Assad forces threaten Turkish observation posts in Idlib

Turkish military vehicles pass through Maaret al-Numan in Syria's northern province of Idlib on August 22, 2019, heading back to Turkey after a reported two-day mission into Syria. (AFP / Omar Haj Kadour)
Updated 23 August 2019

Assad forces threaten Turkish observation posts in Idlib

  • Turkey unilkely to withdraw from positions before next month’s three-way summit, says analyst

ANKARA: Syrian regime forces opened fire on a Turkish observation post No. 8 eight — in Sirman, Maarat Al-Numan in southeastern Idilb — on Thursday morning. Observation post No. 9, in the town of Morek, is reportedly surrounded as well.

The observation post in Sirman is of strategic importance due to its location in the north of Khan Sheikhoun —  an area which regime forces, supported by Iranian-backed foreign militia and Russian forces, have targeted in recent days.

Khan Sheikhoun is the fourth-largest town in Idlib and has been under the control of opposition forces for five years. It is situated on the M5 highway, which connects Aleppo to Damascus and is an important supply route for the rebels.

Although all Turkey’s observation posts in Syria are manned, experts have warned of a looming security threat as Syrian regime forces have intensified their military operations in the area despite the presence of the posts.

FASTFACT

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are expected to discuss Idlib at next month’s meeting in Ankara.

Two Turkish soldiers have been killed by mortar strikes on observation posts in recent months, with 12 military staff wounded. On Monday, an airstrike on a Turkish military convoy killed three civilians who were heading toward observation post number eight.

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s most-recent statement on the matter — saying that Turkey has to honor the Idlib agreement — could be seen as another faultline opening up between the two partners on their Syria policy. Ankara and Moscow agreed last September to create a de-escalation zone in Idlib to prohibit acts of aggression. 

Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, told Arab News that Turkey should not retreat from the Morek observation post, adding that there is no obvious escape route from the area.

“Turkey committed in the last few days to hold its observation post. If they retreat from the area, they will break their commitments and it will make them look very bad in front of the international community and even the opposition they support,” he said. “Northern Hama is empty now, in terms of civilians. Turkey is conducting negotiations to control this area.”




Civilians flee a conflict zone in Syria’s northwestern region of Idlib, where regime attacks have killed hundreds since late April. (AFP)

Saban said Turkey “will not withdraw from its observation posts before the next Astana meeting with Russia and Iran in September.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to host Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for a summit in Ankara on Sept. 16.

They will discuss Idlib as well as the establishment of a constitution commission and how the political process should continue, said Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.

Ammar Hamou, a Jordan-based Syrian journalist, said that all indications suggest the regime has no intention of halting its military action, and that its intention is to seize control of the M5 highway.

Hamou said that there is a feeling among Syrians that Turkey is the “silent guarantor,” because it did not react strongly to the regime’s violations on the borders of the de-escalation zone four months ago.

He said he did not expect that Turkey would move its observation posts unless the regime exceeds the limits of the Turkish-Russian agreement. “The silence of Russia on the regime’s excesses in terms of the Astana agreement is not strange.” 

Hamou  told Arab News: “The Turkish-Russian-Iranian agreement (based on) the Astana talks provides for the protection of safe areas like Eastern Ghouta, southern Syria, Homs, and Idlib. Today, three of them are, with Russian support, under the regime’s control.”

Hamou believes that Ankara is extremely dissatisfied by Russia’s silence on the Syrian regime’s violations of the agreement, but that the Turkish government is unwilling to risk the deterioration of its relationship with Moscow.

Under the de-escalation zone deal of last year, Turkey was required to ensure the withdrawal of extremist groups and heavy weaponry from that zone.

With Syrian militants withdrawing from several positions in the region, Ankara is also concerned that the fighting may cause a further influx of displaced people into Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees. 

The Syrian regime has opened a corridor in the village of Soran, on the southern part of the opposition-held area, to allow civilians to escape.


Outsider leads after divisive Tunisia presidential poll

Updated 16 September 2019

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.