Turkish Syria campaign emboldened by US support

US soldiers walk past Turkish armored vehicles during a joint US-Turkey patrol in Syria, in 2019. (Reuters)
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Updated 13 February 2020

Turkish Syria campaign emboldened by US support

  • The diplomatic revival has included high-level visits to Ankara by American officials
  • Supportive messages were received from Washington after US and Syrian forces clashed in Syria’s Qamishli

ANKARA: Ankara has re-engaged with Washington in a bid to defend its cause in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province through both military and diplomatic means.

The diplomatic revival has included high-level visits to Ankara by American officials, including the US Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey.

Supportive messages were received from Washington after US and Syrian forces clashed in Syria’s Qamishli, which could prove crucial for overcoming Ankara’s relative loneliness on the ground.

During his parliamentary speech on Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey will target Syrian forces “anywhere” around Syria if Turkish soldiers are attacked again.

He added that the Syrian troops will be pushed beyond Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end of this month.

“If there is the slightest damage to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am announcing from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today, regardless of Idlib’s borders or the lines of the Sochi agreement,” Erdogan said, alluding to the 2018 ceasefire deal.

The president’s remarks came after five Turkish soldiers were killed by Syrian forces in Idlib on Monday, just a week after a similar attack killed eight Turkish officials.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund of the US, said Erdogan has responded to escalation by the Syrian regime in Idlib by changing the rules of engagement.

“Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has not fought a regular battle against a state actor since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. With the ongoing deployments in Syria, Turkey is building a force that is clearly superior to Assad’s,” he told Arab News.

In a political retaliatory move, the Syrian parliament voted unanimously on Thursday to recognise and condemn the Armenian Genocide.

Meanwhile, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar called on NATO and Europe to provide support against the Assad regime’s attack in Idlib, leading to speculation over whether Turkey will request an Article 4 meeting in NATO, as it has done in the past over Syria.

An ally can invoke the Article 4 consultation mechanism of NATO’s founding treaty to bring any security-related issue of concern to the discussion within the North Atlantic Council.

Relations between Moscow and Ankara are being strained by the developments, with Russia accusing Turkey of breaking Syrian accords it made with the Kremlin. Moscow also criticized Ankara for failing to deliver on its promise to neutralize radical militants in Idlib.

“Erdogan feels he can cope with the Russia factor thanks to strong support from the US. Not only is Turkey not isolated in Idlib, but it could also decrease its overall isolation through its bold policy in the region,” Unluhisarcikli said.

Ankara, which highly values keeping the province in the hands of rebels, is continuing to send thousands of troops and special forces to reinforce its frontline, especially in Aleppo province.

With Russia controlling the air space above Idlib, its defense ministry used drones to broadcast on Wednesday images of a Turkish military convoy carrying weapons to the province. Russian TV channel Rossiya 1 broadcast a warning to Erdogan on Tuesday: “Get out of Syria. Go home.”

Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the Ankara-based think tank ORSAM, said there are disagreements between Turkey and Russia in terms of sharing their zones of influence.

“Although Russia attaches high importance to eradicating the militants from Idlib, it also wants to withdraw Turkish observation points and to secure Russian bases completely. The control of the M4 highway is also a critical point of disagreement between the parties,” he told Arab News.

Who Ankara will take as a better ally in Syria is creating an intense communications battle between the US and Russia.

The US Embassy released a video with Turkish subtitles and reiterated that the US stands with Ankara, while Russia republished a Turkish infographic about arms provided by the US to the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which is considered a terror group by Ankara.

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.