Turkey threatens escalation of Idlib crisis after Syrian regime shelling kills Turkish soldiers

This picture taken on Monday shows smoke plumes billowing in the Syrian village of Al-Nayrab during bombardment by Syrian government forces and its allies. (AFP)
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Updated 04 February 2020

Turkey threatens escalation of Idlib crisis after Syrian regime shelling kills Turkish soldiers

  • We cannot sit on our hands. You (Russia) are not our interlocutor here, the regime is, says Erdogan

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that his country would not “sit on our hands” after six Turkish soldiers were killed during shelling by Syrian government forces in Idlib.

Ankara retaliated to the deadly attack, which also injured nine other Turkish troops, by launching strikes on targets in the rebel-held northwestern province of Syria which left around 36 Syrian soldiers dead.
Turkey said that the heavy shelling took place despite Syrian forces being notified beforehand about the locations of Turkish troops. However, the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria dismissed the claim, and announced that the Turkish military had not informed Russia of its movements in the Idlib zone when they came under fire from government forces.
The attack has raised fears that Ankara could soon launch a military operation which would threaten to further damage already fragile Turkish-Russian agreements on the region.
Erdogan said: “We cannot sit on our hands. In response, we will hold to account all those responsible for the attack on Turkish soldiers. You (Russia) are not our interlocutor here, the regime is. Don’t block our effort to respond.”
He also warned on Friday that Turkey may start a military operation in Idlib and criticized Russia for not abiding by the Sochi and Astana deals.
Two top aides of Erdogan, Fahrettin Altun and Ibrahim Kalin, also pledged that Turkey would take revenge for the deaths of the Turkish soldiers.
The Syrian government offensive happened a day after a large Turkish military convoy moved into the area on Sunday with dozens of armored vehicles and fuel tanker trucks as reinforcements for establishing a new observation post around the Saraqib area.
Following Syrian regime advances in densely populated areas of Idlib, backed by Russian air power, Ankara recently began criticizing the reliability of its 2018 deal with Russia and Iran for establishing de-escalation zones in the region that is mainly controlled by the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham group, a former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused on Jan. 28 “a terrorist nest” in Idlib for violating the cease-fire agreement for the region, but the next day Erdogan described them as “people fighting to defend their own lands,” and again accused Moscow of ignoring the bilateral agreements on Syria and issued another ultimatum.
Bill Park, a visiting research fellow at King’s College London, said that he had been expecting tensions to rise between Turkey and Russia and “now that moment has arrived. I find it hard to believe that Russia will allow Turkey to inflict serious damage on Syrian forces, so my guess is that Turkey will inflict only token damage on Syrian forces.
“If Turkey hits back hard, I predict that Russia will strike Turkish forces hard,” Park told Arab News.
Currently, three out of 12 Turkish observation posts are surrounded by regime forces in Idlib, and the new observation point was meant to stop the regime from advancing toward Aleppo.

Shelling
In Turkey, which already hosts around 3.6 million registered refugees from Syria, the latest shelling sparked concerns about a possible new wave of immigration to Turkish borders from Idlib, which is home to about 3 million civilians.
Advances by regime forces into Maarat Al-Numan and other urban areas have already pushed thousands of civilians toward the Turkey-Syria border under harsh winter conditions.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The Syrian government offensive happened a day after a large Turkish military convoy moved into the area on Sunday with dozens of armored vehicles and fuel tanker trucks as reinforcements for establishing a new observation post around Saraqib area.

• Two top aides of Turkish President Erdogan, Fahrettin Altun and Ibrahim Klin, also pledged that Turkey would take revenge for the deaths of the Turkish soldiers.

Berkay Mandiraci, a Turkey analyst at the International Crisis Group, said: “Turkey fears a new mass inflow of refugees from Idlib as well as a loss of leverage in the Syria theater should Idlib gradually come under the control of the regime.”
He also pointed out Ankara’s fears that violent jihadists could infiltrate Turkey with refugees and launch attacks.
Although the Turkey-Syria border is currently closed, Turkey might be forced to open it to cope with any surge in refugees and relieve pressure on physical and security limitations in areas within Syrian territories controlled by Turkish soldiers.
“But Ankara is constrained by Russian buy-in and can only trip over Russia’s red lines insofar as it can risk its interests in other conflict theaters, where the two partners are at odds with each other, including Libya,” Mandiraci added.
Navar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, in Istanbul, said: “We are witnessing the collapse of the Astana agreement, and maybe the rebirth of the relationship between the Turks and the US in terms of Idlib.
“The Americans are willing to support Turkey in any move in Idlib politically and security-wise. However, there is a serious difference of approach in Idlib between the two: The Idlib goal of the US is to eliminate all extremists, and then to stop the killing.
“But Turks want to stop the mass attacks in Idlib that results in massive immigration influx and then to secure the area surrounding them. It is a huge difference,” he told Arab News.
However, Saban did not predict a major Turkish counterattack in the region.
“Most importantly, it may indirectly intervene by continuing to support the opposition and provide them with huge amounts of ammunition. They want to block any further advance of the regime and redraw their maps of control in Idlib after the loss of Maarat Al-Numan,” he said.
The fault lines between Ankara and Moscow seem to have broadened. During his official visit to Ukraine on Monday, on the same day as the Russian-supported assault on Idlib, Erdogan announced Turkey’s categorical rejection of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the importance of Crimean Tatars for Turkey.


‘Social explosion’ in Lebanese camps imminent, warn officials

Updated 24 min 28 sec ago

‘Social explosion’ in Lebanese camps imminent, warn officials

  • Situation volatile as Palestinian refugees face economic crisis after US peace plan

BEIRUT: Authorities are battling to prevent “a social explosion” among Palestinian refugees crammed into camps in Lebanon, a top official has revealed.

Fathi Abu Al-Ardat, secretary of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) factions in Lebanon, told Arab News that urgent measures were being put in place to try and stop the “crisis” situation getting out of control.

“Conditions in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are very difficult due to the economic crisis facing the country, and we are trying to delay a social explosion in the camps and working on stopgap solutions,” he said.

And Dr. Hassan Mneimneh, the head of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC), said: “More Palestinian refugees from the camps in Lebanon are immigrating. Embassies are receiving immigration requests, and Canada is inundated with a wave of immigration because its embassy has opened doors to applications.”

According to a population census conducted in 2017 by the Central Administration of Statistics in Lebanon, in coordination with the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), there are 174,422 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon spread across 12 camps and nearby compounds.

Mneimneh insisted the figure was accurate despite the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) estimating there to be 459,292 refugees in the country. He said: “The census we had conducted refers to the current reality in Lebanon.”

He added that he feared “increased pressure on European donor countries over UNRWA in the coming days after the unilateral implementation of the ‘Deal of the Century’ (the US peace plan for the Middle East) by Israel.

“Israel’s goal is to undermine UNRWA’s mission as a prelude to ending the Palestinian cause and, thus, preventing the return of Palestinians.”

Mneimneh held a meeting on Wednesday with two Lebanese and Palestinian action groups in Lebanon to discuss Palestinian asylum issues in light of the American peace plan. There were no representatives of Hezbollah or Hamas present at the talks.

He said: “This deal kick-starts an unusual stage that carries the most serious risks not only to the Palestinian people and cause, but also to the other countries and entities in the Arab region.

“The first of these is Lebanon, which senses the danger of this announcement in view of the clauses it contains to eliminate the Palestinian cause, including the refugee issue and the possibility of their settlement in the host countries.”

Al-Ardat said: “Palestinian refugees have no choice but to withstand the pressures on them to implement the so-called ‘Deal of the Century.’ What is proposed is that we sell our country for promises, delusions, and $50 billion distributed to three countries. Palestine is not for sale.”

He pointed out that “the camps in Lebanon resorted to family solidarity in coordination with the shops in the camps. Whoever does not have money can go to the shop after two (2 p.m.) in the afternoon and get vegetables for free.

“We have been securing 7,000 packs of bread to distribute in the camps and buying the same amount to sell the pack at 500 liras. But this does not solve the problem.”

He added: “The PLO leadership continues to perform its duty toward the refugees and, until now, we have not been affected by the restrictions imposed by banks in Lebanon, and refugees are still receiving medical treatment.

“However, our concern now is that Palestinian refugees do not starve, taking into account all the indications that the situation in Lebanon will not improve soon.

“Twenty percent of the Palestinians in Lebanon receive wages either from UNRWA — as they work there — or from the PLO because they are affiliated with the factions, but 80 percent are unemployed and have no income.”

The meeting hosted by Mneimneh agreed “the categorical rejection of the ‘Deal of the Century’ because it means further erasing the identity existence of the Palestinian people as well as their national rights, especially their right to return and establish their independent state.

“It also means assassinating the Palestinian peoples’ legitimate rights and supporting Israel’s usurpation of international justice and 72 years of Arab struggle.

“The deal includes ambiguous, illegal and immoral approaches that contradict all relevant UN and Security Council resolutions, especially with regard to the establishment of the Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 and the inalienable right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland and establish their state with Jerusalem as its capital,” a statement on the meeting added.

“UNRWA must remain the living international witness to the ongoing suffering and tragedy of the Palestinian people, and UNRWA must continue to receive support.”

Attendees at the talks also recommended “improving the conditions of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to strengthen the elements of their steadfastness until they return.” This was “based on the Unified Lebanese Vision for the Palestinian Refugees Affairs in Lebanon document, which includes the right to work.”