Will Turkey and Russia-brokered new cease-fire in Idlib hold?

Will Turkey and Russia-brokered new cease-fire in Idlib hold?
Internally displaced Syrian children play in Ras Al-Ain province in Syria. About 300,000 people fled toward Turkey from southern Idlib in December alone. (Reuters)
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Updated 12 January 2020

Will Turkey and Russia-brokered new cease-fire in Idlib hold?

Will Turkey and Russia-brokered new cease-fire in Idlib hold?
  • Regime forces have for a long time been pushing to recapture Idlib, the last stronghold of rebels in Syria

ANKARA: Turkey and Russia agreed for a cease-fire in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province to be implemented by Jan. 12. 

The cease-fire is expected to stop the flow of hundreds of thousands of civilians toward Turkish border towns over recent weeks, following the air and ground attacks of Russian and Syrian regime forces.

Turkish officials are categorically against any new refugee flow from Idlib, where about 3 million civilians live, as the country already hosts about 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees.

In December alone, about 300,000 people fled toward Turkey from southern Idlib, according to data from the UN.

Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a former Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

The 2018 Sochi agreement between Ankara and Moscow included evacuating all radical groups from Idlib by Turkey, with no big success so far.

The six-year-long UN cross-border aid has also come to an end on Jan. 10 to Syria, although civilians depend on the delivery of supplies. Regime forces have for a long time been pushing to recapture Idlib, the last stronghold of rebels in Syria, and they are backed by Moscow and Tehran. However Ankara is staunchly opposed to Syria’s Bashar Assad.

The two highways that connect Aleppo to Damascus and Latakia that go through southern Idlib have strategic importance.

Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said while the cease-fire may not be the first it may be the last chance for the region. 

“The cease-fire will only prevent the regime from doing any further ground attack at the time being,” he told Arab News. “But the attack will continue because they already have the excuse — the presence of HTS and other extremists. The ball is now in the Turkish field and it is the last chance. Ankara has to secure and clear the area from any HTS presence in line with its previous commitments because if not, it cannot take all excuses from Russians and regime forces to attack the area.”

Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, said the gap between the timing of the Idlib cease-fire between the Russian and Turkish announcements reflected once again how improbable it was for both sides to reach a consensus on this issue.

“It is not clear yet whether this cease-fire will echo previously failed attempts or is meant to effectively establish Idlib as a “de-escalation zone.” The latter seems difficult for Turkey to implement as Moscow demands disbanding HTS and the opposition-led Salvation government and allowing the Syrian regime institutions to enter Idlib province,” he told Arab News.

For Macaron, in the absence of a clear roadmap to address the wider challenges of the Syrian conflict, mainly reaching a political solution, cease-fire announcements in Idlib are temporary fixes to manage the ups and downs of the Russia-Turkey relationship.

“As Moscow and Ankara grow closer, their regional disagreements persist,” he said.

For some, to get Russian covert support for its military deployment to Libya, another battleground, Turkey may give some concessions in Idlib for the Russian-backed Syrian regime. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who support different sides of the conflict, recently called for a cease-fire in Libya.

Macaron thinks that the Syrian and Libyan cease-fires reflect Putin and Erdogan’s ambitious plans to share power in the region.

“However, there are limitations to this plan as they do not have full control of events in Libya and their interests remain contradictory in Syria, hence both cease-fires are not guaranteed to last long,” he added.


Italy calls for return of ‘constitutional order’ in Tunisia

Italy calls for return of ‘constitutional order’ in Tunisia
Updated 04 August 2021

Italy calls for return of ‘constitutional order’ in Tunisia

Italy calls for return of ‘constitutional order’ in Tunisia
  • Since turmoil broke out in Tunisia, arrival of migrants to small Italian island has significantly increased
  • Italian prime minister reassures Tunisia of support, donates 1.5m vaccine doses, other medical aid

ROME: Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi urged Tunisian President Kais Saied to “re-establish promptly the constitutional order.”

The Italian premier spoke directly for the first time on Wednesday with the Tunisian president since July 25, when Saied froze the parliament, dismissed the prime minister and announced he will temporarily rule by decree. He also rescinded parliamentary immunity and issued a nationwide curfew for 30 days.

Last week, members of the Tunisian government, including the foreign minister, were expected in Rome for talks, but their visit was canceled at the last moment.

Since political turmoil broke in Tunisia, the arrival of migrants to the tiny island of Lampedusa has significantly increased, and Italian security forces expect that their number could reach up to 20,000 in a few weeks if the country does not achieve stability.

In a long telephone call, described to Arab News as “cordial but firm” by a source in Draghi’s office, the Italian prime minister reassured Saied that the “assistance and support that Italy has offered to Tunisia will continue.”

Italy has made good on this offer, delivering 1.5 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Tunisia last Sunday to help the country to fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Twenty-five tons of health equipment, including ventilators, protective masks, gloves, surgical gowns and sanitizing gel, were also provided by the Italian government to Tunisia in the past few weeks.

Draghi, it is understood, asked Saied for “more cooperation” in the management of migration flows.

In a press event attended by Arab News, Deputy Foreign Minister Marina Sereni said that Italy, along with other EU nations, is “very concerned” about the current crisis in Tunisia, a country with which it shares “a long friendship and historical ties.”

“COVID, the stagnant economy and the difficulty in carrying out economic and social reforms have fueled the discontent of the population. In this situation, we all hope that the country will go back to normal soon, that the constitution will be respected and the functionality of the Parliament is restored,” she added.

Concerning the issue of migration, Sereni said that Italian Minister of the Interior Luciana Lamorgese “is following the situation of instability and difficulty in Tunisia as well as that of Libya.”

In this regard, she said it was understood that people whose lives were in danger “must be saved” and called on Europe to take on not only the rescue operations but also the redistribution of those who land on Italian coasts.


Iran made ‘big mistake’ with tanker attack: UK’s top soldier

Iran made ‘big mistake’ with tanker attack: UK’s top soldier
Updated 04 August 2021

Iran made ‘big mistake’ with tanker attack: UK’s top soldier

Iran made ‘big mistake’ with tanker attack: UK’s top soldier
  • Gen. Nick Carter slams Tehran “reckless behavior,” urges West to “restore deterrence”
  • Response to Iranian aggression must be kinetic, not just cyber, analyst tells Arab News

LONDON: Iran made a “big mistake” in attacking a commercial tanker last week, claiming the life of a British Army veteran, the chief of general staff and the UK’s most senior soldier said on Wednesday.
“What we need to be doing, fundamentally, is calling out Iran for its very reckless behavior,” Gen. Sir Nick Carter told the BBC. “We’ve got to restore deterrence because it’s behavior like that which leads to escalation, and that could very easily lead to miscalculation, and that would be very disastrous for all the peoples of the Gulf and the international community.”
The attack on the Liberian-flagged Mercer Street tanker killed a Briton and Romanian. The Briton has been identified as Fiji-born Adrian Underwood, a married father who was working as a security contractor when the tanker was struck in Omani waters. The UK and Romania have blamed the drone strike on Iran. 
Tehran is accused of masterminding maritime attacks since 2019, with tankers linked to both Saudi Arabia and Israel — its major rivals — being blighted by mines and other explosive assaults.
Furthermore, investigators determined that drones and missiles that struck a major Saudi oilfield were manufactured in Iran, which has ratcheted up its maritime attacks in recent months, allegedly launching strikes on vessels linked to Israel. 
“Gen. Carter said Iran made a ‘big mistake’ by carrying out the attack that killed Underwood since it has ‘internationalized’ the response, and he’s obviously correct that deterrence needs to be restored because without it Iran will continue escalating,” Kyle Orton, an independent geopolitical researcher, told Arab News.
“The question now is over what form this response takes. So far, the discussion within the British government seems to be about options that are covert and in the cyber realm, neither of which are adequate,” he added.
“If the response to murdering a British citizen isn’t overt, kinetic retaliation, then it will fail. The Iranians — who are quite sensitive to the limits they can push — will conclude that the cost of lethal attacks on us is tolerable.”
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said his country is “working on enlisting the world” in response to the tanker strike, but warned Iran that “we also know how to act alone.” 
He added: “The Iranians need to understand that it is impossible to sit peacefully in Tehran and from there ignite the entire Middle East. That is over.” 
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called for a “collective response” to the assault, which British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called an “outrageous attack on commercial shipping.”
On Monday, Britain summoned Iranian Ambassador Mohsen Baharvand to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to demand that vessels be allowed to freely navigate the region’s waters. On the same day, Iran said it would respond promptly to any threat to its security.


British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast

British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast
Updated 37 sec ago

British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast

British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast
  • “Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” the crew member said in a radio recording
  • Apparently responding to the incident, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on Tuesday denied that Iran played any role

FUJAIRAH, UAE: The hijackers who captured a vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman departed the targeted ship on Wednesday, the British navy reported, as recorded radio traffic appeared to reveal a crew member onboard saying Iranian gunmen had stormed the asphalt tanker.
The incident — described by the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations the night before as a “potential hijack” — revived fears of an escalation in Mideast waters and ended with as much mystery as it began.
Hints of what unfolded on the Panama-flagged asphalt tanker, called Asphalt Princess, began to emerge with the maritime radio recording, obtained by commodities pricing firm Argus Media and shared with The Associated Press. In the audio, a crew member can be heard telling the Emirati coast guard that five or six armed Iranians had boarded the tanker.
“Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” the crew member says. “We are … now, drifting. We cannot tell you exact our ETA to (get to) Sohar,” the port in Oman listed on the vessel’s tracker as its destination. It was not clear whether the crew members, whom he identified as Indian and Indonesian, were in immediate danger.
No one took responsibility for the brief seizure, which underscored mounting tensions as Iran and the United States seek a resolution to their standoff over Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Apparently responding to the incident, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on Tuesday denied that Iran played any role. He described the recent maritime attacks in the Arabian Gulf as “completely suspicious.”
Over the past years, the rising tensions have played out in the waters of the Arabian Gulf, where just last week a drone attack on an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman killed two crew members. The West blamed Iran for the raid, which marked the first known fatal assault in the years-long shadow war targeting vessels in Mideast waters. Iran denied involvement.
Late on Tuesday, the intruders boarded the Asphalt Princess sailing off the coast of Fujairah, authorities said. The official news agency of Oman’s military said it received reports that the Asphalt Princess had been hijacked and immediately dispatched Royal Air Force maritime patrol aircraft and naval vessels “to contribute to securing international waters.”
In the recorded radio traffic, when the Emirati coast guard asks the crew member what the Iranian gunmen were doing onboard, he says he “cannot understand the (Iranians),” his voice muffled, before trying to hand over the radio to someone else. The call then cuts off.
Possible signs of trouble began to emerge that evening when six oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah announced around the same time via their Automatic Identification System trackers that they were “not under command,” according to MarineTraffic.com. That typically means a vessel has lost power and can no longer steer.
Satellite-tracking data for the Asphalt Princess had showed it gradually heading toward Iranian waters off the port of Jask early Wednesday, according to MarineTraffic.com. Hours later, however, it stopped and changed course toward Oman, just before the British navy group declared the hijackers had departed and the vessel was now “safe.”
In an analysis, maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global described the seizure of the Asphalt Princess as the latest Iranian response to outside pressures, economic conflicts and other grievances.
“Iran has consistently shown that in conducting this kind of operation, it is calculated in doing so, both by targeting vessels directly connected with ongoing disputes and (vessels) operating within the ‘grey space’ of legitimacy,” which may be involved in illicit trade, Dryad Global said.
The owner of the Asphalt Princess, listed as Emirati free zone-based Glory International, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The US military’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet and the British Defense Ministry also did not respond to requests for comment. The Emirati government did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
The Gulf of Oman sits near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Arabian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes. Fujairah, on the UAE’s eastern coast, is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew.
For the past two years, after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal and imposed crushing sanctions, the waters off Fujairah have witnessed a series of explosions and hijackings. The US Navy has blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.
In the summer of 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops detained a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, near the Strait of Hormuz. Last year, an oil tanker sought by the US for allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the Emirati coast and later ended up in Iran, though Tehran never acknowledged the incident.
And in January, armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran. While Iran claimed it detained the ship over pollution concerns, it appeared to link the seizure to negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks.


Iran court sentences German woman to decade in jail: daughter

Iran court sentences German woman to decade in jail: daughter
Updated 04 August 2021

Iran court sentences German woman to decade in jail: daughter

Iran court sentences German woman to decade in jail: daughter
  • Taghavi was arrested at her Tehran apartment on Oct. 16 after years fighting for human rights in Iran
  • Taghavi suffers from pre-existing conditions including high blood pressure and diabetes

BERLIN: A German-Iranian woman held in Iran has been given a decade-long jail term by an Iran court for participating in an outlawed group, her daughter said Wednesday.

Nahid Taghavi, 66, was given “ten years for membership in an illegal group” and “eight months for propaganda against the regime,” said her daughter Mariam Claren.

Taghavi was arrested at her Tehran apartment on Oct. 16 after years fighting for human rights in Iran, in particular for women’s rights and freedom of expression, according to the rights group IGFM.

According to Claren, Taghavi has been held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where she contracted Covid-19 last month.

Claren has repeatedly flagged up warnings about her mother’s health, saying that she suffers from pre-existing conditions including high blood pressure and diabetes.

Germany’s foreign ministry said in October that it was aware of the arrest of a German-Iranian woman in Iran, but did not name the detained citizen.

Frank Schwabe, who is the spokesman on human rights issues for the Social Democrats, condemned the verdict.

“The charges are baseless and the verdict a farce,” he wrote on Twitter.


UAE reports 1,519 new coronavirus infections, 5 additional deaths overnight

UAE reports 1,519 new coronavirus infections, 5 additional deaths overnight
Updated 04 August 2021

UAE reports 1,519 new coronavirus infections, 5 additional deaths overnight

UAE reports 1,519 new coronavirus infections, 5 additional deaths overnight
  • The UAE is one of leading countries in coronavirus testing and immunization

DUBAI: The UAE health ministry on Wednesday reported 1,519 new coronavirus cases and five more COVID-19 related fatalities overnight, bringing the country’s caseload to 686,981 with 1,965 deaths.

The Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP) said it conducted 191,032 additional COVID-19 tests over the past 24 hours, as the Emirates aggressively pursues early detection of the highly contagious disease for necessary treatment and the prevention of community infection.

The UAE, one of leading countries in coronavirus testing and immunization, has deployed an initial dose of COVID-19 vaccines to 79.3 percent of its population, while 70.96 percent have been fully vaccinated.

A total 16,884,412 doses have been dispensed so far, for a vaccine distribution rate of 170.72 doses per 100 people.

The vaccination drive is in line with plans to provide the vaccine to the populace to acquire herd immunity, which will help reduce the number of cases and control the spread of the virus.