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.

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.


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