Escalation in Syria’s Idlib strains Russian-Turkish ties

A young shepherd tends to his sheep as members of a family fleeing with their belongings pass through the town of Batabo in Syria’s Aleppo province, on Wednesday amid an ongoing regime offensive. (AFP)
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Updated 06 February 2020

Escalation in Syria’s Idlib strains Russian-Turkish ties

  • Bloodshed in Syria a harsh reminder of Russia’s increasing frustration with Ankara’s precarious moves

ANKARA: Ankara and Moscow are passing through a stormy period in their regional alliance and Monday’s escalation in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province offered a new challenge for their entente: Will they burn bridges or find a common ground to continue their marriage of convenience, at least for a certain time?

The same day when a Russian-backed regime offensive in Idlib killed eight Turkish military officers during the reinforcement of their observation post, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a visit to Ukraine to sign a deal assisting the Ukrainian army with funding.
With a carefully designed and sharpened rhetoric, he raised an anti-Russian nationalist slogan there, “Glory to Ukraine,” referring to the country’s independence fight following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and denounced the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Although the latest bloodshed in Syria was a harsh reminder of Russia’s increasing frustration with Ankara’s precarious moves, the two countries are likely to survive the crisis because they still have unfulfilled regional targets that require each other’s support, experts say.
According to the Sochi agreement, signed by Russia, Turkey and Iran in September 2018, Ankara was supposed to eradicate the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). Instead, HTS made inroads into strategic areas near Syria’s main highways, M4 and M5, which connect major cities of Syria to Turkey.
“The Russians gave Turkey about one and half year to handle the HTS issue. It wasn’t handled. They gave Turkey about one-and-a-half years to deal with road access. It wasn’t handled. This offensive will reclaim the strategically important M5 and M4 highways for the regime. At that point, Turkey may consolidate and deploy forces closer to the border to absorb refugees. That’s up to Ankara,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Arab News, he said.
In the Syrian war, Ankara supports rebel forces against Bashar Assad’s forces which are backed by Moscow.
The two countries also faced a serious crisis five years ago when Turkish military shot down a Russian fighter jet across the border with Syria. That crisis endured for about seven months with a battle of words and deeds between the two countries, impacting trade, tourism and diplomatic ties, even with Russian news site Sputnik’s Turkish section taking a critical editorial line against Erdogan’s policies.


With a carefully designed and sharpened rhetoric, Erdogan raised an anti-Russian nationalist slogan there, ‘Glory to Ukraine,’ referring to Ukraine’s independence fight following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and denounced the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Stein thinks Erdogan will still try and keep Putin on side also “because Ankara owes Moscow a lot of money for the acquisition of a $2 billion Russian S400 air defense system, so the two sides still have lots to talk about.”
With the newly launched TurkStream pipeline, Russia also supplies Turkey with a considerable amount of natural gas by bypassing Ukraine.
Emre Ersen, a Syrian analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, thinks the reactions in the Russian media are also closely related with the implications of the official visit of President Erdogan to Ukraine and the fact that Turkey’s military-strategic relations with Ukraine have been improving remarkably in the last few years.
“Regarding Idlib, it is clear that the Sochi agreement initiated by Ankara and Moscow in September 2018 is not really working anymore. Whether a new deal is going to be reached on this issue is yet unknown as it seems Russia and the Assad regime are determined to resolve the crisis in Idlib with brute military force in the short term,” he told Arab News.
However for Ersen, Ankara and Moscow still need each other’s support in order to maintain their military influence in Syria.
“Turkey, for instance, needs Russian assistance to protect its strategic gains in the east of Euphrates River. Russia, on the other hand, would probably not want to greatly alienate Turkey which might trigger a new rapprochement between Ankara and Washington as also indicated by what US Secretary of State Pompeo said about the latest incident,” he noted.
On Wednesday, Erdogan criticized Russia for failing to implement peace agreements and called for Moscow to “better understand Turkey’s sensitivities in Syria.” Erdogan also repeated that Russia is not Turkey’s interlocutor in Russia. “It’s entirely the regime and you should not block us,” he said.


‘Social explosion’ in Lebanese camps imminent, warn officials

Updated 21 February 2020

‘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.”