US, Turkey discuss Idlib escalation

Opposition fighters inspect the debris of a Syrian regime helicopter that was shot down in Idlib on Tuesday. Following that, Ankara warned the regime of a ‘heavy price’ for any attacks on its forces. (AP)
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Updated 12 February 2020

US, Turkey discuss Idlib escalation

  • America views Moscow’s tensions with Erdogan as an opportunity to reboot ties with Ankara on its terms

ANKARA: The diplomatic involvement of NATO and Washington over the military escalation in Idlib has stirred debate about whether America is back on track in this war of attrition where the balance of power politics is key.

In her address to the UN Security Council on Feb. 6, US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft said that Turkey has the full backing of the US in responding to the Syrian regime’s “unjustified attacks” in Idlib.
A day after five Turkish soldiers were killed by regime shelling in Idlib, Special Representative for Syria Engagement Ambassador James Jeffrey also visited Ankara on Tuesday to meet senior Turkish officials and discuss the situation in Syria.
“We look forward to productive discussions with our NATO ally Turkey,” the US Embassy in Syria tweeted. For Timothy Ash, a London-based senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, “the question is what is Putin trying to achieve by pushing Erdogan so aggressively in Idlib? He risks pushing Turkey back toward the US.”

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Samuel Ramani, a geopolitical analyst at Oxford University, finds it interesting that the US supported Turkey’s right to self-defense in Idlib, unlike during Ankara’s previous cross-border operations in northern Syria.
“That bolsters the Turkish bargaining position relative to Russia in a symbolic sense, even if the US isn’t fully trusted by policymakers in Ankara,” he told Arab News.
According to Ramani, the US views Russia’s tensions with Turkey over the state of the Syrian peace process and Idlib as an opportunity to reboot its relationship with Ankara on its terms.
“I also think that the US hand has been forced, as the US cannot be caught unresponsive to a military action that results in fatalities for a NATO member,” he said. “Turkey’s efforts to resist Assad’s march on Idlib play into the general escalated US policy of isolating Assad internationally, illustrated by the Caesar Act, which imposed sanctions on prospective international investors in Syria, and by US strikes prior to Qassem Soleimani’s death.”

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Civilians continue to flee Idlib as airstrikes by Russia-backed regime forces affect densely populated areas.

The US recently increased its warning tone toward Russia over its policies in Syria, saying that Moscow was violating the de-escalation conditions and escalating the fighting in Idlib.
During Jeffrey’s meetings with Turkish officials, the US Embassy in Turkey shared messages on its official Twitter account, saying: “The destabilizing actions of Russia, the Iranian regime, Hizballah and the Assad regime are hindering the establishment of a nationwide cease-fire in Syria as called for an UNSCR 2254 and the safe return of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in northern Syria to their homes.”
Civilians continue to flee Idlib as airstrikes by Russia-backed regime forces affect densely populated areas. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg condemned on Tuesday regime attacks in Idlib and called Russia to stop them.
“We’re seeing not just the Russians, but Iranians and Hezbollah actively involved in supporting the Syrian offensive. We don’t know whether the offensive is just to get to the M4-M5 road, or it may continue further,” Jeffrey said, referring to the strategic highways.
Two rounds of talks between Turkish and Russian delegations in Ankara over the situation in Idlib failed to deliver a resolution.
Regime forces gained control of the main highway between Aleppo and Damascus on Tuesday for the first time in eight years, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The latest maneuver of Washington is mostly seen as an attempt to re-engage with regional dynamics, where Turkey’s military deterrence by sending reinforcements to the observation posts in Idlib failed regarding the deadly strikes by regime troops on Turkish positions.
However, experts do not think that the unfolding crisis in Idlib would ruin the Ankara-Kremlin entente for now due to the links between the two countries, including energy and the acquisition of the S-400 air defense system.
Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, thinks that the US support for the Turkish cause in Idlib is primarily political and diplomatic to drive a wedge between Ankara and Moscow by exploiting emerging tensions.
“However, Turkey will not likely risk its relationship with Russia by endorsing US intervention to help in Idlib nor the Trump admin is willing to do so,” he told Arab News.
The Russian military and regime troops filled the vacuum left by US troops who were ordered to withdraw by President Donald Trump at the end of 2019.


Coronavirus: 16 killed in Iran, 95 infected

Workers disinfect Qom’s Masumeh shrine, which is visited by a large number of people, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (AFP)
Updated 26 February 2020

Coronavirus: 16 killed in Iran, 95 infected

  • Six Saudi women recovering in Bahrain as Kingdom warns against travel to Italy and Japan

DUBAI: Two more people infected with the new coronavirus have died, taking the toll in Iran to 16, a Health Ministry official told state TV on Tuesday.

Iran has the highest number of deaths from coronavirus outside China, where the virus emerged late last year.
“Among those who had been suspected of the virus, 35 have been confirmed and two died of the coronavirus infection,” said Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour. He said 95 people had been infected across Iran.
The Health Ministry urged Iranians to stay at home.
Iran said on Monday 900 cases were suspected, dismissing claims by a lawmaker from Qom who said 50 people had died in the city, the epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak.
Iran, which confirmed its first two deaths last week in Qom, has yet to say how many people it has quarantined, but the semi-official Mehr news agency said 320 people had been hospitalized.
Iraj Harirchi, Iran’s deputy health minister, has tested positive for the coronavirus and is now under quarantine.
Six Arab countries have reported their first cases of coronavirus, with those infected all having links to Iran. Kuwait said the number of infected people there had risen to eight.
Bahrain’s Health Ministry said 15 more people, including six Saudi women, had tested positive for the virus after returning from Iran via Dubai and Sharjah. The new cases were carried by Bahraini and Saudi nationals who arrived at Bahrain International Airport from Iran via Dubai or Sharjah.
The Saudi Ministry of Health said that it was coordinating with Bahraini health officials for the treatment of the Saudi women who had visited Iran. They will remain in Bahrain until they are fully recovered. The Kingdom has advised citizens and residents to avoid traveling to Italy and Japan.
Iranian authorities have ordered the nationwide cancellation of concerts and soccer matches and the closure of schools and universities in many provinces.
The head of Qom’s Medical Science University, Mohammad Reza Ghadir, expressed concern over “the spread of those people infected by the virus across the city,” adding the Health Ministry had banned releasing figures linked to the coronavirus.
Many Iranians took to social media to accuse authorities of concealing the facts.
Rouhani called for calm, saying the outbreak was no worse than other epidemics that Iran has weathered.
The sight of Iranians wearing masks and gloves is now common in much of the country.
Sales of masks, disinfectant gels and disposable gloves have soared in Tehran and other cities, with officials vowing to prevent hoarding and shortages by boosting production.
Iran has shut schools, universities and cultural centers until the end of the week in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The UAE has banned all flights to and from Iran. The UAE, home to long-haul carriers Emirates and Etihad, remains a key international transit route for Iran’s 80 million people.
Emirates, the government-owned carrier based in Dubai, flies daily to Tehran. Its low-cost sister airline, FlyDubai, flies to multiple Iranian cities, as does the Sharjah-based low-cost carrier Air Arabia.
The announcement came after Bahrain said it would suspend all flights from Dubai and Sharjah.
Kuwait raised the number of its infected cases to eight, after earlier raising the number to five. It said the three latest cases involved Kuwaiti citizens just back from Iran, without giving more details. The five previously reported cases were passengers returning on a flight from the Iranian city of Mashhad, where Iran’s government has not yet announced a single case of the virus.
Kuwait had halted transport links with Iran over the weekend and said it was evacuating its citizens from Iran.
An Iraqi family of four who returned from a visit to Iran tested positive for the coronavirus, the first Iraqis known to have caught the disease.
The four cases in Kirkuk province brought Iraq’s total to five after it reported its first case on Monday, an Iranian theology student in Najaf. Iraq is deeply concerned about its exposure to the Iranian outbreak, as it has deep cultural and religious ties with its neighbor and typically receives millions of Iranians each year.
The Iraqi government, which has already banned all travel from China and Iran, added Italy, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and Japan to its travel ban list on Tuesday. Returning Iraqi citizens are exempt, as are diplomats.
Populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr suspended a call for his followers to hold a “million-man” protest, saying he had decide to forbid the events “for your health and life, for they are more important to me than anything else.”
“I had called for million-man protests and sit-ins against sectarian power-sharing and today I forbid you from them for your health and life, for they are more important to me than anything else,” he said in a statement. It was not immediately clear how the government’s call on citizens to avoid public gatherings would affect the strength of anti-government protests, and the response of security forces.
A Turkish Airlines plane flying from Iran was diverted to Ankara on Tuesday at the Turkish Health Ministry’s request and an aviation news website said one passenger was suspected of being infected by coronavirus.
Turkey’s Demiroren news agency broadcast video showing ambulances lined up beside the plane, with several personnel wearing white protective suits on the tarmac.
The plane was flying from Tehran and had been scheduled to land in Istanbul. Turkey shut its borders to Iran on Sunday and cut flights due to the spread of the virus in that country.
Oman’s Khasab port has suspended the import and export of goods to and from Iran from Feb. 26.