Idlib bombing raises doubts over future of Astana agreement

Turkey had already been discussing extending patrols to Tal Rifaat, in northern Aleppo. (AFP)
Updated 15 March 2019
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Idlib bombing raises doubts over future of Astana agreement

  • Moscow claims strikes had been coordinated with Turkey, but Ankara denies that
  • Some experts see the bombing as a sign that Moscow is turning the screw on Erdogan

ANKARA: An escalation of heavy air and artillery strikes on Idlib in northwestern Syria on Wednesday night has raised doubts over the future of the Astana deal between Turkey, Russia and Iran. 

Moscow claimed the bombing of Syria’s last rebel stronghold had been coordinated with Turkey, but this was denied by Ankara.

Under the deal, Turkey was expected to persuade rebel groups to remove heavy weaponry from a designated buffer zone, and convince hard-line groups, including Al-Qaeda affiliated Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), to withdraw completely from major highways as part of a “de-escalation” process.

But HTS fighters remain in place, controlling 80 percent of the region, and criticism of Ankara for failing to honor its part of the agreement is becoming more acute.

Some experts see the bombing as a sign that Moscow is turning the screw on Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, either to assume more responsibility or renegotiate the terms of the deal.

Turkey had already been discussing extending patrols to Tal Rifaat, in northern Aleppo, with the Russians after Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced similar cooperation would happen in Idlib.

“Perhaps Moscow is trying to raise the stakes to get constructive talks with Ankara on Idlib and find a solution to the future of HTS,” Anton Mardasov, military affairs expert and head of the Department of Middle Eastern Conflicts at the Moscow-based Institute for Innovative Development, told Arab News.

“It’s not profitable for Ankara to confirm the coordination of strikes with Moscow, though the strikes can be used by Turkey to increase pressure on HTS to accept their terms.   

“Negotiations will be beneficial for Russia, to demonstrate a successful Syrian strategy. For Turkey, it is also an opportunity to advance its agenda, although Ankara has long been thinking about balancing its position by intensifying negotiations with its European partners in NATO.”

Turkey is also discussing establishing a joint coordination center in Idlib to manage operations at the behest of the Kremlin, which has criticized Ankara’s lack of engagement in recent months. 

“If there is no political progress, Russia always resorts to hard power moves to motivate their partners. That’s how they will push Turkey to do more,” Yury Barmin, Middle East and North Africa director at the Moscow Policy Group, told Arab News. 

“These attacks are happening against the background of the EU Conference on Syria in Brussels. The Russians are trying to put Syria on the radar of the Europeans to intervene,” he added.

According to Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, Ankara may have approved Russian operations against HTS, but would be reluctant to let its allies believe it was complicit in them. 

“With the current tensions in US-Turkish relations, Ankara has no option but to manage its marriage of convenience with Moscow,” he said.


Iraq PM wants governor sacked after boat capsize

Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi visits the people injured after a ferry sank in the Tigris river, at Salam hospital in Mosul, Iraq March 21, 2019. Picture taken March 21, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 19 min 52 sec ago
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Iraq PM wants governor sacked after boat capsize

  • Iraqi law gives the federal Parliament the right to sack provincial governors based on the suggestion of the prime minister

BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has formally requested that Parliament sack Nineveh Governor Nawfal Hammadi Al-Sultan after a river ferry accident that killed at least 100 people in the provincial capital, Mosul.
The capsize of the boat, which was carrying families to a recreational spot on an island in the Tigris River on Thursday, was the most deadly incident in the northern city since it was recaptured from Daesh in a bloody and destructive conflict in 2017.
Since the militants were driven from Mosul nearly two years ago, relief has given way to impatience over alleged corruption as the reconstruction of the destroyed city has stalled.
“Due to the obvious negligence and dereliction in performing duties and responsibility, and the presence of evidence proving misuse of public funds and abuse of power ... we suggest that you dismiss the governor and his deputies,” Abdul Mahdi wrote in a letter addressed to the speaker of Parliament that was published by his office late on Friday.
Iraqi law gives the federal Parliament the right to sack provincial governors based on the suggestion of the prime minister.
Scores of angry protesters swarmed Iraq’s president and the governor on Friday, forcing them to leave the site of the accident. The crowd threw stones and shoes at Sultan’s car, which sped off hitting two people, one of whom was taken to hospital.
Protesters blamed negligence by the local government for the accident. The boat was loaded to five times its capacity, according to a local official.
Iraq’s Justice Ministry said it had ordered the arrest of nine ferry company officials and banned the owners of the vessel and the picnic site from leaving the country.