Leaders of Turkey, Iran and Russia discuss crisis in Idlib

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they inspect an honour guard during a welcome ceremony, in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. (AP)
Updated 17 September 2019

Leaders of Turkey, Iran and Russia discuss crisis in Idlib

  • Ankara concerned over steady advance of Assad’s forces into Idlib region

ANKARA: The leaders of Turkey, Iran and Russia gathered in Ankara on Monday for the fifth trilateral summit on the Syrian conflict since 2017. 

The Astana guarantor countries discussed the developments and peace settlement in Syria, with the last opposition-held bastion of Idlib, safe zone creation, the formation of the Syrian constitutional committee and the mass influx of refugees from Idlib toward Turkey as key topics. 

“Turkey, Russia, Iran will carry the fight against terror to another level by eliminating terrorists in Syria east of Euphrates River,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during the joint press conference. 

About 2,000 militants from extremist factions, including Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, have illegally fled the Idlib and Hama governorates for Turkey since early May with European countries as the final destination, the Syrian publication Al-Watan recently claimed. 

While Tehran and Moscow have been firm supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Ankara mainly prefers his removal from the post and backed opposition groups. 

Having 12 observation posts in the rebel-controlled enclave Idlib to implement a buffer zone, Turkey is concerned by the months-long advance of regime forces into the region with the aerial support of Moscow, and by the possible security risks such an advance has posed to its posts. 

However, “security problems in northeastern Syria should be solved on the basis of protecting Syria’s territorial integrity,” Russia’s Putin said during the press conference. 

Turkish President Erdogan recently threatened to open the doors to Europe for Syrian refugees if his country’s plans to implement a safe zone in northeastern Syria were not supported. 

Max Hoffman, Turkey expert and associate director of national security and international policy at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, said that Turkey’s core interests and goals were at odds with those of the Assad regime and, to a lesser extent, Iran.  

“Ankara wants to stop the regime’s offensive in Idlib to prevent further flows of refugees into their country, while Assad wants to eventually re-conquer all the areas controlled by rebels,” he told Arab News. “In the long-term, Turkey wants to maintain a zone of control within Syria to allow for the resettlement of large numbers of refugees, which Erdogan rightly views as a domestic political liability. Damascus views this as non-starter, and Iran is not happy about the prospect either.” 

According to Hoffman, Turkey believes that only a political process to transition away from Assad’s rule will end the fighting, while Assad obviously rejects that premise.  

“Russia and the Assad regime have already proven repeatedly that cease-fires and political agreements are not worth the paper they’re written on, while Turkey will have increasing difficulties controlling its rebel proxies as it proves itself unable to prevent their destruction in Idlib. Therefore, the stakes are quite high for both sides — particularly for Turkey, which faces strategic humiliation and potentially millions more refugees — but there are no grounds for fundamental agreement,” he said. 

During the joint press conference, Iran’s Rouhani emphasized the 1998 Adana agreement between Turkey and Syria, saying that it could help to address the concerns of all parties. The counter-terror agreement was referenced before by Putin as well as a sign to encourage both sides to cooperate in Syria. 

In a strategic rhetorical shift a day before the summit, Syria’s Foreign Ministry declared the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia-led Syrian Democratic Forces as “separatist terrorist militias” in a letter to the UN secretary-general — “a sign of readiness to cooperate with Turkey in eastern Syria” according to some experts.

Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at International Crisis Group, said that Turkey views the Astana and Sochi agreements primarily as a means to stop the violence while preserving a “de-escalation area” in northwest Syria under opposition control.

“While Russia during the meeting would want to focus on the constitutional committee, Ankara would be more inclined to discuss the Russian-backed military offensive in Idlib. Accordingly, Turkey agreed that “radical terrorist groups” should be removed from a 15-20 km “demilitarized zone” and on the broader need to combat terrorism,” she told Arab News. 

However, Khalifa said, Ankara remains at odds with Moscow on defining “terrorist groups” operating in Idlib. 

“Unless this disagreement over the definition of terrorist groups is addressed, any subsequent cease-fire will likely prove fleeting, and might jeopardize talks between Moscow and Ankara over other Syria-related issues including the formation of the constitutional committee,” she said.


Private schools and universities in Lebanon are in economic crisis

Updated 30 May 2020

Private schools and universities in Lebanon are in economic crisis

  • Education centers risk closing or reducing costs after nationwide disruption

BEIRUT: The future of thousands of Lebanese students is at stake as private educational institutions assess their ability to continue operations in the next academic year, due to the economic crunch facing Lebanon.

“If the economic situation continues, private schools will be forced to close down for good, a move that will affect more than 700,000 students, 59,000 teachers and 15,000 school administrators,” said Father Boutros Azar, secretary-general of the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools in Lebanon, and coordinator of the Association of Private Educational Institutions in Lebanon.

Over 1,600 private schools are operating in Lebanon, including free schools and those affiliated to various religion societies, Azar said.

The number of public schools in Lebanon, he added, is 1,256, serving 328,000 students from the underprivileged segment of society and 200,000 Syrian refugee students.

“The number of teachers in the formal education sector is 43,500 professors and teachers — 20,000 of them are permanent staff and the rest work on a contract basis,” Azar said.

This development will also have an impact on private universities, whose number has increased to 50 in the past 20 years.

Ibrahim Khoury, a special adviser to the president of the American University of Beirut (AUB), told Arab News: “All universities in Lebanon are facing an unprecedented crisis, and the message of AUB President Dr. Fadlo R. Khuri, a few weeks ago, was a warning about the future of university education in light of the economic crisis that Lebanon is facing.”

Khoury said many universities would likely reduce scientific research and dispense with certain specializations.

“Distance education is ongoing, but classes must be opened for students in the first semester of next year, but we do not yet know what these classes are.”

Khoury added: “Universities are still following the official exchange rate of the dollar, which is 1,512 Lebanese pounds (LBP), but the matter is subject to future developments.”

Lebanese parents are also worried about the future of their children, after the current school year ended unexpectedly due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Dr. Tarek Majzoub, the minister of education and higher education, ended the academic year in public schools and gave private schools the right to take a call on this issue.

He said: “The coming academic year will witness intensification of lessons and a review of what students have missed.”

But what sort of academic year should students expect?

Differences have developed between school owners, parents, and teachers over the payment of tuition fees and teachers’ salaries.

Azar said: “What I know so far is that 80 percent of the Catholic schools in Lebanon will close their doors next year unless they are financially helped. Some families today are unable to pay the rest of the dues for the current year either because their breadwinners were fired or not working, while others do not want to pay dues because schools remain closed due to the pandemic.

“Lebanese people chose private schools for their children because they trusted them for their quality — 70 percent of Lebanese children go to private schools. Today, we are facing a major crisis, and I say that if education collapses in Lebanon, then the area surrounding Lebanon will collapse. Many Arab students from the Gulf states receive their education in the most prestigious Lebanese schools,” he added.

“What we are witnessing today is that the educational contract is no longer respected. It can be said that what broke the back of school owners is the approval by the Lebanese parliament in 2018 of a series of ranks and salaries that have bankrupted the state treasury and put all institutions in a continuous deficit.”

Those in charge of formal education expect a great rush for enrollment in public schools and universities, but the ability of these formal institutions to absorb huge numbers of students is limited.

Majzoub said that his ministry was “working on proposing a law to help private schools provide a financial contribution for each learner within the available financial capabilities or grants that can be obtained.”

The undersecretary of the Teachers’ Syndicate in Private Schools, former government minister Ziad Baroud, said: “The crisis of remaining student fees and teachers’ salaries needs to be resolved by special legislation in parliament that regulates the relationship between all parties — teachers, parents, and schools — and takes into account the measures to end teachers’ contracts before July 5.”

Baroud spoke of “hundreds of teachers being discharged from their schools every year based on a legal article that gives the right to school owners to dismiss any teacher from service, provided that they send the teacher a notification before July 5.”

H said it should be kept in mind that thousands of teachers have not yet received their salaries for the last four months, and some of them had received only 50 percent or even less of their salaries.

Khoury said: “The AUB received a loan from the late Prime Minister Rashid Karami at the beginning of the 1975 Lebanese civil war to keep it afloat. In the 1990s, the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri provided aid and grants to the universities. Today, no one can help universities.”

Last Thursday, the Lebanese parliament adopted a proposal submitted by the leader of the Future Parliamentary Bloc, Bahia Hariri, to allocate LBP300 billion to the education sector to help it mitigate the effects of COVID-19.