Syrian rebels see Idlib deal as victory, Damascus as test for Turkey

Iran has fought as an ally of President Bashar Assad in the Syrian conflict alongside Russian forces. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 September 2018

Syrian rebels see Idlib deal as victory, Damascus as test for Turkey

  • Iran has fought as an ally of President Bashar Assad in the Syrian conflict alongside Russian forces
  • Russian and Turkish troops are to enforce a new demilitarised zone in the Idlib region

AMMAN/BEIRUT: Syrian opposition officials praised a deal between Russia and Turkey over Idlib province on Tuesday, saying it had spared the rebel-held region a bloody government offensive and would thwart President Bashar al-Assad’s aim of recovering all Syria.
Damascus, while welcoming the agreement unveiled on Monday, vowed to press on with its campaign to recover “every inch” of the country. Its ambassador to Lebanon said the deal would test Turkey’s ability to deliver on promises to disarm rebels.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most powerful ally, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan agreed at a summit on Monday to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib from which “radical” rebels must withdraw by the middle of next month.
The agreement has diminished the prospects of a Syrian government offensive which the United Nations warned would create a humanitarian catastrophe in the Idlib region, home to about three million people.
The Idlib region and adjoining territory north of Aleppo represents the Syrian opposition’s last big foothold in Syria, where Iranian and Russian military support has helped Assad recover most of the areas once held by the insurgency.
But strong Turkish opposition to an Idlib attack has obstructed government plans for an offensive, and the agreement announced on Monday appears to preserve a role for Turkey in the northwest - something seen as anathema to Assad.
“The Idlib deal preserves lives of civilians and their direct targeting by the regime. It buries Assad’s dreams of imposing his full control over Syria,” Mustafa Sejari, a Free Syria Army (FSA) official, told Reuters.
“This area will remain in the hands of the Free Syrian Army and will force the regime and its supporters to start a serious political process that leads to a real transition that ends Assad’s rule,” Sejari said.
The spokesman for the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission said the deal had halted an offensive for which government forces had been mobilizing in recent weeks, calling it a “victory for the will for life over the will for death”.
The “scenario of attack is practically excluded, at least for a period of time that is not small, and we hope that it will be permanent,” Yahya al-Aridi told Reuters by telephone.
Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, in an interview with Lebanon’s al-Jadeed TV, reiterated his government’s distrust of Turkey, a major backer of the Syrian rebellion which has deployed troops across the opposition-held northwest.
“I see it as a test of the extent of Turkey’s ability to commit to implementing this decision. They are under pressure now and I believe they will try,” Ali Abdul Karim said.
“We do not trust Turkey ... but it’s useful for Turkey to be able to carry out this fight to rid these groups from their weapons...Turkey could deal with this responsibility and this would be useful,” he said.
The demilitarized zone will be monitored by Russian and Turkish forces, the leaders said on Monday.
Neither Putin not Erdogan explained how they planned to differentiate “radically-minded” rebels from other anti-Assad groups. It was also not immediately clear how much of the city of Idlib fell within the zone.
Putin said the decision was to establish by Oct. 15 a demilitarized area 15–20 km (10-12 miles) deep along the contact line between rebel and government fighters, with radical militants to be withdrawn from the area, including members of the Nusra Front, a jihadist group that now part of the Tahrir al-Sham organization.
Pro-Assad newspaper says Syrian state to return to Idlib
Al-Watan, a pro-Syrian government newspaper, said on Tuesday the zone would stretch for 15 km around Idlib city.
It also said Syrian state institutions would return to Idlib by the end of the year in the final phase of the deal after insurgents hand over all of their heavy weapons and move away from civilian areas.
Citing unidentified diplomatic sources in Moscow, it said any factions rejecting the agreement would be considered enemies “even of the Turkish army and will be classed as terrorists that must be fought”.
Erdogan, who had feared another cross-border exodus of Syrian refugees to join the 3.5 million already in Turkey, said the deal would allow opposition supporters to stay where they were and avert a humanitarian crisis.
Putin said that by Oct. 10, all opposition heavy weapons, mortars, tanks, rocket systems would be removed from the demilitarized zone, and said this was Erdogan’s suggestion.
Earlier this month, Putin publicly rebuffed a proposal from Erdogan for a ceasefire when the two met along with Iran’s president for a summit in Tehran.
Idlib is held by an array of rebels. The most powerful is Tahrir al-Sham, an amalgamation of Islamist groups dominated by the former Nusra Front - an al Qaeda affiliate until 2016.
Other Islamists, and groups fighting as the Free Syrian Army banner, are now gathered with Turkish backing under the banner of the “National Front for Liberation”. 


Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

Updated 37 min 38 sec ago

Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

  • Standoff looms in northern Syrian town of Manbij as Turkish offensive continues

MANBIJ, Syria: Turkey ignored US sanctions and pressed on with its assault on northern Syria on Tuesday, while the Russia-backed Syrian army roared into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by US forces in Donald Trump’s retreat.
Reuters journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered the center of the city of Manbij, a flashpoint where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.
Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles.
US forces announced they had pulled out of the city.
A week after reversing US policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington’s Syrian allies, Trump announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.
But the measures — mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks — were less robust than financial markets had expected, and Trump’s critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.
The Turkish lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher US measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting that Trump had spared Turkish banks.
Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a week ago swiftly upended five years of US policy in the Middle East.
The withdrawal gives a free hand to Washington’s adversaries in the world’s deadliest ongoing war, namely Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
The United States announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Assad’s Russia-backed government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.
Russian-backed Syrian forces moved swiftly to fill the void left by departing Americans from Manbij west of the Euphrates river, which Turkey has vowed to capture.
“We are out of Manbij,” said Col. Myles B Caggins, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Syria. Troops “are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”
A group of journalists accompanied by Syrian army personnel journeyed into Manbij city where upon their arrival a group of people gathered, waving the Syrian flag and pictures of Assad.
However the reporters left when gunfire was heard and a group of some 10 young men in Kurdish YPG uniforms began breaking cameras and yelling.
Syrian state media said SDF fighters had opened fire on a march organized by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.
Trump’s pullout ends joint US-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal aimed to persuade Turkey not to invade.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of what it said was government troops entering Manbij on Tuesday, under their new deal with the Kurds. A resident inside the city told Reuters the Syrian troops were on its outskirts. Turkey-backed Syrian fighters said they would continue their advance toward Manbij.
A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday morning of the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain, where a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reported a fierce battle was taking place.
Trump has defended his reversal of US policy as part of a plan to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East.
But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds, loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground forces in Washington’s battle against Daesh.
The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said Trump’s sanctions were too little, too late.
“His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster.”
Turkey says it aims to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey, and to create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees can be resettled.
The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The Kurdish administration puts the number of displaced at 270,000.
The UN Human Rights office said on Tuesday Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on the side of a highway on Saturday by gunmen who posted the incident on the Internet.
Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.
Erdogan, who has pledged to continue military operations come what may, said Turkey was giving the world a chance to bring peace to the region.
“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union — and the world — should support what Turkey is trying to do.”
The Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory evacuated by Washington are a victory for President Bashar Assad and his most powerful ally, Russia, giving them a foothold in the biggest remaining swath of the country that had been beyond their grasp.
Trump allies insisted Washington had not given its blessing to the Turkish offensive, and demanded a cease-fire.
“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table.”
Trump’s sanctions include reimposing steel tariffs and halting talks on a trade deal. But bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is small — around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to US financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.
“The sanctions are not related to banking, so the markets will have a positive perception,” said Cem Tozge, asset management director at Ata Invest.
In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen said it was postponing a final decision on whether to build a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over “current developments” after international condemnation of the incursion.
European countries have criticized the offensive but have limited their response so far to announcing suspensions of arms sales, although weapons account for only a small fraction of EU-Turkish trade.
Trump said US troops would remain at a small garrison at Tanf in southern Syria “to continue to disrupt remnants” of Daesh. The base on the southern border is hundreds of miles away from the Kurdish area in the north that had previously been the main US theater.