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.


US declares Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land 'consistent' with international law

Updated 18 November 2019

US declares Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land 'consistent' with international law

  • The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sparked anger among Palestinians
  • The move is the latest by the Trump administration seen as favoring the Israeli position over the Palestinians

WASHINGTON: The United States on Monday backed Israel’s right to build Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank by abandoning its four-decade position that they were “inconsistent with international law.”

The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sparked anger among Palestinians who say the settlements are the main barrier to their future state.

The shift in US policy follows the Trump administration’s decision to relocate the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem last year, a move seen as undermining Palestinian claims to the eastern half of the city as a future capital.

Pompeo said US statements about the settlements on the West Bank - which Israel captured during a 1967 war - had been inconsistent, saying Democrat President Jimmy Carter in 1978 found they were not consistent with international law and Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1981 said he did not view them as inherently illegal.

“The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department, drawing criticism from a senior Palestinian figure even before his announcement.

“Another blow to international law, justice & peace,” Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian negotiator and member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee, said on Twitter ahead of Pompeo’s statement.

The announcement marked the third major instance in which the Trump administration has sided with Israel and against stances taken by the Palestinians and Arab states even before unveiling its long-delayed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

In 2017 Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel before opening the embassy in the city. US policy had previously been that the status of Jerusalem was to be decided by the parties to the conflict.

In March, Trump recognized Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights in a boost for Netanyahu that prompted a sharp response from Syria, which once held the strategic land.

Trump's move might have been designed to help Netanyahu as he struggles to stay in power. Israeli politics is deadlocked after two inconclusive elections this year. Former military chief Benny Gantz's centrist Blue and White party emerged neck and neck with Netanyahu following a September vote, and both leaders have struggled to put together a ruling coalition.

*With Reuters