Turkey and Russia face escalation of violence over Syria’s push into Idlib

Protesters wave Syrian and Turkish flags as they attend a rally against the Syrian regime offensive in southwestern city of Idlib, in Maarat Al-Numan, south of Idlib, Syria. (AP/file)
Updated 02 June 2019

Turkey and Russia face escalation of violence over Syria’s push into Idlib

  • ‘The human loss is horrible,’ opposition spokesman tells Arab News
  • Turkey facing pressure from Syria, Iran and Russia to deliver on its pledge to control armed factions in the region

JEDDAH/ISTANBUL:  Ankara and Moscow are again facing an escalation of violence in Syria’s last opposition-held territory.

An all-out offensive by the Assad regime to capture Idlib in northwest Syria could unleash an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, as the province is home to 3 million people.

Regime ground forces have been advancing from the south of the opposition stronghold under the cover of Syrian and Russian airstrikes.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 291 civilians and 369 fighters have been killed in Idlib since April 30. 

In the same period, 269 regime troops and 22 civilians have been killed in regime-held areas by opposition fire.

The UN children’s agency said more than 130 children have reportedly been killed. More than 200,000 people from Idlib have been displaced, according to the UN.

Ankara has accused the Assad regime of violating a cease-fire brokered by Turkey and Russia. 

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Ankara has told Russia that “the regime must be controlled.”

Syrian opposition spokesman Yahya Al-Aridi said the regime has chosen a military path in handling the popular uprising. “The more tension, the better for the regime and Iran, its main supporter,” he told Arab News. 

Russia has tried more than 250 kinds of deadly weapons in Syria, he said. “It wanted to tailor a solution that fits its own interests and suits the regime. The pretext is there in Idlib with some Al-Nusra fighters,” he added. 

What is happening in Idlib, said Al-Aridi, is a violation of accords between Turkey and Russia. 
“The losses on both sides are tremendous, with people defending themselves against ground forces. But they can’t do anything against the Russian and regime bombardment,” he added. 

“The human loss is horrible. Hundreds of thousands are fleeing their homes with no shelter. It’s a humanitarian disaster, with the world unfortunately watching and doing nothing against those criminals.”
Turkey, which is already hosting more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, is facing strong pressure from Syria, Iran and Russia to deliver on its pledge to control the armed opposition factions in Idlib.

But Turkey also needs Russia to rein in Syria’s Bashar Assad to prevent a massive outflow of refugees and to keep Turkish soldiers on the ground safe.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin “have an incentive to cooperate and ensure that nobody’s interests are totally trampled,” says Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East program in American think tank Foreign Policy Research Institute.

In September, the two leaders brokered a cease-fire for Idlib in the Russian resort of Sochi, preventing a bloody onslaught, despite the fact that Russia has firmly backed Assad and Turkey supports opposition forces. Nine months later, the truce has failed.

The agreement called for a 15-to-20 km demilitarized zone free of insurgents and heavy weaponry and for two key highways crossing through Idlib to be reopened. The demilitarized zone has been breached and the highways are at the center of the current regime offensive.



• In September, the two countries brokered a cease-fire for Idlib in the Russian resort of Sochi, preventing a bloody onslaught, despite the fact that Russia has firmly backed Assad and Turkey supports opposition forces. Nine months later, the truce has failed.

• Instead of coming under the umbrella of moderate groups, HTS has used Turkey as leverage against Russia and Assad-supporter Iran.

Turkey has accused the Syrian regime of violating the cease-fire and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the country has told Russia “the regime must be controlled.”

Russia has launched airstrikes in Idlib and is providing air cover in the Syrian regime offensive. It has complained that the fighters have increasingly been targeting its military base in the nearby coastal province of Latakia.

But for now, Moscow is unlikely to support an all-out Syrian operation in Idlib because the benefits of a long-term alliance with Turkey outweigh one military battle.

“Russia doesn’t want to ruin its relationship with Turkey because of Idlib,” says Kirill Semenov, a Moscow-based Middle East analyst and expert at the Russian International Affairs Council.

In late April, Putin said he would not rule out a large-scale assault but “together with our Syrian friends, we believe that this would not be advisable” due to humanitarian issues.

Still, Russia’s patience is wearing thin with the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, or HTS, which it accuses of targeting its military base. HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the US, Russia and Turkey, despite its claims it has disassociated from Al-Qaeda.

Top Russian officials have often called Idlib a “breeding ground for terrorists.”

Despite the cease-fire deal, Turkey has been unable to neutralize the extremists. Much of Idlib has come under the control of HTS, which has defeated Turkey-backed armed groups.

Emre Ersan, an associate professor of international relations and political science at Istanbul’s Marmara University, believes Turkey may have overestimated its influence over HTS. He says Turkey’s plan to split the group, with some of its members joining Turkish-backed opposition forces and the group’s hard-liners isolated, has not worked.

Instead of coming under the umbrella of moderate groups, HTS has used Turkey as leverage against Russia and Assad-supporter Iran, according to Ersan.

Adding to the risks, Turkish troops are in the line of fire. Two Turkish soldiers were wounded in early May in a Syrian regime artillery attack on an observation post. Three other attacks have been cited by Turkey’s official Anadolu Agency, raising the question if the attacks were accidental or designed to pressure Ankara with Russia’s knowledge.

“The Turkish Armed Forces will not take a single step back from where it is,” Akar, Turkey’s defense minister, said last week.

Erdogan and Putin have talked on the phone, agreeing to continue working along the lines of the cease-fire agreement to prevent civilian deaths and a refugee flow. They also agreed to meet on the sidelines of next month’s Group of 20 conference in Japan.

“Apart from this dialogue and cooperation, there is nothing on the ground that can prevent a catastrophe in Idlib,” Ersan says.

The presidents have become close since 2016, rebuilding their relations after a dramatic crisis in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian jet near the Syrian border. Their rapport comes amid Turkey’s fragile relations with NATO ally US, especially over Washington’s support of Syrian Kurdish-led forces who control large swaths in eastern Syria. Ankara considers them an extension of a Kurdish insurgency operating inside Turkey.

Erdogan is so far sticking to his promise to buy Russian-made S-400 missiles despite US warnings the system would jeopardize Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter jet program and compromise its safety. Stein calls this “a big win for Russia.” Turkey is angling for a way to have both the S-400s and the F-35s.

Turkey is also talking with the US about a safe zone in northeastern Syria and has repeatedly asked for the US to end its military support for Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. Erdogan will meet US President Donald Trump at the G-20 as well.

Ersan believes Russia may allow Turkey to grab the northern town of Tel Rifaat from the Kurdish fighters, the last town they control in western Syria. Russian support could help Turkey put pressure on the SDF, widen Turkish influence and strengthen its hand in ongoing negotiations with the US

In exchange, he argues, Turkey could be open to some limited Syrian operation toward Idlib.


(With AP)


Private schools and universities in Lebanon are in economic crisis

Updated 35 min 43 sec ago

Private schools and universities in Lebanon are in economic crisis

  • Education centers risk closing or reducing costs after nationwide disruption

BEIRUT: The future of thousands of Lebanese students is at stake as private educational institutions assess their ability to continue operations in the next academic year, due to the economic crunch facing Lebanon.

“If the economic situation continues, private schools will be forced to close down for good, a move that will affect more than 700,000 students, 59,000 teachers and 15,000 school administrators,” said Father Boutros Azar, secretary-general of the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools in Lebanon, and coordinator of the Association of Private Educational Institutions in Lebanon.

Over 1,600 private schools are operating in Lebanon, including free schools and those affiliated to various religion societies, Azar said.

The number of public schools in Lebanon, he added, is 1,256, serving 328,000 students from the underprivileged segment of society and 200,000 Syrian refugee students.

“The number of teachers in the formal education sector is 43,500 professors and teachers — 20,000 of them are permanent staff and the rest work on a contract basis,” Azar said.

This development will also have an impact on private universities, whose number has increased to 50 in the past 20 years.

Ibrahim Khoury, a special adviser to the president of the American University of Beirut (AUB), told Arab News: “All universities in Lebanon are facing an unprecedented crisis, and the message of AUB President Dr. Fadlo R. Khuri, a few weeks ago, was a warning about the future of university education in light of the economic crisis that Lebanon is facing.”

Khoury said many universities would likely reduce scientific research and dispense with certain specializations.

“Distance education is ongoing, but classes must be opened for students in the first semester of next year, but we do not yet know what these classes are.”

Khoury added: “Universities are still following the official exchange rate of the dollar, which is 1,512 Lebanese pounds (LBP), but the matter is subject to future developments.”

Lebanese parents are also worried about the future of their children, after the current school year ended unexpectedly due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Dr. Tarek Majzoub, the minister of education and higher education, ended the academic year in public schools and gave private schools the right to take a call on this issue.

He said: “The coming academic year will witness intensification of lessons and a review of what students have missed.”

But what sort of academic year should students expect?

Differences have developed between school owners, parents, and teachers over the payment of tuition fees and teachers’ salaries.

Azar said: “What I know so far is that 80 percent of the Catholic schools in Lebanon will close their doors next year unless they are financially helped. Some families today are unable to pay the rest of the dues for the current year either because their breadwinners were fired or not working, while others do not want to pay dues because schools remain closed due to the pandemic.

“Lebanese people chose private schools for their children because they trusted them for their quality — 70 percent of Lebanese children go to private schools. Today, we are facing a major crisis, and I say that if education collapses in Lebanon, then the area surrounding Lebanon will collapse. Many Arab students from the Gulf states receive their education in the most prestigious Lebanese schools,” he added.

“What we are witnessing today is that the educational contract is no longer respected. It can be said that what broke the back of school owners is the approval by the Lebanese parliament in 2018 of a series of ranks and salaries that have bankrupted the state treasury and put all institutions in a continuous deficit.”

Those in charge of formal education expect a great rush for enrollment in public schools and universities, but the ability of these formal institutions to absorb huge numbers of students is limited.

Majzoub said that his ministry was “working on proposing a law to help private schools provide a financial contribution for each learner within the available financial capabilities or grants that can be obtained.”

The undersecretary of the Teachers’ Syndicate in Private Schools, former government minister Ziad Baroud, said: “The crisis of remaining student fees and teachers’ salaries needs to be resolved by special legislation in parliament that regulates the relationship between all parties — teachers, parents, and schools — and takes into account the measures to end teachers’ contracts before July 5.”

Baroud spoke of “hundreds of teachers being discharged from their schools every year based on a legal article that gives the right to school owners to dismiss any teacher from service, provided that they send the teacher a notification before July 5.”

H said it should be kept in mind that thousands of teachers have not yet received their salaries for the last four months, and some of them had received only 50 percent or even less of their salaries.

Khoury said: “The AUB received a loan from the late Prime Minister Rashid Karami at the beginning of the 1975 Lebanese civil war to keep it afloat. In the 1990s, the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri provided aid and grants to the universities. Today, no one can help universities.”

Last Thursday, the Lebanese parliament adopted a proposal submitted by the leader of the Future Parliamentary Bloc, Bahia Hariri, to allocate LBP300 billion to the education sector to help it mitigate the effects of COVID-19.