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.


How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

Updated 21 September 2020

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

  • Houthi refusal of passage to experts to carry out repairs has raised specter of a floating time bomb
  • Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers to discuss ways to avoid a catastrophe

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Until the Iran-backed Houthi militia seized Yemen’s western port city of Hodeidah in late 2014, foreign and local experts had been regularly visiting a 45-year-old oil tanker moored in the Red Sea.

It was a practice that ensured that the FSO Safer, abandoned just a few kilometers off Yemen’s coast, did not touch off a disaster by exploding or sinking and spilling oil. But having witnessed the devastation caused by the Aug. 4 blast in Beirut and taken its lessons to heart, the Arab world cannot afford to ignore the imminent danger posed by Houthi stalling tactics.

Expressing concerns about the condition of the vessel, Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers on Monday. According to a statement issued on Sunday by Kamal Hassan, assistant secretary-general and head of the Economic Affairs Sector at the Arab League, the aim of the special session is to discuss ways and mechanisms to activate Resolution No. 582, which was adopted by the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for Environmental Affairs in Oct. 2019.

The objective is to “find an appropriate solution to avoid an environmental catastrophe due to the failure to maintain the oil ship Safer anchored off the Ras Issa oil port in the Red Sea since 2015.”

When the Houthi militia gained control of Hodeidah, the FSO Safer was carrying 1.1 million barrels of oil, or almost half of its capacity, according to local officials. No sooner had the fighters tightened their grip on the city than technical experts fled the area, realizing that it had become too dangerous for them to stay on.

Over the past two years, the FSO Safer has attracted regional as well as international attention on and off, thanks in part to the regular appearance on social media of photos of rusting pipes and water leaking into the engine rooms, raising the specter of a floating powder keg.

INNUMBER

45 Age of oil tanker FSO Safer

1.1m Barrels of crude oil in tanker

During the same period, Yemeni government officials, environmentalists and foreign diplomats have sounded the alarm over possible outcomes that could both exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and take a heavy environmental toll on the Red Sea littoral states.

The UN has suggested sending a team of experts to Hodeidah to assess the damage to the FSO Safer, but the Houthi militia, who want to pocket the proceeds from sale of the oil, have rejected the proposal. The oil in the FSO Safer’s storage tanks was once estimated to be worth $40 million, but its value now may be less than half of that as crude prices have fallen a lot since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports.

The internationally recognized government of Yemen has repeatedly accused the Houthi militia of using the decaying tanker as a bargaining chip, citing demands such as the resumption of salaries for public servants in areas under its control, removal of government forces from Hodeidah, and more relaxed inspection of ships bound for the port.

An oil spill would devastate the livelihoods of nearly four million Yemeni people, with fishing stocks taking 25 years to recover. (AFP)

In July, the government requested the UN Security Council to convene an urgent session to discuss the Safer issue amid concern that time was running out. In almost all their meetings with foreign envoys and diplomats, Yemeni officials bring up the matter of the tanker and the attendant risk of an environmental disaster in the Red Sea. For the past several months, Western and Arab diplomats, UN officials, aid organizations and experts too have underscored the urgency of breaking the deadlock in order to avert a human, economic and environmental catastrophe.

In July, the UN described the rusting tanker as a “ticking time bomb,” adding that the tanker’s cargo of oil could cause an environmental disaster four times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska. Last week, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added his voice to the growing concern over the deadlock by appealing to the Houthi militia to give UN experts access to the oil tanker.

As for the Trump administration, its views were conveyed via a tweet by the US mission to the UN that said: “The US calls on the Houthis to cease obstruction and interference in aid ops and fuel imports. We urge the Houthis to cease their assault on religious freedom and to permit UN technical teams immediate, unconditional access to the Safer oil tanker.”

In comments to Arab News in June, Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Yemen, said unless the Houthi leadership allowed experts to address the FSO Safer’s problems, the potential damage to the environment is far greater than that caused by the recent spillage of 20,000 tons of fuel in Russia’s Siberia. “The threat to the environment in the Red Sea is enormous, and will impact on all the countries who share this coastline,” he said.

Independent researchers too say the condition of Safer is deeply concerning. In a paper for the Atlantic Council in 2019 entitled “Why the massive floating bomb in the Red Sea needs urgent attention,” energy experts Dr. Ian Ralby, Dr. David Soud and Rohini Ralby said the potential consequences of an oil-tanker disaster in the area include an end to the two-year ceasefire in Hodeidah and an aggravation of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

“The risk of explosion increases by the day, and if that were to happen, not only would it damage or sink any ships in the vicinity, but it would create an environmental crisis roughly four and a half times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” the three scientists said. Other experts have speculated that just a stray bullet from an exchange of fire between rival factions could trigger off an explosion of the FSO Safer’s oil cargo.

Yemeni NGO Holm Akhdar says 126,000 people working in the fishing industry could lose their jobs in the case of a disaster.

“Even worse, given the complexity of this war, an errant bullet or shell from any one of the combatants could trigger a blast as large as Beirut’s August 4th disaster, prompting a historic oil spill,” Dave Harden, managing director of Georgetown Strategy Group, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last month. He added: “Clean-up efforts would be daunting — given the insecurity of being in a war zone and the additional health risks from COVID-19.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by local government officials and fishermen in Hodeidah. Waleed Al-Qudaimi, deputy governor of Hodeidah, said that any spillage from the FSO Safer would create a humanitarian crisis as severe as the one caused by the Houthi insurgency.

“It (the oil spill) will add an additional burden that will affect Yemen for the next decades, deprive thousands of people of their jobs and destroy marine biodiversity in Yemeni waters,” he said. Al-Qudaimi appealed to the international community to keep up pressure on the militia to allow maintenance work to be carried out.

For a country reeling from a combination of conflict, humanitarian crisis, plunging currency and crumbling economy, repairs to an abandoned oil tanker off its coast might not carry the ring of urgency normally associated with a major disaster.

But now that the world knows what happened when Lebanese officials ignored warnings for years over a cache of highly explosive material stored in a Beirut port warehouse, the importance of resolving the FSO Safer issue cannot be overstated.

 

Twitter: @saeedalBatati