between the PUK and its Kurdish allies in Baghdad, and this will provide the KDP with a great opportunity to be the touchstone in the ongoing negotiations to form a government in Baghdad.”

The major Shiite blocs, which initially declared their support for Barham Salih, have now said they do not mind if the KDP takes over the president, but stipulated the replacement of the party's official candidate.

“Fouad Hussein was rejected by all Shiite political forces. We told Barzani that we have no objection to voting for his candidate, but he has to nominate someone else,” A key Shiite negotiator told Arab News.

“Hussein is the private secretary of Barzani and if he is elected as president of Iraq, it means that the president will be Barzani’s secretary.

“This is an insult to the country and to all, and we will never accept it.”

Iran and the United States have been the most prominent international players in Iraq since 2003. Both are deeply involved in the ongoing negotiations between Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni parties. 

Brett McGurk, the US envoy to Iraq and Syria, has played a key role in naming Barham Salih as a candidate for the PUK, while Gen. Qassim Sulaimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, flew to Erbil on Sunday evening to meet Barzani and “persuade him to abandon his stubbornness and accept a compromise that excludes both candidates (Salih and Hussein),” two Shiite negotiators told Arab News. 

“Sulaimani went last night to Erbil to smooth the tension and try to find a solution that would be accepted by all the related parties,” a key Shiite negotiator told Arab News.

“He will suggest to provide a new candidate who should be accepted by all Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni parties. 

The negotiator said parliament may vote to reelect Fuad Massum, the outgoing Iraqi president, as he is accepted by all.