Syria regime attack kills 23 rebels in truce zone

Fighting erupted when government troops seized a position in a rural area in the north of neighboring Hama province, above. (AFP)
Updated 09 November 2018

Syria regime attack kills 23 rebels in truce zone

  • Idlib and some surrounding areas are the last major rebel bastion in Syria
  • ‘This is the highest death toll in the de-militarized zone since it was announced’

BEIRUT: Syrian government forces killed 23 rebels near Idlib province on Friday, the deadliest clash to rock a buffer zone where a Russian-Turkish truce is to be enforced.

The attack on a position held by the Jaish Al-Izza rebel group took place on the edge of the northwestern province of Idlib, in an area due to be de-militarized.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, government forces moved in to take a high building held by the rebels in a rural area of neighboring Hama province.

Idlib and some surrounding areas are the last major rebel bastion in Syria, where the Russian-backed government has in recent months retaken much of the territory it had lost since the civil war erupted in 2011.

It had threatened an assault on rebel territory, home to around three million people, but a deal for a de-militarized buffer zone around it was reached in September between Moscow and rebel backer Ankara.

Several deadly skirmishes have occurred since the deal but 23 is the highest number of known fatalities in a single incident inside the planned buffer zone, the Observatory said.

“This is the highest death toll in the de-militarized zone since it was announced,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based monitoring group, said.

He said at least 35 rebel fighters were also wounded in the clash but could not provide a casualty toll for government forces.

It was not clear what prompted the attack, which did not appear to signal any large-scale government offensive or otherwise threaten the September 17 truce deal.

The government troops pulled out of the buffer zone after the flare-up, the Observatory said, adding that the fighting went on for much of the night.

Jaish Al-Izza is a rebel group which was formerly supported by the United States and is mostly active in the Lataminah area of Hama province, where the attack took place.

It is not a member of the main rebel alliance in the Idlib area and after initially rejecting the truce deal struck by Moscow and Ankara, it had begun complying and pulling back its heavy weaponry.

The withdrawal of the most radical fighters and the removal of heavy weapons from the planned buffer zone has not happened in full but the agreement successfully averted an all-out government assault.

Aid organizations had warned that a fully-fledged offensive on Idlib could spark the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the civil war so far.

Moscow is expected to restrain Damascus while Ankara is supposed to use its leverage on the rebels, including jihadists, to get them to regroup in specified areas and halt attacks on strategic regime-held territory.

Only sporadic incidents have broken out in the 15- to 20-kilometer buffer zone in the past two months, killing 18 civilians and three fighters before Friday’s clash.

The task assigned to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is near impossible, observers say, but the pause in fighting in Idlib has been largely respected.

“Erdogan knows Russia needs him to ultimately convert its military victory into a political victory in Syria,” said Karim Emile Bitar, of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Affairs.

He has since shifted the focus to northeastern Syria, where he has been threatening a military assault against Kurdish-held areas along the border.

The Kurds are the main allies of the US-led coalition in its push against the last pocket controlled by the Daesh group in eastern Syria.

In response to the Turkish threats, they have suspended their involvement in the fight against the jihadists, leaving Washington in a bind.


Tunisia heads to polls for keenly fought presidential contest

Updated 55 min 42 sec ago

Tunisia heads to polls for keenly fought presidential contest

  • The premier’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and a high cost of living
  • The election follows an intense campaign beset by personality clashes

TUNIS: Rarely has the outcome of an election been so uncertain in Tunisia, the cradle and partial success story of the Arab Spring, as some seven million voters head to the polls Sunday to choose from a crowded field.
Key players include media mogul Nabil Karoui — behind bars due to an ongoing money laundering probe — Abdelfattah Mourou, who heads a first-time bid on behalf of his Islamist inspired Ennahdha party, and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.
The premier’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and a high cost of living, and he has found himself having to vehemently deny accusations that Karoui’s detention since late August is politically inspired.
The election follows an intense campaign beset by personality clashes, albeit one with few clear political differences, brought forward by the death in July of 92-year-old president Beji Caid Essebsi.
He had been elected in the wake of the 2011 revolt that overthrew former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Publication of opinion polls has officially been banned since July, but one thing appears sure — many voters remain undecided, due to difficulties in reading a shifting political landscape.
“I am undecided between two candidates — I will decide in the polling booth,” smiled one citizen, Sofiene, who added “honest candidates don’t have much chance of winning.”
Some hopefuls have tried to burnish anti-establishment credentials in a bid to distance themselves from a political elite discredited by personal quarrels.
One key newcomer is Kais Saied, a 61-year-old law professor and expert on constitutional affairs, who has avoided attaching his bid to a political party.
Instead, he has gone door-to-door to drum up support for his conservative platform.
Another independent candidate is Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, a technocrat who is running for the first time.
However, he has the backing of Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party.
The crowded field of 26 has been narrowed slightly by the last minute withdrawal of two candidates in favor of Zbidi — former political adviser Mohsen Marzouk and businessman Slim Riahi, just ahead of Saturday’s campaign blackout.
But it is Karoui’s detention, just 10 days ahead of the start of the campaign, which has been one of the biggest talking points.
Studies suggest his arrest boosted his popularity.
A controversial businessman, Karoui built his appeal by using his Nessma television channel to launch charity campaigns, handing out food aid to some of the country’s poorest.
But his detractors portray him as a would-be Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier who they allege partly owns his channel.
On Friday, an appeal to have the Tunisian mogul released from prison ahead of the election was rejected, his party and lawyers said, two days after he began what his defense team said was a hunger strike.
The polarization between the different camps risks a derailment of the electoral process, according to Michael Ayari, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Isabelle Werenfels, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, has called the vote a democratic “test” because “it may require accepting the victory of a polarizing candidate,” such as Karoui.
Distrust of the political elite has been deepened by an unemployment rate of 15 percent and a rise in the cost of living of close to a third since 2016.
Jihadist attacks have exacted a heavy toll on the key tourism sector.
Polls open at 8:00 am (0700 GMT), although overseas voting stations for Tunisia’s sizeable expatriate population have been open since Friday.
Some stations will remain open until 6:00 pm, while others will close two hours earlier, for security reasons.
Some 70,000 security agents will be deployed on Sunday, including 50,000 focused solely on polling stations, according to the interior ministry.
Exit polls are expected overnight Sunday into Monday, but preliminary results are not expected from the electoral commission until Tuesday.
The date of the second round, which will decide the presidency, is not yet known, but it must happen by October 23 at the latest and may even take place on the same day as legislative polls — October 6.
Those polls are supposed to be more significant, as Tunisia is an emerging parliamentary democracy.
But several candidates have called for presidential powers to be beefed up, despite years of dictatorship under Ben Ali.