Syria’s Idlib spared attack, Turkey to send in more troops

The Idlib region and adjoining territory north of Aleppo represent the opposition’s last big foothold in Syria. (File/AFP)
Updated 20 September 2018

Syria’s Idlib spared attack, Turkey to send in more troops

  • Damascus also welcomed the agreement but vowed to continue its efforts to recover “every inch” of Syria
  • The Idlib region and adjoining territory north of Aleppo represent the opposition’s last big foothold in Syria

ANKARA/AMMAN: Turkey will send more troops into Syria’s Idlib province after striking a deal with Russia that has averted a government offensive and delighted rebels who said it kept the area out of President Bashar Assad’s hands.
The deal unveiled on Monday by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most powerful ally, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan will create a demilitarised zone from which “radical” rebels must withdraw by the middle of next month.
Damascus also welcomed the agreement but vowed to continue its efforts to recover “every inch” of Syria. Iran, Assad’s other main ally, said that “responsible diplomacy” had averted a war in Idlib “with a firm commitment to fight extremist terror.”
The agreement halted a threatened Syrian government offensive. The United Nations had warned such an attack would create a humanitarian catastrophe in the Idlib region, home to about 3 million people.
The Idlib region and adjoining territory north of Aleppo represent the opposition’s last big foothold in Syria. Assad has recovered most of the areas once held by the rebels, with decisive military support from Iran and Russia.
But his plans to recover the northwest have been complicated by Turkey’s role on the ground. It has soldiers at 12 locations in Idlib and supplies weapons to some of the rebels.
Erdogan had feared another exodus of refugees to join the 3.5 million already in Turkey, and warned against any attack.
In striking the deal, Russia appears — at least for now — to have put its ties with Turkey ahead of advancing the goal of bringing all Syria back under Assad’s rule.
That goal is also obstructed by the presence of US forces in the quarter of Syria east of the Euphrates that is held by an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, and at a base near the borders with Jordan and Iraq.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis played down any notion the Turkey-Russia agreement had resolved the situation in Idlib.
“Idlib is one of the most complex problems in a complex theater (of conflict) right now. So I’m quite sure it’s not all sorted,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.
Analysts cautioned that implementation of the deal faced big challenges, notably how to separate extremists from other rebels — a goal Ankara has been struggling to achieve.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the “moderate opposition” would keep its weapons and the “region will be cleared of radicals.” Turkey would “make additional troop deployments” and its 12 observation posts would remain.
The deal was “very important for the political resolution in Syria.” “If this (Idlib) had been lost too, there would be no opposition anymore,” he said.
Mustafa Sejari, a Free Syria Army (FSA) official, said the deal “buries Assad’s dreams of imposing his full control over Syria.”
Yahya Al-Aridi, spokesman for the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission, expressed hope a government offensive was now off the table for good.
The Syrian government, in a statement published by state media, said it welcomed any agreement that spared blood. It also said the deal had a specific time frame, which it did not detail.
“I see it as a test of the extent of Turkey’s ability to implement this decision,” Ali Abdul Karim, Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, said in an interview with Lebanon’s Al-Jadeed TV. “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.”
’Catastrophe averted’
Moscow said the deal “confirmed the ability of both Moscow and Ankara to compromise ... in the interests of the ultimate goal of a Syrian settlement by political and diplomatic means.”
“Is this merely a stay of execution? Or is it the beginning of a reprieve?” UN aid chief Mark Lowcock asked during a monthly meeting of the UN Security Council on Syria.
The demilitarised zone will be monitored by Russian and Turkish forces, the countries’ leaders said.
Neither Russia nor Turkey has explained how it plans 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 demilitarised area 15 to 20 km (10-12 miles) deep along the contact line between rebel and government fighters.
Naji Abu Hufaiza, spokesman for the National Front for Liberation, said he did not have details of the agreement, but added that while he saw it as a success for Turkish diplomacy, his group did not trust Russia to uphold it.
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.”
The area is also the last major haven for foreign extremists who came to Syria to fight the Alawite-led Assad government.
Putin said that, at Erdogan’s suggestion, by Oct. 10, all opposition heavy weapons, mortars, tanks, rocket systems would also be removed from the demilitarised zone.
Earlier this month, Putin publicly rebuffed a proposal from Erdogan for a truce when the two met along with Iran’s president at a summit in Tehran.


11 million North Koreans are undernourished: UN investigator

Quintana said collective farming and the failure to allow farmers to benefit from individual plots of land is further exacerbating food insecurity. (AFP)
Updated 44 min 2 sec ago

11 million North Koreans are undernourished: UN investigator

  • The resumption of Mt Kumgang tours has been repeatedly mentioned as a possibility by South Korean President Moon Jae-in in recent years

UNITED NATIONS: Food insecurity in North Korea “is at an alarming level,” with nearly half the population — 11 million people — undernourished, the UN independent investigator on human rights in the country said Tuesday.
Tomas Ojea Quintana told the General Assembly’s human rights committee that 140,000 children are estimated to be suffering from “undernutrition,” including 30,000 who “face an increased risk of death.”
Quintana said the government, which has primary responsibility for ensuring access to food, “is violating its human rights obligations due to its failing economic and agricultural policies.”
In addition, he said, “climate conditions, infertile land, natural disasters and the negative impact of sanctions have contributed to further food insecurity.”
More broadly, Quintana said he has seen no improvement in North Korea’s human rights situation during his three years as special rapporteur.
“The country’s economic resources are being diverted away from the essential needs of the people,” he said. “Pervasive discrimination in the public distribution system means that ordinary citizens, especially farmers and people in rural areas, have not been receiving any rations.”
Quintana said collective farming and the failure to allow farmers to benefit from individual plots of land is further exacerbating food insecurity.
“At the same time, the government has failed to put in place conditions where people can securely engage in trade and exchange in marketplaces without facing criminalization, extortion and other forms of abuse,” he said. Nonetheless, he added, the vast majority of North Koreans “are now engaged in such market activity for their survival.”
Ironically, he said, the government’s failure to regulate nascent market activity is creating increasing inequality based on wealth, “where only those with money have access to basic rights such as education, health care, freedom of movement and adequate housing.”
Quintana said severe restrictions on basic freedoms continue to be widespread, including surveillance and close monitoring of civilians.
“North Korean people continue to live in the entrenched fear of being sent to a political prison camp,” called a kwanliso, he said.
“If you are considered to be a spy of the hostile countries or a traitor, when in reality you are simply exercising your basic human rights, you can be suddenly taken by agents of the Ministry of State Security to a kwanliso and never be seen again,” Quintana said. “Suspects’ families are never informed of the decisions or of the whereabouts of their relatives.”
On the issue of North Koreans who have fled to China, Quintana said in the past six months he has received information from family members living in South Korea of an increasing number of these escapees being detained in China.
He said any North Korean who escapes should not be forcibly returned because there are substantial grounds they would be tortured or subjected to other human rights violations.
“I appreciate the government of China’s increased engagement with me on this concern, and I hope that this will lead to greater compliance with international standards,” he said.
Quintana said North Korea has accepted 132 recommendations from other UN member states, including one “to grant immediate, free and unimpeded access to international humanitarian organizations to provide assistance to the most vulnerable groups, including prisoners.” He said this could lead to the first international access to places of detention, “and could therefore be an opportunity to improve prison conditions.”