Escalation continues in Idlib despite cease-fire claims

Syrian government forces earlier bombarded Khan Sheikhun in the southern countryside of the militant-held Idlib province. (AFP file photo)
Updated 15 June 2019

Escalation continues in Idlib despite cease-fire claims

  • Intensive shelling continues targeting civilian zones in southern Idlib and the northern Hama countrysides

ANKARA: The dynamics in Syria’s latest opposition stronghold quietly shifted on Wednesday night with Russian news agencies claiming that Turkey and Russia had struck a cease-fire deal in Idlib between Syrian regime forces and opposition fighters.

However, contrary to the cease-fire claims, intensive shelling reportedly continued afterward targeting civilian zones in southern Idlib and the northern Hama countrysides. Turkey’s tenth observation post in the enclave was also attacked from the Syrian regime-held territory of Al-Shariah, wounding Turkish soldiers and damaging facilities.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry denied the cease-fire and announced that it would retaliate if regime attacks continue. The counterattacks by Syrian fighters against pro-Assad forces continued on Thursday.

Experts underline that such declarations of a cease-fire are only to provide room for maneuvering by Russia and Turkey to negotiate the dynamics on the ground in the light of their regional interests.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced since the Russian-led military offensive in northwestern Syria, which has become the scene of a serious military escalation between Assad regime forces and the fighters.

Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, DC, thinks this is not the first or last time a fragile Russian-Turkish cease-fire announced in Idlib has already been violated.

FASTFACT

The Turkish Foreign Ministry denied the cease-fire and announced that it would retaliate if regime attacks continue. The counter-attacks by Syrian fighters against pro-Assad forces continued on Thursday.

“The two sides have irreconcilable interests in Idlib, however they chose neither to fight if off nor to strike a deal since both scenarios have a detrimental impact on their bilateral relations,” he told Arab News. 

Moscow backs the Syrian regime, while Ankara gives its support to some opposition groups in the region.

For Macaron, the only way out of the Idlib quagmire is either the shortcut of an unwarranted military solution or the long-term arduous path of conflict resolution.

Some experts see the latest developments in Idlib from the prism of the current dynamics in relations between Moscow and Ankara, especially regarding the Russian air defense S-400 system and its approaching delivery within two months. Russian reports about the cease-fire in Idlib came hours after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey has already bought S-400s, challenging the US threat of sanctions over the purchase.

“Idlib and the S-400 delivery have become increasingly intertwined and caught up in the US-Russian tensions and Turkey’s attempt to play both sides,” Macaron said.

“Erdogan is approaching a critical moment next month where he might have to choose between coming under significant US pressure if he officially receives the S-400s and dealing with a Russian offensive in Idlib if the S-400 deal does not go through,” he said.

Erdogan would also be put under domestic pressure ahead of the June 23 Istanbul vote if any escalation in Idlib triggered massive refugee flows to Turkey, considering the deep anti-Syrian sentiments among Turkish society.

Dr. Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst on Russia-Turkey relations, thinks that the latest cease-fire in Idlib cannot be realized.

“Following the “anonymous attack” in Idlib against Turkey’s tenth observation point, Ankara blamed the Syrian regime forces, whereas the Russian Ministry of Defense pointed out the militant groups and disclosed Turkey’s request for Moscow’s assistance to counter the attack,” Has told Arab News.

“The Turkish side denied Russian claims, and both statements still have quite contradictory details if compared with each other,” he said.

According to Has, the recent incompatible views of Turkey and Russia in Idlib have two main aspects.

“First, the Sochi deal of September 2018 on Idlib was born as an absolutely ‘dead deal,’ and Ankara now has to face the realities on the ground. Moscow’s pressure intensifies as the last chance for Turkey to eliminate the terrorist groups in the region who fled away,” he said.

Has noted that a 15-20 km demilitarized zone could not be created, and the M4 and M5 highways are still close to Assad regime’s use.

“Cease-fire violations both by the regime and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, or HTS, and other militant groups never stopped, drone attacks against Russian bases keep on going. HTS now almost totally dominates the Idlib province compared to partly controlling it when the Sochi deal was reached,” he said.

Experts also note that the deepening crisis in Turkish-US relations following the S-400 decision and F-35 deadlock plays into the hands of Moscow, especially in Idlib where “horse-trading” is heating up.

New Russian weapons were monitored heading for Syria through the Turkish straits a few days ago — likely a prelude to a bigger offensive in the region.

“Most possibly, we are going to watch not a comprehensive offensive soon, but a ‘slow motion’ advancement of regime forces in Idlib at least until the first US sanctions on Turkey over S-400’s procurement,” Has said.

“It seems that the cease-fire is part of Russia’s ‘strategy game.’ So, unfortunately new ‘friendly fires’ are likely to happen again if Turkey cannot quit this awkward dilemma,” he said.


Turkey’s Libya gas moves could upset Egypt, say experts

Pipe-laying vessel Akademik Cherskiy owned by Gazprom, which Russia may use to complete construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, is seen in a bay near the Baltic Sea port of Baltiysk, Kaliningrad region, Russia May 3, 2020. (REUTERS)
Updated 7 min 2 sec ago

Turkey’s Libya gas moves could upset Egypt, say experts

  • Spats over natural resources in Eastern Mediterranean

CAIRO: Turkey will start exploring Libya’s coast for gas within three months, the country’s Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Donmez said, with experts saying the move will create tension with Egypt.

A dispute has been ongoing for several years between Turkey and Greece, Cyprus and Egypt regarding the ownership of natural resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Turkish Petroleum Company has submitted an application to Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) for permission to excavate in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The move could escalate the tension between Ankara and Cairo that was caused by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood following the 2013 revolution in Egypt that overthrew a Brotherhood-affiliated president. It eventually led to public enmity between Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

Political expert Tariq Abboud said Turkey was suffering from a severe economic crisis and was relying on reconstruction projects and future investments in the country to fix the problem.

The Eastern Mediterranean is a coveted region because it contains a large amount of natural gas estimated at more than 100 trillion cubic meters and Ankara wanted a share of that, according to Abboud.

Ankara also wants to seize the value of compensation of suspended projects in Libya, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars.

“This is in addition to Turkey benefiting from supplying Libya with weapons, despite UN Security Council resolution 1970 of March 2011 which calls on all member states of the world body to prevent the sale or supply of weapons and related items to Libya,” he told Arab News.

“In addition, they also introduced Resolution 2420, which allows member states to inspect ships heading to or coming from Libya in order to prevent the entry of weapons into the country. But the reality is a completely different matter, as Greece stopped a ship heading to Libya from Turkey carrying explosive materials.”

Energy expert Mohammed El-Wardany said Turkey had been angered by the East Mediterranean agreement EastMed which was reached between Greece, Cyprus and Israel. The deal aims to secure energy supplies in Europe through a 2,000 km pipeline.

El-Wardany believed that Turkey saw the accord as an obstacle to its own attempts to expand control over the Eastern Mediterranean.

“It can be said that the Turkish-Libyan alliance came in response to that agreement,” he told Arab News.

“Turkey’s announcement that it will start exploration at this time is understandable. Turkey now consumes enormous amounts of energy annually, does not have sufficient resources, and imports the equivalent of $50 billion on an annual basis. Despite the excavations carried out by Ankara, the region's marine areas have no gas or oil fields. This led it to send ships to explore for gas off the coast of Cyprus, which Nicosia considered a provocation and illegal.”

Political analyst Jamal Shakra said that a direct confrontation between the two countries was unlikely, but that Egypt would move with its allies in the region to prevent Turkey from stealing what it had “no right to in the region.”