Assad forces mass for new attack on opposition stronghold

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Members of the Syrian regime forces move toward the town of Khan Sheikhun in the northern Idlib province on August 24, 2019, after they announced the total control of the city a day before. (AFP / Maher Al Mounes)
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Members of the Syrian government forces stand guard near tanks in the strategic town of Khan Sheikhun on August 24, 2019, after they announced the total control of the city a day before. (AFP / Maher Al Mounes)
Updated 25 August 2019

Assad forces mass for new attack on opposition stronghold

  • Troops drive north toward Turkish border
  • Kurdish buffer zone ‘fully operational’

BEIRUT: Assad regime troops massed in northwest Syria on Saturday in preparation for a new drive north toward the border with Turkey.

The border region of Idlib is the last bastion of the Syrian opposition. Until last week, it was controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, an alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Regime forces backed by Russian airstrikes captured the key town of Khan Sheikhun from the militants on Wednesday, and on Friday they overran the countryside to the south of the town.

“The day after they controlled the area south of Khan Sheikhun, regime forces began massing in the area north of it,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. They were “preparing to continue their advance toward the area of Maaret Al-Noman,” a town about 25km north, he said.

Heavy bombardment hit the area on Saturday in preparation for a further push north. Thick gray smoke billowed up into a clear blue sky after a strike on the outskirts of Maaret Al-Noman. Like Khan Sheikhun, the town sits on the main highway between Damascus and Aleppo, a key target for the regime to recapture.

However, the new offensive that began in April has heightened tension with Turkey, which fears an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting. Turkish troops have been deployed at 12 observation posts around the Idlib region in an attempt to set up a buffer zone to protect civilians.

FAST FACTS

  • The border region of Idlib is the last bastion of the Syrian opposition.
  • Turkish troops have been deployed at 12 observation posts around the Idlib region.

The regime accuses Turkey of using the observation posts to arm and supply the militants. Last week, airstrikes targeted a Turkish military convoy traveling south down the main highway toward one of the posts at Morek. The convoy was still stranded on Saturday north of Khan Sheikhun.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu denied the Morek observation post had been surrounded and said Turkish troops would not withdraw from the position.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit Moscow on Tuesday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Further east in Syria, a joint Turkish-US control center to establish and manage a safe zone is fully operational, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said. 

“The command of the center is by one US general and one Turkish general,” he said, and the first joint helicopter flight took place on Saturday after Turkish drones carried out surveillance work in the safe zone last week.

Syrian Kurds said on Saturday they would support the implementation of the buffer zone. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) played a key role in the battle against Daesh in Syria, but Ankara views them as terrorists.

“The SDF will be a positive party toward the success of this operation,” said Mazloum Kobani, head of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

 


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.