Syrian rebels see Idlib deal as victory, Damascus as test for Turkey

Iran has fought as an ally of President Bashar Assad in the Syrian conflict alongside Russian forces. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 September 2018
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Syrian rebels see Idlib deal as victory, Damascus as test for Turkey

  • Iran has fought as an ally of President Bashar Assad in the Syrian conflict alongside Russian forces
  • Russian and Turkish troops are to enforce a new demilitarised zone in the Idlib region

AMMAN/BEIRUT: Syrian opposition officials praised a deal between Russia and Turkey over Idlib province on Tuesday, saying it had spared the rebel-held region a bloody government offensive and would thwart President Bashar al-Assad’s aim of recovering all Syria.
Damascus, while welcoming the agreement unveiled on Monday, vowed to press on with its campaign to recover “every inch” of the country. Its ambassador to Lebanon said the deal would test Turkey’s ability to deliver on promises to disarm rebels.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most powerful ally, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan agreed at a summit on Monday to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib from which “radical” rebels must withdraw by the middle of next month.
The agreement has diminished the prospects of a Syrian government offensive which the United Nations warned would create a humanitarian catastrophe in the Idlib region, home to about three million people.
The Idlib region and adjoining territory north of Aleppo represents the Syrian opposition’s last big foothold in Syria, where Iranian and Russian military support has helped Assad recover most of the areas once held by the insurgency.
But strong Turkish opposition to an Idlib attack has obstructed government plans for an offensive, and the agreement announced on Monday appears to preserve a role for Turkey in the northwest - something seen as anathema to Assad.
“The Idlib deal preserves lives of civilians and their direct targeting by the regime. It buries Assad’s dreams of imposing his full control over Syria,” Mustafa Sejari, a Free Syria Army (FSA) official, told Reuters.
“This area will remain in the hands of the Free Syrian Army and will force the regime and its supporters to start a serious political process that leads to a real transition that ends Assad’s rule,” Sejari said.
The spokesman for the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission said the deal had halted an offensive for which government forces had been mobilizing in recent weeks, calling it a “victory for the will for life over the will for death”.
The “scenario of attack is practically excluded, at least for a period of time that is not small, and we hope that it will be permanent,” Yahya al-Aridi told Reuters by telephone.
Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, in an interview with Lebanon’s al-Jadeed TV, reiterated his government’s distrust of Turkey, a major backer of the Syrian rebellion which has deployed troops across the opposition-held northwest.
“I see it as a test of the extent of Turkey’s ability to commit to implementing this decision. They are under pressure now and I believe they will try,” Ali Abdul Karim said.
“We do not trust Turkey ... but it’s useful for Turkey to be able to carry out this fight to rid these groups from their weapons...Turkey could deal with this responsibility and this would be useful,” he said.
The demilitarized zone will be monitored by Russian and Turkish forces, the leaders said on Monday.
Neither Putin not Erdogan explained how they planned to differentiate “radically-minded” rebels from other anti-Assad groups. It was also not immediately clear how much of the city of Idlib fell within the zone.
Putin said the decision was to establish by Oct. 15 a demilitarized area 15–20 km (10-12 miles) deep along the contact line between rebel and government fighters, with radical militants to be withdrawn from the area, including members of the Nusra Front, a jihadist group that now part of the Tahrir al-Sham organization.
Pro-Assad newspaper says Syrian state to return to Idlib
Al-Watan, a pro-Syrian government newspaper, said on Tuesday the zone would stretch for 15 km around Idlib city.
It also said Syrian state institutions would return to Idlib by the end of the year in the final phase of the deal after insurgents hand over all of their heavy weapons and move away from civilian areas.
Citing unidentified diplomatic sources in Moscow, it said any factions rejecting the agreement would be considered enemies “even of the Turkish army and will be classed as terrorists that must be fought”.
Erdogan, who had feared another cross-border exodus of Syrian refugees to join the 3.5 million already in Turkey, said the deal would allow opposition supporters to stay where they were and avert a humanitarian crisis.
Putin said that by Oct. 10, all opposition heavy weapons, mortars, tanks, rocket systems would be removed from the demilitarized zone, and said this was Erdogan’s suggestion.
Earlier this month, Putin publicly rebuffed a proposal from Erdogan for a ceasefire when the two met along with Iran’s president for a summit in Tehran.
Idlib is held by an array of rebels. The most powerful is Tahrir al-Sham, an amalgamation of Islamist groups dominated by the former Nusra Front - an al Qaeda affiliate until 2016.
Other Islamists, and groups fighting as the Free Syrian Army banner, are now gathered with Turkish backing under the banner of the “National Front for Liberation”. 


Iran must disclose fate and location of hundreds of Ahwazi Arab prisoners: Amnesty International

Updated 52 min 51 sec ago
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Iran must disclose fate and location of hundreds of Ahwazi Arab prisoners: Amnesty International

LONDON: Amnesty International called on Tuesday on Iran to disclose the fate of hundreds of Ahwazi Arabs, who they say are being held without access to their families or legal representation.
The human rights group said in a report published Tuesday that it believes a number of Ahwazis have been executed in secret.
Ahwazi exiles told Amnesty that 22 men, including activist Mohammad Momeni Timas, had been killed.
The statement also said that since Sept. 24, up to 600 Ahwazi Arabs had been detained in a wave of arrests following an attack on a military parade in Ahvaz, Khuzestan province, that killed 24 people.
“If confirmed, the secret executions of these men would be not only a crime under international law but also an abhorrent violation of their right to life and a complete mockery of justice, even by the shocking standards of Iran’s judicial system,” Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa said.
“It is difficult to imagine that these individuals could have received a fair trial within merely a few weeks of their arrests, let alone had the opportunity to appeal death sentences.”Ahmad Heydari, a 30-year-old ceramics shopkeeper arrested within a few days of the attack in Ahvaz, is also reported to have been killed.
Amnesty said his family heard no news of his fate or whereabouts until Nov. 11, when they were given his death certificate by the Ministry of Intelligence in Ahvaz, and told he had been executed on Nov. 8.
Officials said they were not handing over his body for burial and told the family they were not allowed to hold a memorial service for him.
Amnesty called on the Iranian authorities to reveal the whereabouts of all the detainees “without further delay” and “provide information about what legal procedures have taken place to date.”
“While the Iranian authorities have a duty to bring to justice anyone suspected of criminal responsibility for the attack in Ahvaz in fair trials, they must not use this as an excuse to carry out a purge against members of Iran’s persecuted Ahwazi Arab ethnic minority,” Luther said.