Escalation continues in Idlib despite cease-fire claims

Syrian government forces earlier bombarded Khan Sheikhun in the southern countryside of the militant-held Idlib province. (AFP file photo)
Updated 15 June 2019
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Escalation continues in Idlib despite cease-fire claims

  • Intensive shelling continues targeting civilian zones in southern Idlib and the northern Hama countrysides

ANKARA: The dynamics in Syria’s latest opposition stronghold quietly shifted on Wednesday night with Russian news agencies claiming that Turkey and Russia had struck a cease-fire deal in Idlib between Syrian regime forces and opposition fighters.

However, contrary to the cease-fire claims, intensive shelling reportedly continued afterward targeting civilian zones in southern Idlib and the northern Hama countrysides. Turkey’s tenth observation post in the enclave was also attacked from the Syrian regime-held territory of Al-Shariah, wounding Turkish soldiers and damaging facilities.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry denied the cease-fire and announced that it would retaliate if regime attacks continue. The counterattacks by Syrian fighters against pro-Assad forces continued on Thursday.

Experts underline that such declarations of a cease-fire are only to provide room for maneuvering by Russia and Turkey to negotiate the dynamics on the ground in the light of their regional interests.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced since the Russian-led military offensive in northwestern Syria, which has become the scene of a serious military escalation between Assad regime forces and the fighters.

Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, DC, thinks this is not the first or last time a fragile Russian-Turkish cease-fire announced in Idlib has already been violated.

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The Turkish Foreign Ministry denied the cease-fire and announced that it would retaliate if regime attacks continue. The counter-attacks by Syrian fighters against pro-Assad forces continued on Thursday.

“The two sides have irreconcilable interests in Idlib, however they chose neither to fight if off nor to strike a deal since both scenarios have a detrimental impact on their bilateral relations,” he told Arab News. 

Moscow backs the Syrian regime, while Ankara gives its support to some opposition groups in the region.

For Macaron, the only way out of the Idlib quagmire is either the shortcut of an unwarranted military solution or the long-term arduous path of conflict resolution.

Some experts see the latest developments in Idlib from the prism of the current dynamics in relations between Moscow and Ankara, especially regarding the Russian air defense S-400 system and its approaching delivery within two months. Russian reports about the cease-fire in Idlib came hours after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey has already bought S-400s, challenging the US threat of sanctions over the purchase.

“Idlib and the S-400 delivery have become increasingly intertwined and caught up in the US-Russian tensions and Turkey’s attempt to play both sides,” Macaron said.

“Erdogan is approaching a critical moment next month where he might have to choose between coming under significant US pressure if he officially receives the S-400s and dealing with a Russian offensive in Idlib if the S-400 deal does not go through,” he said.

Erdogan would also be put under domestic pressure ahead of the June 23 Istanbul vote if any escalation in Idlib triggered massive refugee flows to Turkey, considering the deep anti-Syrian sentiments among Turkish society.

Dr. Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst on Russia-Turkey relations, thinks that the latest cease-fire in Idlib cannot be realized.

“Following the “anonymous attack” in Idlib against Turkey’s tenth observation point, Ankara blamed the Syrian regime forces, whereas the Russian Ministry of Defense pointed out the militant groups and disclosed Turkey’s request for Moscow’s assistance to counter the attack,” Has told Arab News.

“The Turkish side denied Russian claims, and both statements still have quite contradictory details if compared with each other,” he said.

According to Has, the recent incompatible views of Turkey and Russia in Idlib have two main aspects.

“First, the Sochi deal of September 2018 on Idlib was born as an absolutely ‘dead deal,’ and Ankara now has to face the realities on the ground. Moscow’s pressure intensifies as the last chance for Turkey to eliminate the terrorist groups in the region who fled away,” he said.

Has noted that a 15-20 km demilitarized zone could not be created, and the M4 and M5 highways are still close to Assad regime’s use.

“Cease-fire violations both by the regime and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, or HTS, and other militant groups never stopped, drone attacks against Russian bases keep on going. HTS now almost totally dominates the Idlib province compared to partly controlling it when the Sochi deal was reached,” he said.

Experts also note that the deepening crisis in Turkish-US relations following the S-400 decision and F-35 deadlock plays into the hands of Moscow, especially in Idlib where “horse-trading” is heating up.

New Russian weapons were monitored heading for Syria through the Turkish straits a few days ago — likely a prelude to a bigger offensive in the region.

“Most possibly, we are going to watch not a comprehensive offensive soon, but a ‘slow motion’ advancement of regime forces in Idlib at least until the first US sanctions on Turkey over S-400’s procurement,” Has said.

“It seems that the cease-fire is part of Russia’s ‘strategy game.’ So, unfortunately new ‘friendly fires’ are likely to happen again if Turkey cannot quit this awkward dilemma,” he said.


Emirati astronaut prepares to join elite Arab space club

Updated 20 July 2019
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Emirati astronaut prepares to join elite Arab space club

  • Hazza Al-Mansoori 'living a dream' as he and backup astronaut train for space mission in September
  • Soyuz-MS 15 launch could be the beginning of a bold new era of Arab exploration of space

DUBAI: More than 30 years after an Arab first journeyed into space, an  Emirati is preparing to become the latest Arab space traveler when he joins a team of astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) in September.

For months, Hazza Al-Mansoori and backup pilot Sultan Al-Neyadi have been undergoing intensive training in Russia, Germany and the US to prepare for the mission. The first Emirati to travel into space will make the historic journey on board a Soyuz-MS 15 spacecraft due to take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sept. 25.

During the eight-day mission, he will conduct a tour of the ISS for Arabic viewers on Earth and carry out 15 experiments for the Science in Space schools competition conducted by Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center.

The crew, who will include an American and a Russian, are allowed to take up to 1 kg of personal items with them on the mission.

“I will take my family photo and share the experience of being in space with them,” Al-Mansoori said. There will also be an image of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE’s founding father, meeting American astronauts in 1976.

“I am also going to take an Emirati flag. I am living my dream and want to give something back to my country.”

‘I will take an Emirati flag into space. I am living my dream and want to give something back to my country.’

Emirati astronaut Hazza Al-Mansoori

Al-Mansoori will join an elite space club comprising Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan bin Salman and Syria’s Muhammed Faris. Prince Sultan became the first Arab to travel to space as part of space shuttle Discovery’s crew in 1985. Faris was a crew member of USSR’s Soyuz spacecraft in 1987.

The Emirati astronaut is aware that history is resting on his shoulders. Speaking to the media recently during his training program in Houston, Al-Mansoori  said it is a huge personal honor to be the first Emirati chosen for space exploration.

“I’m excited about the whole mission, but especially to experience the microgravity and be living in the ISS, and conducting daily experiments and working with the amazing group on board,” he said.

Al-Mansoori and Al-Neyadi have been undergoing rigorous training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The program includes familiarization with NASA equipment on board the space station, and handling emergency situations, such as ammonia gas leaks and depressurization.

The Emiratis have been trained to fend for themselves if the return goes off course and they land in the wilderness of Russia.

Speaking of the Soyuz-MS 15 mission, Yousuf Al-Shaibani, director general of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center, said: “We strive to see the UAE Astronaut Program achieve its objective of preparing generations of Emiratis who will contribute to enhancing the country’s position in space science and research to serve the ambitious aspirations aimed at building a national knowledge-based economy.”

The September launch could prove to be the beginning of a bold new era for Arabs and space. Al-Neyadi, the backup pilot, has been promised a seat on a future mission, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia are drawing up ambitious plans for the development of the region’s space industry.