Syria peace deal threatened as Iran and Turkey clash in Idlib

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters walk as the sun sets in Eastern Afrin countryside, Syria. (Reuters)
Updated 06 February 2018

Syria peace deal threatened as Iran and Turkey clash in Idlib

ANKARA: A deadly attack carried out by Iranian militias on Turkish troops deep inside Syria has cast renewed doubt on the survival of a de-escalation agreement meant to ease tensions between three of the main powers enmeshed in the long-running conflict.
The assault on the outpost in Idlib province, southwest of Aleppo city, on Monday night killed one Turkish soldier and injured five others. The Turkish military retaliated with rocket fire, but experts have told Arab News that the bloodshed could be a sign of further trouble to come.
Last year officials from Ankara, Tehran and Moscow agreed to set up a series of de-escalation zones in Syria that were supposed to reduce violence between anti-government insurgents and forces fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The UN backed the move but all three countries remain deeply involved in the conflict and Monday night’s attack was just the latest indication that their detente is in danger of collapsing into a new wave of violence.
Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, said the deal — struck in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana — was “still valid” but “the three guarantor countries should immediately meet and discuss the ongoing problems with each other.”
He anticipated more clashes between Iran’s proxy forces and Turkish troops in the coming weeks, as both powers seek to exert their influence over Idlib — a province controlled by the former Al-Qaeda affiliate group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham.
The outpost that was attacked on Monday had only been established that morning. It is the fourth observation point the Turkish military has set up in Idlib, with a further eight still due to be built under the terms of the Astana deal, but its construction came at a particularly delicate time.
On Jan. 20, the Turkish military launched Operation Olive Branch against Kurdish fighters belonging to militias including the People’s Protection Units (YPG) stationed in the nearby Syrian district of Afrin. Ankara has since portrayed the offensive as a successful attempt to root out separatists threatening its sovereignty but Damascus fears Turkish troops are moving deeper into Syrian territory in an attempt to establish a permanent presence in the country.
The Syrian civil war has turned into a battleground for regional and international powers since it first began with a wave of civil unrest against the Assad regime in 2011. The regime responded to the peaceful protests in brutal fashion, arresting and killing thousands of its opponents and deliberately stoking the flames of an Islamist insurgency.
Under the guise of fighting terrorism and protecting one of its main allies, Iran has become increasingly involved in the war. There was further evidence of this close relationship after Monday night’s attack, with the Syrian army yesterday (Tuesday) deploying anti-aircraft missiles to the front lines in Aleppo and Idlib in an apparent warning to Ankara not to retaliate further.
Tehran has also urged Turkey to stop its military offensive against the Kurdish separatists, accusing it of breaching Syrian sovereignty and destabilizing the region.
Meanwhile, Russia still finds itself mired in the conflict almost three years after first launching airstrikes against opposition groups fighting the Assad regime. Last Saturday, one of its pilots blew himself up with a grenade to avoid being captured by insurgents after his plane was shot down over Idlib.
Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at the Moscow-backed Russian International Affairs Council, told Arab News that the latest clash between Turkey and Iranian-sponsored militias might yet develop into a major new fault-line in the war.
“It would not be unrealistic to expect confrontation between Turkey-backed groups and pro-Assad forces in the coming days. The decisive factor, however, will be the absence of Russian air support in any offensives against Turkish interests,” he said.


American G20 ‘sherpa’ Chris Olson lauds strong, long-standing Riyadh-Houston links

Updated 32 min 49 sec ago

American G20 ‘sherpa’ Chris Olson lauds strong, long-standing Riyadh-Houston links

  • Chris Olson: It began with oil but developed into a cultural and economic exchange – a lot of Saudis ended up calling Houston home
  • Olson: I’ve been impressed by how Riyadh has taken the U20 concept and moved it forward

One of the aims of the U20 — the urban track of the G20 organization that formally opens on Thursday in Riyadh — is to bring together cities of diverse backgrounds and cultures to explore common interests and challenges, rather than focusing on what makes them different.

In the case of Riyadh and Houston, Texas, that process of familiarization has been underway for decades.

Christopher Olson, director of international affairs and global trade at the offices of the city of Houston, told Arab News: “There has been a long-standing and strong relationship between Houston and Riyadh, indeed the whole of Saudi Arabia, for a very long time.”

Olson reports to the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, but for the past year or so has been the US “sherpa” at the G20, under Saudi presidency this year.

The Riyadh-Houston affinity was based, naturally, on the oil and gas industry, with both cities owing much of their economic dynamism and growth to the energy business. Saudis and Texans share a unique heritage as pioneers of the crude business, and those links have grown and diversified over the decades.

“It began with oil but developed into a cultural and economic exchange. A lot of Saudis ended up calling Houston home,” Olson said.

Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s energy giant, has a big facility in the Texan city, and owns the Motiva refinery complex a short distance away on the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Until the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit, Saudis would travel in droves each year to the CERAWeek energy forum in Houston, the “oil man’s Davos,” not least to keep tabs on what their rivals were doing in the Texas shale industry.

Saudis also attend Texas universities in big numbers, and the Texas Medical Center — which Olson pointed out was the biggest medical facility in the world — treats Saudi patients in increasing numbers.

Oil and medicine came together during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Aramco gifted medical supplies and equipment to Houston. “We were incredibly fortunate in that. We got almost 1 million masks from benefactors, and Aramco made up a big proportion of that. It really was incredibly generous,” Olson added.

The virus outbreak led to the cancellation of CERAWeek this year, but the city hoped organizers would add some physical element to the planned virtual event in 2021, Olson said.

The city managed to avoid most of the early virulence of the pandemic that hit US cities such as New York and Los Angeles, but relaxed early restrictions, along with several American cities, in May, and suffered a resulting spike in infections, the official added. “Now the numbers are moving in the right direction — downwards. But as schools and economic activity restarts, there is the potential for a second wave.”

One of the major themes of the U20 is how big urban centers, such as Houston and Riyadh, can overcome the health and economic ravages of the pandemic. Some experts have forecast mass migration from big cities, partly to avoid infection, but also as working and social habits adapt to whatever post-pandemic “normality” emerges. There has even been talk of “the end of urbanization.”

Olson said: “We’re all going to have to adapt. For example, are we as cities still going to invest in big infrastructure projects to encourage mass transit systems? That is the thing to do from a sustainability viewpoint, but it creates a health challenge.”

The working environment also faces enforced change. “There may have been a reticence in the past about tele-meetings, but now they are ubiquitous. It’s going to fundamentally change the way business is conducted.”

Increased dependence on technology brings other challenges, which the U20 will also consider. The digital divide between those who have access to efficient communications, especially in education, has been brought into sharp relief during the global health crisis, and even impacted on affluent urban hubs such as Houston.

“But I believe the city as a concept will endure. We are urban and social animals. People will adapt, but the general concept of the urban environment will not change,” Olson added.

He said it had been “fantastic” working with his counterparts at the U20 in Saudi Arabia.

“I’ve been impressed by how Riyadh has taken the U20 concept and moved it forward. The U20 is still only in its third year, but Riyadh has solidified it as an engagement group, and created a format for an exchange of thought and ideas. This will help us come up with evidence-based proposals and solutions,” he added.

The climax of the U20 comes on Friday, when mayors from all the big cities come together virtually to approve a 27-point communique for delivery to the G20 leadership. That statement is still under wraps, but Olson said it was a “well-crafted” document that reflected the good relationships that had developed between the sherpas over the past year.

He would like to see the U20 track elevated within G20 proceedings in the future, especially in the way it addresses issues of more concern to younger people, and believes that Saudi Arabia, with its very young demographic, will assist that elevation process.

“The amazing work of Riyadh has built on what was achieved in Tokyo and Buenos Aires and has carried it forward.

“It’s the cities of the world that face the biggest challenges — such as climate change, human rights, and sustainable development. But the cities are also coming up with the solutions. That is where the opportunity lies,” Olson said.