Idlib bombing raises doubts over future of Astana agreement

Turkey had already been discussing extending patrols to Tal Rifaat, in northern Aleppo. (AFP)
Updated 15 March 2019

Idlib bombing raises doubts over future of Astana agreement

  • Moscow claims strikes had been coordinated with Turkey, but Ankara denies that
  • Some experts see the bombing as a sign that Moscow is turning the screw on Erdogan

ANKARA: An escalation of heavy air and artillery strikes on Idlib in northwestern Syria on Wednesday night has raised doubts over the future of the Astana deal between Turkey, Russia and Iran. 

Moscow claimed the bombing of Syria’s last rebel stronghold had been coordinated with Turkey, but this was denied by Ankara.

Under the deal, Turkey was expected to persuade rebel groups to remove heavy weaponry from a designated buffer zone, and convince hard-line groups, including Al-Qaeda affiliated Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), to withdraw completely from major highways as part of a “de-escalation” process.

But HTS fighters remain in place, controlling 80 percent of the region, and criticism of Ankara for failing to honor its part of the agreement is becoming more acute.

Some experts see the bombing as a sign that Moscow is turning the screw on Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, either to assume more responsibility or renegotiate the terms of the deal.

Turkey had already been discussing extending patrols to Tal Rifaat, in northern Aleppo, with the Russians after Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced similar cooperation would happen in Idlib.

“Perhaps Moscow is trying to raise the stakes to get constructive talks with Ankara on Idlib and find a solution to the future of HTS,” Anton Mardasov, military affairs expert and head of the Department of Middle Eastern Conflicts at the Moscow-based Institute for Innovative Development, told Arab News.

“It’s not profitable for Ankara to confirm the coordination of strikes with Moscow, though the strikes can be used by Turkey to increase pressure on HTS to accept their terms.   

“Negotiations will be beneficial for Russia, to demonstrate a successful Syrian strategy. For Turkey, it is also an opportunity to advance its agenda, although Ankara has long been thinking about balancing its position by intensifying negotiations with its European partners in NATO.”

Turkey is also discussing establishing a joint coordination center in Idlib to manage operations at the behest of the Kremlin, which has criticized Ankara’s lack of engagement in recent months. 

“If there is no political progress, Russia always resorts to hard power moves to motivate their partners. That’s how they will push Turkey to do more,” Yury Barmin, Middle East and North Africa director at the Moscow Policy Group, told Arab News. 

“These attacks are happening against the background of the EU Conference on Syria in Brussels. The Russians are trying to put Syria on the radar of the Europeans to intervene,” he added.

According to Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, Ankara may have approved Russian operations against HTS, but would be reluctant to let its allies believe it was complicit in them. 

“With the current tensions in US-Turkish relations, Ankara has no option but to manage its marriage of convenience with Moscow,” he said.


Water-scarce Gulf states bank on desalination, at a cost

Updated 12 December 2019

Water-scarce Gulf states bank on desalination, at a cost

  • For Oman and other Gulf states dominated by vast deserts, obtaining fresh water from the sea comes at a high cost
  • In Sur, water for residents and businesses comes from a large desalination plant

SUR, OMAN: “We have water, and it’s the most important thing in a house,” says Abdullah Al-Harthi from the port city of Sur in Oman, a country that relies on desalination plants.
But for Oman and the other Gulf countries dominated by vast and scorching deserts, obtaining fresh water from the sea comes at a high financial and environmental cost.
In Sur, south of the capital Muscat, water for residents and businesses comes from a large desalination plant that serves some 600,000 people.
“Before, life was very difficult. We had wells, and water was delivered by trucks,” the 58-year-old told AFP. “Since the 1990s, water has come through pipes and we’ve had no cuts.”
But these benefits — relying on energy intensive processes that produce carbon emissions — do not come without a cost, particularly as global temperatures rise.
The United Nations says 2019 is on course to be one of the hottest three years on record.
And there is another impact: the desalination plants produce highly concentrated salt water, or brine, that is often dumped back into the ocean.
Researchers say more than 16,000 desalination plants around the globe produce more toxic sludge than freshwater.
For every liter of freshwater extracted from the sea or brackish water, a liter-and-a-half of salty slurry is deposed at sea or on land, according to a 2019 study in the journal Science.
All that extra salt raises the temperature of coastal waters and decreases the level of oxygen, which can conspire to create biological “dead zones.”
The super-salty substance is made even more toxic by the chemicals used in the desalination process.
Oman’s bigger neighbors produce the bulk of the brine.
More than half comes from just four countries — Saudi Arabia, at 22 percent, United Arab Emirates with 20 percent, and smaller shares by Kuwait and Qatar, according to UN data.
“Brine production in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar accounts for 55 percent of the total global share,” according to the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.
It said new strategies are needed “to limit the negative environmental impacts and reduce the economic cost of disposal.”
This would help “to safeguard water supplies for current and future generations.”
At the Sur plant, “almost no chemicals” are used during the pre-treatment phase, as the water is naturally filtered through the cracks of karst rocks, said Mahendran Senapathy, operations manager at French company Veolia which runs the plant along with an Omani firm.
There are other ways to safeguard freshwater supplies, from encouraging savings and efficiently to recycling wastewater.
Antoine Frerot, chief executive of Veolia, said wastewater recycling will help resolve the problem of water scarcity.
He also pointed out that “reused water is less costly,” nearly one third less than that won through desalination.
Omani authorities continue to mount campaigns urging people to use water wisely, mindful that other demands — especially the energy sector — also guzzle up large amounts.
Across the Gulf, huge amounts of water are used not just for homes, gardens and golf courses, but also for the energy sector that is the source of the region’s often spectacular wealth.
On the edge of the Arabian peninsula’s “Empty Quarter,” the world’s largest expanse of sand, lies the Khazzan gas field, operated by BP and the Oman Oil Company.
The method used to extract the gas here is hydraulic fracturing — more commonly known as fracking — said Stewart Robertson, operations manager at the site.
The method requires huge amounts of water. The site is supplied by a facility that provides 6,000 cubic meters of water a day, extracted from an underground aquifer 50 kilometers (30 miles) away.
Fracking involves directional drilling and then pumping water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture rock and release the hydrocarbons.
The rock formations that hold the gas are “like a big sponge with lots of little holes in it,” said Robertson, explaining that fracking is the process “to open those holes slightly to take the gas out.”
So the more the region extracts oil and natural or shale gas, “the more they need water,” said Charles Iceland of the World Resources Institute.
“The Middle East is projected to need more and more energy,” he said. “So that means the situation is going to get worse.”
“On the other hand,” he said, “if they can produce power using solar photovoltaic technologies, which are getting reasonably priced in the Middle East, that would take care of a lot of the problem because solar PV doesn’t need much water.
“You need just some water to clean the solar panels.”