Anti-Assad fighters withdraw from key area of northwest Syria

Russia revealed it has forces on the ground in Idlib militants left the area. (File/AFP)
Updated 20 August 2019

Anti-Assad fighters withdraw from key area of northwest Syria

  • The withdrawal means an important Turkish observation point in the nearby town of Morek is effectively surrounded by government forces
  • After eight years of civil war, the Idlib region on the border with Turkey is the last major stronghold of opposition to President Bashar

BEIRUT: Extremists and allied rebels withdrew from a key area of northwestern Syria Tuesday, a war monitor said, as President Bashar al-Assad's forces pressed an offensive against the militant-run Idlib region.
Turkey warned Damascus "not to play with fire" a day after a Syrian regime air strike sought to deter a new Turkish military convoy from entering the area.
After eight years of civil war, the Idlib region on the border with Turkey is the last major stronghold of opposition to Assad's Russia-backed government.
Since January, it has been administered by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance, which is led by militants from Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
The region of some three million people was supposed to be protected by a buffer zone deal signed last September by Moscow and rebel backer Ankara, but government and Russian forces have subjected it to heavy bombardment since late April, killing almost 880 civilians.
And in recent weeks, regime forces have inched forward, nibbling away at the southern edges of the bastion.
In the early hours of Tuesday, anti-Assad fighters pulled back from the town of Khan Sheikun and the countryside to its south, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
The withdrawal means an important Turkish observation point in the nearby town of Morek as well as a string of surrounding villages are effectively surrounded by government forces, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
All roads leading out of the area are either controlled by government forces or within range of their guns, he said.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned: "We will do whatever is necessary to ensure the security of our soldiers and observation posts."
An HTS spokesman, meanwhile, denied its forces had withdrawn from the countryside around Morek, adding they had regrouped in the south of Khan Sheikhun after heavy bombardment.
Russia claimed rebel attacks against a key Russian air base to the west of Idlib and on regime-held civilian areas had continued despite the presence of the Turkish posts.
"We have warned our Turkish colleagues that we would respond," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Assad also hit out at Turkey in a statement released by the presidency, saying "the latest battles in Idlib uncovered... Ankara's clear and unlimited support for terrorists", using his term for both militants and rebels.
Khan Sheikhun -- which bombardment has emptied of its residents -- lies on the highway connecting Damascus to second city Aleppo, which has long been a key government objective.
On Monday, a Turkish military convoy crossed the border into Idlib and headed south along the highway, drawing condemnation from Damascus.
Ankara alleged an air strike had targeted its troops, while a Syrian pro-government newspaper said regime aircraft had targeted a rebel vehicle leading them.
On Tuesday, the convoy was at a standstill just north of Khan Sheikhun, after government forces to the south cut the road into the town the previous day.
An AFP correspondent said air strikes and machine gunfire from government helicopters peppered the road leading back north.
Air raids continued on areas north of Khan Sheikhun Tuesday, including in the town of Binin where the AFP reporter saw a man pulled from the rubble alive.
The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.
Successive rounds of UN-backed peace talks have failed to stem the bloodshed, and in recent years have been overshadowed by a parallel negotiations track led by Russia and Turkey, dubbed the Astana process.
Under the September deal, Turkish troops were to monitor a planned buffer zone around Idlib after militants had withdrawn from it -- but that pullout failed to materialise.
Sam Heller, an expert with the International Crisis Group think tank, said the government's latest advance had shown Turkish monitoring points might complicate its recapture of territory, but could not prevent it.
"It's not yet clear what Damascus and Moscow will do next," he said.
It is unclear "if they will seize the opportunity to take more areas, or stop to consolidate their new positions and put some pressure on Ankara" to implement its side of the buffer zone deal, he told AFP.
Analyst Samuel Ramani said the government's accusation of Turkish support for its opponents could provide a "pretext for further Syrian army incursions".
But "for Russia, holding the Astana coalition together is a chief priority," he said.
Aid organisations have warned any large-scale government offensive to retake Idlib would spark one of the worst humanitarian crises of the war.


Outsider leads after divisive Tunisia presidential poll

Updated 36 min 27 sec ago

Outsider leads after divisive Tunisia presidential poll

  • Law professor Saied and magnate Karoui, after exit polls showed they had qualified for the second round of voting

TUNIS: Political outsider Kais Saied was leading Tunisia’s election with just over a quarter of votes counted, the election commission said Monday, in the country’s second free presidential vote since the Arab Spring.
Saied was on 19 percent, leading imprisoned media magnate Nabil Karoui, who was on 14.9 percent, and ahead of the candidate from the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party Abdelfattah Mourou (13.1 percent).
The announcement came after both Saied and Karoui’s camp claimed to have won through to the second round, in the highly divisive polls.
Local papers splashed photos across their front pages of law professor Saied and magnate Karoui, after exit polls showed they had qualified for the second round of voting.
“An unexpected verdict,” ran a headline in La Presse.
Le Temps titled its editorial “The Slap,” while the Arabic language Echourouk newspaper highlighted a “political earthquake” and a “tsunami” in the Maghreb.
The initial signs point toward a major upset for Tunisia’s political establishment, in place since the 2011 uprising that ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
It could also usher in a period of immense uncertainty for the fledgling north African democracy, the sole success story of the Arab Spring revolts.
Tunisia’s electoral commission (ISIE) reported low turnout at 45 percent, down from 64 percent in the country’s first democratic polls in 2014.
Late Sunday, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed called on the liberal and centrist camps to band together for legislative elections set for October 6, voicing concern that low participation was “bad for the democratic transition.”
Chahed, a presidential hopeful whose popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and the rising cost of living, could well turn out to be the election’s biggest loser.
The election comes against a backdrop of serious social and economic crises.
Karoui, a 56-year-old media magnate, has been behind bars since August 23 on charges of money laundering and Tunisia’s judiciary has refused his release three times.
A controversial businessman, labelled a “populist” by critics, 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.
His apparent rival is political neophyte Saied.
The highly conservative constitutionalist, known to Tunisians for his televised political commentary since the 2011 revolt, has shunned political parties and mass rallies. Instead, he has opted to go door-to-door to explain his policies.
He advocates a rigorous overhaul of the constitution and voting system, to decentralize power “so that the will of the people penetrates into central government and puts an end to corruption.”
Often surrounded by young acolytes, he also set forth his social conservatism, defending the death penalty, criminalization of homosexuality and a sexual assault law that punishes unmarried couples who engage in public displays of affection.
“It’s going to be new,” said a baker named Said on Monday, issuing a wry smile.
“We’ll have to wait and see. Anyway, what matters in Tunisia is the parliament.”
The first round was marked by high rates of apathy among young voters, pushing ISIE head to put out an emergency call to them Sunday an hour before polls closed.
On Sunday morning, senior citizen Adil Toumi had asked as he voted in the capital “where are the young people?“
Political scientist Hamza Meddeb told AFP “this is a sign of very deep discontent with the political class that has not met economic and social expectations,“
“Disgust with the political elite seems to have resulted in a vote for outsiders.”
Distrust of the political establishment runs high in Tunisia, where unemployment is at 15 percent and the cost of living has risen by close to a third since 2016.
Extremist attacks have exacted a heavy toll on the key tourism sector.
Around 70,000 security forces were mobilized for the polls.
The date of a second and final round between the top two candidates has not been announced, but it must be held by October 23 at the latest and may even take place on the same day as legislative polls, October 6.