Russia’s new base in Qamishli is a message. But for whom?

Russia’s new base in Qamishli is a message. But for whom?
Russia will reportedly use the new base, located within a civilian airport, to host military helicopters. (AFP)
Updated 16 November 2019

Russia’s new base in Qamishli is a message. But for whom?

Russia’s new base in Qamishli is a message. But for whom?
  • Russia commandeering the Qamishli base is a statement of intent

ANKARA: The strategic significance of Russia’s new base in Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli is currently being debated. As is the question of whether it is intended as a message from Moscow to Ankara.

Russia already has bases in Crimea, Armenia, Tartus and Khmeimim. This new addition — in a Kurdish-populated area on Turkey’s southern flank — means Russia now has a ring of bases around Turkey.

Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the Ankara-based think tank ORSAM, said Russia’s move is significant for both Ankara and Washington, coming as it does less than a month after the abrupt withdrawal of US forces from some parts of Syria.

The Qamishli base was previously used by American troops until last month, when Turkey launched its two-week-long incursion into northern Syria.

“With this new base, Russia makes a stride to the eastern flank of Syria. The zone where Qamishli is located is very strategic in geographic terms,” Orhan said, explaining that it is close to oil and gas fields and the main transit route between Iraq and Syria.

Russia recently called America’s move to protect Syrian oil fields “banditry,” and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Syrian forces must take back control of the country’s oil fields.

Russia will reportedly use the new base, located within a civilian airport, to host military helicopters. Defense will be provided by surface-to-air missile systems, helicopters and gunships. It will also help Russia protect its military police personnel working on the Turkey-Syria border.

According to Orhan, Russia commandeering the Qamishli base is a statement of intent that it will fill the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of US forces and consolidate its presence in the eastern flank. “And it will be a message given to Turkey and the US, with the control of airspace in the region,” he said.

There are two ways for Ankara to view Russia’s latest move: As a threat to its regional footprint, or as a boon for its attempts to oust the Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey considers a terror group.

If Moscow’s move ends up shielding the YPG, intentionally or otherwise, then it will inevitably irritate Ankara.

“This move (means) Qamishli is not a legitimate target for Ankara, and that could be a concern for Turkey,” said Orhan. “But, on the other hand, as long as the Syrian regime and Russia take a hold here, it could also be an opportunity for weakening YPG. It all depends on Moscow’s preference.”

Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said that if the move is intended as a show of Moscow’s strength, the intended audience is not Washington.

“This base shouldn’t be read as a challenge to the US,” he told Arab News. “The Americans don’t have any intention of deploying their forces in the cities. They care about the suburbs. The Russians having more military equipment won’t cause them any problems.”

According to Saban, the base will likely be used to facilitate joint Russian-Turkish patrols of the area, which began in northeast Syria on Nov. 1.

“Despite some claims, I don’t think that this (is a bid) for full control of the area, because the Russians wouldn’t need (to make such a bid),” Saban said. “It is obvious that this area is run through specific international agreements, and it is not about the power of certain countries.”

Analyzing the move from a Russian perspective, Dr. Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst of Russian- Turkish relations, said he thinks Moscow’s decision to set up a helicopter base in Qamishli seems to have long-term goals in terms of Russia’s influence in the region.

“First, the Qamishli base will most likely mean that there is a second permanent Russian air base in Syria in the near future, as the town has a strategically important location so close to Turkey and Iraq. Russia can benefit from observing not only Syrian but Turkish and Iraqi airspace,” he told Arab News.

Has also noted that Russian military began to operate out of Khmeimim in 2015, while the deal with Damascus to use Khmeimim airport as a permanent military base came about 18 months later. He foresees a similar situation unfolding in Qamishli.

According to Has, Russia’s takeover of the base may also reflect its growing engagement in the Kurdish issue.

“It is no coincidence that Qamishli was excluded from the areas of joint Turkish-Russian land patrols along Syria-Turkey border in the Sochi deal between Presidents Erdogan and Putin,” he said. “An emerging Russian air base in Qamishli would also definitely and foremost aim to prevent a possible military clash between not only Turkish and YPG forces, but also the Turkish and Syrian armies.”

Speaking to reporters in Brazil following the BRICS Summit on Thursday, Putin underlined Russia’s interest in solving the problems in Syria’s Idlib province, as well as along the eastern bank of the Euphrates and in the southeastern Al-Tanf area.


Greece arrests Moroccan Daesh suspect

Greece arrests Moroccan Daesh suspect
Updated 2 min 23 sec ago

Greece arrests Moroccan Daesh suspect

Greece arrests Moroccan Daesh suspect
  • Greek police sources told AFP the 28-year-old man was arrested in Thessaloniki
  • Morocco's MAP news agency said he was detained on Tuesday for alleged involvement in terror actions

RABAT: Greek security services have arrested a Moroccan suspected of belonging to Daesh in Syria who had appeared in one of their propaganda videos, police and security sources said Thursday.
Greek police sources told AFP the 28-year-old man was arrested in Thessaloniki on the basis of an international warrant issued in 2017 by Rabat, and that a decision would be taken on his possible extradition to Morocco.
Morocco’s MAP news agency, quoting a security source, said he was detained on Tuesday for alleged involvement in the planning of “terrorist” actions in Morocco.
The suspect, known as Abu Mohamed Al-Fateh, had joined the extremist group in Syria in 2014 and held “positions of responsibility,” it said.
He had appeared in a video showing the body of a Syrian fighter being mutilated.
About 1,600 Moroccans joined extremist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya, of whom 137 were killed, according to official figures in Morocco.


Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three

Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three
Updated 29 July 2021

Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three

Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three
  • At least 122 people have also been injured in the fires
  • President Erdogan announced that an arson investigation has already been initiated

ANKARA: Three people were reported dead Thursday and more than 100 injured as thousands of firefighters battled huge blazes spreading across the Mediterranean resort regions of Turkey’s southern coast.
Officials also launched an investigation into suspicions the fires that broke out Wednesday in four locations to the east of the tourist hotspot Antalya were the result of arson.
Turkey’s disaster and emergencies office said three people were killed — including an 82-year-old who lived alone — and 122 injured by the fires.
“Treatment of 58 of our citizens continues,” it was quoted as saying by the Anadolu state news agency.
The fires first emerged across a sparsely populated region about 75 kilometers (45 miles) east of Antalya — a resort especially popular with Russian and other eastern European tourists.
But they were creeping closer Thursday to sandy beaches dotted with hotels and resorts.
Images on social media and Turkish TV showed residents jumping out of their cars and running for their lives through smoke-filled streets lit up by orange flames.
The heavy clouds of smoke turned the sky dark orange over a beachfront hotel complex in the town of Manavgat.
Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said a hotel was also being evacuated near the tourist city of Bodrum — some 300 kilometers west of Antalya — as new fires broke out across the southern coast.
Pakdemirli said 150 cows and thousands of sheep and goats had perished in the flames.

The fires were raging with temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and wind gusts of 50 kilometers (30 miles) an hour.
But Antalya mayor Muhittin Bocek said he suspected foul play because the fires started in four locations at once.
“This suggests an arson attack, but we do not have clear information about that at this stage,” Bocek said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said an investigation had already been launched.
The Russian embassy said Moscow had sent three giant firefighting aircraft to dump fire retardant on the burning forests to contain the flames.
More than 4,000 Turkish firefighters had been dispatched across the region to help contain the damage and search for people needing help.
They rescued 10 people on Thursday who were stranded on a boat in a lake that was surrounded by burning forest.
“All of the state’s means have been mobilized,” Environment Minister Murat Kurum said. “All our teams are in the field.”


Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria

Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria
Updated 36 min 3 sec ago

Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria

Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria
  • This is the biggest flare-up of violence since government forces retook the restive region three years ago
  • The widespread attacks at army outposts near the border crossing of Nassib with Jordan also disrupted passenger and commercial traffic

AMMAN: Syrian rebels waged a spate of mortar attacks on Syrian army checkpoints in the southern province of Daraa, rebels, residents and the army said on Thursday.
This is the biggest flare-up of violence since government forces retook the restive region three years ago.
The widespread attacks at army outposts near the Damascus-Daraa highway leading to the border crossing of Nassib with Jordan also disrupted passenger and commercial traffic at the main gateway for goods from Lebanon and Syria to the Gulf.
Multiple army checkpoints around key towns and villages from the town of Nawa north of the province to Muzarib near the border with Jordan were also seized, they said.
The army has sent reinforcements from its elite Fourth Division, run by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brother Maher, senior military defectors said, confirming army leaks.
The attacks came after the army launched a dawn operation against the rebel-held old quarter of the city of Daraa, where peaceful protests against decades of autocratic Assad family rule began in 2011 and were met by deadly force before spreading across the country.
The army has sought to reassert its control after the collapse of talks earlier this week to get local elders and former rebels to allow the army to extend its control inside the old quarter, known as Daraa al Balad.
The Syrian army, aided by Russian air power and Iranian militias, retook control of the strategic province that borders Jordan and Israel’s Golan Heights to the west in the summer of 2018.
Russian-brokered deals at the time forced rebels to hand over heavy weapons and return state institutions in the enclave but kept away the army from entering their neighborhoods.
“The rebels have waged a counter offensive after the army operation against Daraa whose intensity has taken the regime by surprise,” said Zaid al Rayes, a political opposition figure in touch with local groups in Daraa.
State media said terrorists had fired at the main hospital in Daraa and the army had evacuated hundreds of fleeing families from rebel held neighborhoods.
Thousands of former rebels had chosen to stay with their families rather than head to remaining rebel-held areas in northern Syria, where tens of thousands of others displaced from recaptured areas had gathered.
The province saw a widespread boycott of last May’s polls that extended Assad’s presidency in what officials saw as a defiance of state authority.
Western intelligence sources say growing dissent is aggravated by the presence of Iranian-backed local militias who now hold sway and act with impunity since the central government is too weak to impose its authority on the area.


Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors to target defense workers

A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
Updated 29 July 2021

Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors to target defense workers

A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
  • They sent “flirtatious” videos to build rapport and later delivered malware to targets’ devices
  • It is unclear whether any sensitive information was stolen

LONDON: A group of Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors from Liverpool, UK, and sent flirtatious messages in an attempt to steal sensitive information from defense and aerospace industry personnel.

The hackers’ false identities were exposed by Facebook and the cybersecurity company Proofpoint, which said the operation proves the effort that Iran is putting into targeting individuals of interest.

The hackers have been identified as part of the TA456 group, which also goes by the name of Tortoiseshell — a group widely believed to be aligned with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Proofpoint described the group as “one of the most determined Iranian-aligned threat actors” that it tracks, due to tactics of spending months or years building up a relationship with targets across various platforms, as well as its “general persistence.”

The operatives created fake Facebook, Instagram and email accounts for a woman named Marcella Flores. She was depicted as a smiling, tanned and dark-haired Spanish woman working as a fitness instructor in Liverpool. They created a fake education and work history for her.

Proofpoint said that Flores would target people who publicly identified themselves as employees at defence contractors on social media accounts, befriending them before starting up a conversation.

In one case, she sent the target benign messages and photographs, as well as a “flirtatious” video to build a rapport, before later sending a link to a dietary survey but that in fact contained a malware download that would steal usernames, passwords and other data.

Proofpoint did not say whether the attacks were successful, but if they were, the stolen information could be used to gain access to larger aerospace companies that the original target was a subsidiary or contractor for.

Facebook banned her account and that of several others earlier this month, saying that they were all fake online personas created by the Iranian operatives to “conduct espionage operations across the internet.”

Facebook said: “Our investigation found them targeting military personnel and companies in the defence and aerospace industries primarily in the US, and to a lesser extent in the UK and Europe.”

When the comprehensive campaign was revealed, Amin Sabeti, an expert in Iranian cyber-operations, told Arab News that the strategy — which he dubs “social engineering” hacking — is a go-to tactic for Iranian operatives, or those working on behalf of the state.

“It’s the same pattern that Iranian state-backed hackers have been following for years,” he said.

Sabeti explained that they rely on manipulating targets into providing sensitive information or account details that can then be exploited for their gain — and, since they are operating from Iranian soil, “they have the consent of the regime.”

Sabeti said: “It’s easy, cheap, there’s plausible deniability and it works, it’s effective.”


Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO
Updated 29 July 2021

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO
  • WHO said the highly transmissible strain has been recorded in 15 out of the region’s 22 countries
  • Tunisia has been struggling to contain the outbreak

CAIRO: The World Health Organization said Thursday the Delta variant has led to a "surge" in coronavirus outbreaks triggering a "fourth wave" in the Eastern Mediterranean region, where vaccination rates remain low.
The global health body said the highly transmissible strain, first detected in India, has been recorded in 15 out of the 22 countries of the region under its purview, stretching from Morocco to Pakistan.
"The circulation of the Delta variant is fuelling the surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths in an increasing number of countries in WHO's Eastern Mediterranean Region," it said in a statement.
"Most of the new cases and hospitalised patients are unvaccinated people. We are now in the fourth wave of Covid-19 across the region," said Ahmed al-Mandhari, director of WHO's Eastern Mediterranean region.
Infections have increased by 55 percent, and deaths by 15 percent, in the last month compared to the month before. More than 310,000 case and 3,500 deaths have been recorded weekly.
Countries such as Tunisia, which has suffered the biggest number of Covid-19 deaths in North Africa, have been struggling to contain the outbreak.
Critical shortages of oxygen tanks and intensive care beds have stretched the capacities of healthcare systems regionally.
WHO noted the rapid spread of the Delta variant was quickly making it "the dominant strain" in the region.
According to a recent paper in the journal Virological, the amount of virus found in the first tests of patients with the Delta variant was 1,000 times higher than patients in the first wave of the virus in 2020, greatly increasing its contagiousness.

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