Gaza talks resume as 5-day cease-fire nears end

Updated 18 August 2014

Gaza talks resume as 5-day cease-fire nears end

CAIRO: A Palestinian negotiator said Sunday his side is “less optimistic” about indirect talks with Israel over the Gaza war as a deadline on a temporary cease-fire looms.
The Palestinian team reassembled in Cairo on Sunday after members returned from consultations in Qatar, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. The Israeli team also returned Sunday to resume the Egyptian-mediated talks. A current five-day cease-fire is due to end late Monday.
The negotiations have been going on between the sides since early last week. They are aimed at ending the latest war between Israel and Hamas-led Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip and improving conditions for the territory’s 1.8 million people. Israel wants guarantees to end rocket fire and attacks on its citizens.
Close to 2,000 Palestinians have been killed — most civilians — and more than 10,000 people have been wounded since the war began July 8, according to United Nations figures. In Israel, 67 people have been killed, all but three soldiers.
A member of the Palestinian delegation told The Associated Press on Sunday that the gaps between the sides were still significant and that it was far from certain whether a deal could be reached before the cease-fire expires.
“We are less optimistic than we were earlier,” he said.
The negotiator said that a key sticking point remains Hamas’s insistence that Israel pledge to end its Gaza blockade before the talks conclude. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the issue with journalists.
Under the terms of an Egyptian proposal, Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority would negotiate the end to the blockade at some point in the future. The blockade has restricted the flow of goods into Gaza and blocked virtually all exports, as well as limited Palestinians’ movement in and out of the territory.
Israel says the closure is necessary to prevent arms smuggling, and officials are reluctant to make any concessions that would allow Hamas to declare victory.
Israel, meanwhile, is demanding that Hamas be disarmed, or at the very least, be prevented from re-arming, something the militant group has rejected.
Speaking before Israel’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Hamas had suffered a huge setback in the four-week war and that would be reflected at the Cairo talks.
“If Hamas thinks its defeat on the battlefield will be papered over by a victory at the negotiating table it is mistaken,” he said.
Hamas has recovered from previous rounds of violence with Israel, including a major three-week air and ground operation in January 2009 and another weeklong air offensive in 2012. It still has an arsenal of several thousand rockets, some with long ranges and relatively heavy payloads.
The current round of fighting began after Hamas resumed firing rockets at Israel following the arrests of suspected Hamas-affiliated militants in the West Bank. Israel said the arrests came as part of the investigation into the killing of three Israeli teens in June.


Can Damascus-Ankara face off in Syria flare up?

Updated 18 min 15 sec ago

Can Damascus-Ankara face off in Syria flare up?

  • An all-out conflict between Syrian regime forces and Turkey is unlikely

BEIRUT: A week-old Turkish invasion of northeast Syria combined with a US withdrawal have redrawn the lines and left Russian-backed Syrian regime troops and Ankara’s forces standing face-to-face.

Experts argue that an all-out conflict between Syrian regime forces and Turkey is unlikely but they do not rule out sporadic clashes.

On Oct. 9, the Turkish army and its Syrian proxies launched a broad offensive against Kurdish forces controlling swathes of northeastern Syria.

The move against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia Ankara considers a terrorist group, came after US troops who were deployed along the border as a buffer between the two enemies pulled back.

Turkey and its proxies — mostly Arab and Turkmen former rebels defeated by regime forces earlier in Syria’s eight-year-old conflict — have already conquered territory along 120 km of the border.

In some areas, they have moved some 30 km deep into Syria territory, prompting the Kurds to turn for help to the regime in Damascus.

Government troops responded and rushed north as soon as US troops withdrew from some of their positions, including the strategic city of Manbij.

The Syrian regime’s main backer Russia swiftly sent its own forces to patrol the new contact line between regime forces and the former fighters.

“It is mostly rebel groups linked to Ankara who are on the front lines, Turkish troops are mostly deployed along the border,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The intense ballet of military deployments is redrawing the map of territorial control in a region previously held by the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces.

“There’s a new map. And it’s the regime sweeping almost everything, Turkey is left with a few crumbs along the border,” said Thomas Pierret, from the French National Center for Scientific Research.

Turkey insists it will not stop the offensive until it meets its declared goals of creating a buffer zone all along the border, but it now has limited room for maneuver in the face of the regime surge.

Russia and Iran, both Damascus allies, “will act as intermediaries to ensure everybody stays on the patch they have been allocated,” said geographer and Syria expert Fabrice Balanche.

He said incidents should not be ruled out “due to the unclear nature of the territorial boundaries and the presence on the Turkish side of uncontrollable elements.”

Two Syrian soldiers were killed near Ain Issa in artillery fire from Turkish proxies Tuesday, the Observatory said.

“There could be limited clashes ... but no major battles,” Pierret said. “The Syrian army cannot take on Turkey ... The Turkish army is much better equipped.”

“It isn’t hard to imagine how areas retaken by the regime could be used as a staging ground for YPG guerrilla operations,” he said.

The Kurdish force could be “reinvented as an anti-Turkey force” at Damascus and Moscow’s orders. “It’s a very credible scenario and could give Russia new leverage against Turkey.”

Moscow is keen to avert any escalation, analysts say.

“Russia is working overtime to prevent any type of large scale conflict between Assad’s forces and Turkey and its proxies,” said Nick Heras from the Center for New American Security.

Turkey together with Russia and Iran launched the so-called Astana process which provides a framework for peace talks on Syria.

To win support for its invasion, Turkey will need to make concessions over the Idlib region in Syria’s northwest, Balanche predicted.

“The Russians finally agreed to this Turkish intervention in the north, in exchange for Idlib,” he said, referring to the last opposition bastion in Syria, a region where Ankara has some clout but which Damascus wants to retake.

The strategic relationship between Ankara and Moscow goes far beyond the Syrian conflict. NATO member Turkey has ignored US warnings and acquired Russia’s state-of-the-art S-400 missile defense system.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected in Moscow on Thursday for talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s office said a prior phone call between the two leaders had emphasized “the need to prevent confrontations between units of the Turkish army and Syrian armed forces.”