Russia tells Turkey to get Assad’s ‘green light’ for safe zone in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the end of a joint press conference following a trilateral meeting with Iran on Syria in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on February 14, 2019. (AFP / POOL / Sergei Chirikov)
Updated 14 February 2019
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Russia tells Turkey to get Assad’s ‘green light’ for safe zone in Syria

  • Ankara and Moscow are trying their best to find a middle way on the future of Assad, expert says
  • Idlib is still the last pocket of resistance to Syrian ruler Bashad Assad

ANKARA: Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted on Thursday a key summit on Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Sochi.

Statements from the Kremlin emphasizing the need for a “green light” from Syrian President Bashar Assad for the creation of a safe zone inside the country have been a game-changer for the future of Syrian politics. 

Nicholas Danforth, a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US, thinks that the policies adopted by the Kremlin during the Sochi summit are in line with Russia’s longstanding emphasis on maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity.

“Turkey, Iran and Russia shared an interest in pressuring the US to leave, which helped facilitate Russia’s tacit support for Turkey’s Afrin operation. With Trump announcing the withdrawal of US forces, this shared interest is gone, and the parties’ conflicting goals will come to the fore,” Danforth told Arab News. 

If Turkey and the US now appear to be cooperating in the creation of a safe zone, that would give Russia additional incentive to oppose it, he suggested.

The trilateral summit brought to light emerging tensions between Moscow and Ankara over what will follow the planned withdrawal of US forces from Syria. 

While Turkey intends to establish a safe zone — clear of the Kurdish YPG militia — in the regions of northeastern Syria near the Turkish border, Russia insists that any plan involving action within Syrian territory must have Assad’s consent.

Ahead of the summit, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova made this clear, saying, “The question of the presence of a military contingent acting on the authority of a third country on the territory of … Syria, must be decided directly by Damascus.” 

However, experts doubt that Erdogan will consent to any moves that could be seen to legitimize Assad. From the onset of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, Russia and Iran have been on the side of Assad’s government, while Turkey has backed opposition groups. 

Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, thinks that although Ankara and Moscow disagree on a number of significant issues regarding Syria, they are both aware that they need to maintain their political and military dialogue in order to protect their long-term interests in the region, 

“Therefore, they are doing their best to find a middle way with regard to thorny issues like Idlib, the future of Assad, the YPG and the situation to the east of the Euphrates River,” he told Arab News. “For Turkey, it is important to keep Russia and Iran by its side, considering that there are still significant uncertainties about the US plan to withdraw from Syria.”

Ahead of the summit, the Kremlin made it clear that it is running out of patience with Ankara over its promises in the northwestern Idlib region, where a demilitarized zone was supposed to have been implemented in accordance with a joint deal between Russia and Turkey in September. 

Idlib is still the last pocket of resistance to Assad. The dominant force there is the Al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) umbrella group. Turkey, already host to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, is concerned about a further influx from Idlib in the event of military action against hard-line fighters there.

HTS, whose takeover in Idlib is pushing international aid agencies to pull out of the region, is also trying to take control of the key M5 highway, a vital economic supply line between Damascus and Turkish markets.

Experts do not expect Turkey to act unilaterally to establish safe zones without Assad’s consent, however, as that would risk the wrath of both Russia and the US.

“From the beginning of the crisis, Turkey has always gained ground in Syria by taking advantage of disagreements and policy clashes between Washington and Moscow, and getting the support at least one of them,” Dr. Kerim Has, a Moscow-based Russia analyst, told Arab News.

“Acting unilaterally in north-eastern Syria could cause many military and political troubles in Turkey’s relations with the US, and Russia may also raise its eyebrow, claiming violations of Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he explained.

According to Has, Ankara will need to reach a consensus with the US — the main actor in Manbij and eastern parts of Euphrates — on America’s withdrawal strategy, and, at the same time “coordinate its actions with Moscow on the parameters of the so-called safe zone or some border security measures.”

Has believes that, given the current problematic nature of dialogue between Ankara and Damascus, the Turkish president would likely ask Moscow for approval of even a minor military incursion in Manbij or north-eastern Syria. 

“Moscow may prefer first to see some concrete steps of US withdrawal on the ground. The Kremlin’s consent for such a limited operation would certainly play into the hands of President Erdogan before the local elections in Turkey on March 31,” he said.

However, support from the Kremlin will come with a price, Has underlined.

“Probably, while waiting to see what the US withdrawal evolves into, Moscow will encourage the Turkish army to fight the HTS in Idlib in a more effective way, and will push Ankara to facilitate the advance of Russia-led regime forces in the region,” he said.


Rare protests erupt against Hamas’ 12-year rule over Gaza

Updated 1 min 16 sec ago
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Rare protests erupt against Hamas’ 12-year rule over Gaza

  • Unemployment is over 50 percent and much higher for young university graduates
  • Tap water is undrinkable, electricity is limited and travel abroad severely restricted

GAZA CITY: Hamas is facing the biggest demonstrations yet against its 12-year rule of the Gaza Strip, with hundreds of Palestinians taking to the streets in recent days to protest the dire living conditions in the blockaded territory.
With little tolerance for dissent, the militant group has responded with heavy-handed tactics. It has arrested dozens of protesters, beaten activists and violently suppressed attempts by local media to cover the unrest.
Hamas has accused the rival West Bank-based Palestinian Authority of orchestrating the protests — a charge that organizers vehemently reject.
“There is no political agenda at all,” said Amin Abed, 30, an organizer who has been forced into hiding. “We simply want to live in dignity,” he said by telephone. “We just ask Hamas to ease the economic hardships and tax burdens.”
Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 from the forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade, a step meant to prevent Hamas from arming.
The blockade, and three wars with Israel, have ravaged Gaza’s economy but done nothing to loosen Hamas’ grip on power.
Unemployment is over 50 percent and much higher for young university graduates like Abed. Tap water is undrinkable, electricity is limited and travel abroad severely restricted. Hamas’ cash-strapped government recently raised taxes on basic goods like bread, beans and cigarettes.
Protesters accuse Hamas of corruption and imposing the hefty taxes to enrich itself. They used social media to organize protests last week with the slogan “We want to live!”
The protests come just as Hamas marks the one-year anniversary of its weekly demonstrations along the frontier with Israel. The demonstrations, aimed largely at easing the blockade, have accomplished little, even as some 190 Palestinians have been killed and thousands wounded by Israeli fire.
This is not the first time people have taken to the streets against Hamas. Two years ago, protesters demonstrated against the chronic power cuts on a cold January day before Hamas violently dispersed them. This time around, the sporadic rallies have continued for five days, despite a similarly violent response.
“These protests were the largest, the longest and the most violent in terms of Hamas’ suppression,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, political science professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University.
“This was a message of anger to Hamas that the situation is unbearable and that it must reconsider all its policies,” he added.
On Monday, Amnesty International reported that hundreds of protesters have been beaten, arbitrarily arrested, tortured and subjected to ill-treatment. Journalists and human rights workers, including a researcher for the London-based organization, were also roughed up, Amnesty said.
“The crackdown on freedom of expression and the use of torture in Gaza has reached alarming new levels,” said Amnesty’s Middle East deputy director Saleh Higazi.
Osama Al-Kahlout, a journalist with the local news site Donia Al-Wattan, last week published a photo of a protester on crutches raising a sign that said “I want to live in dignity.” The next day, he was detained as he went live on Facebook during another protest.
Al-Kahlout said police smashed furniture, seized his belongings and beat him on the way to the police station. “I’m a journalist,” he said. “I don’t regret covering it.”
He said he was released after a meeting with the police chief in which officials “advised” journalists not to cover the protests.
Heba el-Buhissi, 31, who filmed the raids at her family home, said a policeman fired a warning shot in the air as others cursed and yelled at her after she started filming. Her videos show a group of Hamas police beating her cousin with wooden batons.
Other amateur videos have shown protesters burning tires and hurling stones toward Hamas forces. Hamas gunmen can be seen jumping out of vehicles and beating people with clubs. Other videos show Hamas going door to door and carrying out mass arrests.
El-Buhissi filmed the incident last Thursday when she saw Hamas dispersing some of her neighbors who had hoisted banners against tax hikes. Her family opened the home to allow youths to escape the police.
“This is what drove the police crazy, and that’s why they stormed our houses,” she said. “I felt I have to film to prove what was going on.”
The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists reported Monday that 42 Palestinian journalists “were targeted” by Hamas forces in the past five days. The abuses included physical assaults, summons, threats, home arrests and seizure of equipment.
The official Palestinian Authority news agency Wafa reported Monday that the spokesman of Abbas’ Fatah movement in Gaza, Atef Abu Saif, was badly beaten by Hamas.
It showed pictures of Abu Said with a bandaged leg, bruises and blood-stained clothes lying on a hospital bed.
Ammar Dwaik, director of the Independent Commission for Human Rights in Gaza, said Hamas forces have dispersed 25 protests with excessive force and arrested about 1,000 people. He said some 300 people remain in custody.
“This is worst crackdown in Gaza since the Hamas takeover in 2007 in terms of its scope and cruelty,” Dwaik said.
On Tuesday, Hamas issued a brief statement “rejecting the use of violence and repression against any Palestinian for practicing his legitimate right of expression.”
But Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official, used tougher language in a Twitter post, accusing Israel and the Palestinian Authority of conspiring to organize protests. “The attempts of the Palestinian Authority and the occupation to drive a wedge between the people and the resistance have failed,” he said.
The demonstrations appeared to subside on Monday, but organizers say the protests will continue until Hamas cancels taxes on dozens of goods, creates a national employment program and releases everyone who has been arrested in the crackdown.
Abed, the protest leader, said Hamas has stormed his family’s house and delivered an arrest warrant for him to his father.
“Hamas doesn’t want us to scream. It wants us to die in silence,” he said.