A battle of nerves for the control of Idlib ­­city

YPG rebels head a convoy of US vehicles in the town of Darbasiya. (Reuters)_
Updated 11 January 2019
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A battle of nerves for the control of Idlib ­­city

  • A deal was struck between opposition-backer Turkey and Damascus ally Russia in September to stave off a threatened government offensive on Idlib

BEIRUT: The Idlib area in northern Syria is now fully ruled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a militant organization dominated by members of Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate.

Some of the other factions in the region are already allies, the others will either have to leave to other areas or be absorbed into the so-called Salvation Government run by the HTS.

How was this de-facto “emirate” allowed to consolidate and what consequences could it have for the nearly eight-year-old Syrian conflict and its main protagonists?

A deal was struck between opposition-backer Turkey and Damascus ally Russia in September to stave off a threatened government offensive on Idlib.

It has successfully prevented a massive Russian-backed regime assault on an area that is home to around 3 million people but its terms have remained unfulfilled.

Moscow had tasked Turkey, whose proxies fell under an umbrella known as the National Liberation Front (NLF), with disarming hard-line factions in Idlib.

It failed to do so and it was HTS that went on the offensive instead.

They made rapid gains and intense clashes that left more than 130 dead this year, which led to a deal on Thursday that saw the two Turkish-backed remaining factions stand down, capping the militants’ clean sweep.

Turkey, which has troops deployed in parts of Idlib and elsewhere in northern Syria, appeared to do little to stop HTS’ expansion.

“Turkey didn’t prevent HTS’ takeover, but it’s not obvious that it was in a position to do so,” said Sam Heller, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

HTS has an estimated 25,000 seasoned and well-armed fighters in its bastion, and has long been the dominant force in Idlib.

The militants’ lightning advance across Idlib earlier this year mark an unequivocal defeat for several outfits that were directly supported by Turkey.

“For Turkey, it’s the defeat of its allies,” said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert and geographer.

Two factions in the Turkey-backed NLF that had been battling HTS stood down and signed the deal on Thursday which essentially sees them absorbed.

Ahrar Al-Sham and Suqur Al-Sham said they were keeping some of their forces in the Idlib area for now, but they will fall under the newly expanded administration of the Salvation Government.

Just like the forces from the Nureddine Al-Zinki group that HTS defeated last week, the rebels who reject militant rule will most likely relocate to other Turkish-controlled areas such as Afrin.

Turkey has been training and equipping Syrian proxies to use against the Kurdish militia that controls the northeast of the country.

They have threatened a cross-border assault against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), but the main deterrent has been the presence of a US-led coalition.

The troop pullout announced by US President Donald Trump last month, and which the coalition confirmed on Friday was under way, could clear the way for a Turkish offensive.

HTS’ takeover of Idlib means the terms of a deal reached in the Russian resort of Sochi on Sept. 17 have not been respected.

After the agreement with Damascus sponsor Russia, Turkey was tasked with using its proxies in Idlib to rein in militants.

The Sochi deal froze a threatened Russian-backed government offensive which had seemed imminent four months ago.

An onslaught on the area would have caused an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe.

Turkey, which already provides shelter to 3.6 million Syria refugees, is keen to avoid a fresh round of violence that could spark another wave of displacement.

The HTS takeover revives the threat of a Syrian offensive but Balanche predicted it might not be the regime’s priority.

“The Russians are ready to attack at any moment but they won’t do it,” he said.

“They are using (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan to put pressure on the Americans to leave northeastern Syria,” he said.

Turkey on Thursday reacted angrily to the mixed messages the US administration has been sending about the pace of the troop withdrawal, and warned that any further delay would prompt it to trigger its invasion.


Italy’s Salvini says France has no interest in stabilising Libya

Italy's Interior Minister and deputy PM Matteo Salvini said France has no interest in stabilising the situation in Libya. (AFP)
Updated 22 January 2019
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Italy’s Salvini says France has no interest in stabilising Libya

  • The French say accusation is baseless and reiterated their efforts in Libya
  • Relations between Italy and France, traditionally close allies, have grown frosty since the far-right League and anti-establishment 5-Star Movement formed a coalition

ROME: Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, continuing a war of words between Rome and Paris, said on Tuesday that France was not looking to bring calm to violence-ravaged Libya because its energy interests there rivalled those of Italy.
Relations between Italy and France, traditionally close allies, have grown frosty since the far-right League and anti-establishment 5-Star Movement formed a coalition last year and took aim at pro-EU French President Emmanuel Macron.
France’s Foreign Ministry and the French president’s office declined to respond immediately.
On Monday France summoned Italy’s ambassador after Salvini’s fellow deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, accused Paris of creating poverty in Africa and generating mass migration to Europe.
Salvini backed up Di Maio, saying France was looking to extract wealth from Africa rather than helping countries develop their own economies, and pointed particularly to Libya, which has been in turmoil since a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 that overthrew strongman Muammar Qaddafi.
“In Libya, France has no interest in stabilising the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy,” Salvini told Canale 5 TV station.
A French diplomatic source said it was not the first time that Salvini had made such comments and that it was probably because he felt he had been upstaged by Di Maio.
The source added that the accusation was baseless and reiterated that French efforts in Libya were aimed at stabilising the country, preventing the spread of terrorism and curbing the migration flows.
Italy’s Eni and France’s Total have separate joint ventures in Libya, but Eni’s CEO Claudio Descalzi denied in a newspaper interview last year that there was any conflict between the two firms in the north African state.
Salvini is head of the League, while Di Maio leads 5-Star. Both are campaigning hard for European parliamentary elections in May and are eager to show they have broken with the consensual politics of center-left and center-right parties.
The two men have repeatedly targeted neighboring France and accused Macron of doing nothing to help handle the hundreds of thousands of mainly African migrants who have reached Italy from Libya in recent years.
Asked about the latest diplomatic spat with Paris, Salvini said on Tuesday: “France has no reason to get upset because it pushed away tens of thousands of migrants (at the French border), abandoning them there as though they were beasts. We won’t take any lessons on humanity from Macron.”