Europeans tell Syrian regime, Russia: Return to 2018 Idlib deal

Smoke billows above buildings during an airstrike by regime forces on the village of Nayrab, about 14 km southeast of Idlib in northwestern Syria. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 27 February 2020

Europeans tell Syrian regime, Russia: Return to 2018 Idlib deal

  • Foreign ministers from 14 countries call on Damascus, Moscow to immediately end hostilities

PARIS, ANKARA: Foreign ministers from 14 European countries, including France and Germany, demanded on Wednesday that Syrian regime forces and their Russian backers end their offensive in Idlib province and return to the terms of a 2018 cease-fire deal.

Turkey however plans to push regime forces away from its military observation posts in the  Idlib region this week, despite continued advances by Damascus’s Russian-backed military.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday vowed Turkey would not take the “smallest step back” in an escalating standoff with Damascus and Russia over the northern Syrian region of Idlib.

Meanwhile, a meeting between Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, is expected to take place ahead of a possible summit including EU heavyweights Germany and France to find a political solution to the Idlib crisis.

“We will not take a smallest step back in Idlib, we will certainly push the regime outside the borders we designated, and ensure the return of the people to their homes,” Erdogan told ruling party’s lawmakers in parliament in Ankara.

Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced in the past three months by fighting between Turkish-backed rebels and Syrian forces backed by Moscow trying to recapture the last major insurgent-held region in Syria after nine years of war.

‘End offensive’

The 14 ministers said in a column published in French daily newspaper Le Monde: “We call on the Syrian regime and its supporters, especially the Russians, to end this offensive and return to the cease-fire arrangements of autumn 2018,” 

“We call on them to immediately end hostilities and to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, in particular the protection of humanitarian workers and medical personnel, who pay with their lives for their engagement in favor of civilian populations.”

Turkey and Russia agreed in September 2018 to create de-escalation zones in Idlib, but that has since unraveled amid the Syrian regime offensive.

Ankara has sent thousands of troops and truckloads of equipment into the region, in Syria’s northwest corner bordering Turkey, to support the rebels, and Erdogan has vowed to push back Bashar Assad’s forces.

But Assad’s forces made fresh gains in southern Idlib province where they took a number of villages on Wednesday, with more hospitals and schools struck by airstrikes.

“The fight against terrorism cannot, should not, justify the massive violations of international humanitarian law, which we are witnessing every day in northwest Syria,” the ministers said.

“We also call on Russia to continue negotiations with Turkey, in order to achieve de-escalation in Idlib and contribute to a political solution,” they said, calling on Moscow to not block the renewal by the UN Security Council of a mechanism allowing cross-border aid to enter the area.

Erdogan bluntly warned the Syrian regime to “stop its attacks as soon as possible” and to pull back by the end of February.

“The time we have given to those who besieged our observation towers is running out,” Erdogan said.

“We are planning to save those of our observation posts from the besiegers one way or another by the end of this month.”

Erdogan said: “The biggest problem we currently have is that we cannot use the air space” over Idlib which is controlled by Russia. “God willing, we will find a solution soon.” In recent weeks, Damascus backed by Russian airstrikes has pressed a major offensive against the remaining territory held by militants and Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib.

In a statement read on public television, the Syrian army on Wednesday announced it had “regained control” of a dozen of areas in recent days, including Kafranbel in the south of Idlib, a town known to have been among the first to rebel against Damascus. The army vowed to “liberate the territories of the Syrian Arab Republic from terrorism and its supporters.”

Displaced

Idlib hosts more than 3 million people — half of them already displaced by violence elsewhere and the UN has warned against an imminent “bloodbath” amid the contiuing fighting.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying on state-run TRT tv, that as a first step, “what President Erdogan and Putin have agreed is to come together at a bilateral format.”

While backing opposite sides, Russia and Turkey have worked to end the conflict but strains have soared in recent weeks over Idlib.

The tensions are seen as the biggest threat to Ankara-Moscow ties since Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over Syria in November 2015.

The Kremlin indicated Tuesday however, that an Erdogan-Putin meeting was not on the cards, also saying that a tripartite summit with another regime ally Iran could be planned instead of a multilateral one with France and Germany.

A Russian delegation was due to hold another round of talks with Turkish officials in Ankara Wednesday.


US contractor told Lebanese port official of chemicals risk

Updated 47 min 50 sec ago

US contractor told Lebanese port official of chemicals risk

  • Concerns about the ammonium nitrate were known within the Lebanese government before the deadly blast
  • The thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored in the warehouse for more than six years

WASHINGTON: About four years before the Beirut port explosion that killed dozens of people and injured thousands, a US government contractor expressed concern to a Lebanese port official about unsafe storage there of the volatile chemicals that fueled last week’s devastating blast, American officials said Tuesday.
There is no indication the contractor communicated his concerns to anyone in the US government.
His assessment was noted briefly in a four-page State Department cable first reported by The New York Times.
The cable, labeled sensitive but unclassified, dealt largely with the Lebanese responses to the blast and the origins and disposition of the ammonium nitrate, which ignited to create an enormous explosion. But it also noted that after the Aug. 4 explosion, a person who had advised the Lebanese navy under a US Army contract from 2013 to 2016 told the State Department that he had “conducted a port facility inspection on security measures during which he reported to port officials on the unsafe storage of ammonium nitrate.”
Concerns about the ammonium nitrate were known within the Lebanese government before the deadly blast, officials said.
The contractor, who was not identified by name and is now a State Department employee based in Ukraine, was in Lebanon to provide instruction to members of the Lebanese navy. While there, he made a brief, impromptu inspection of physical security at the facility in 2015 or 2016 at the request of a port official, US officials said. The contractor was not identified.
The contractor, who has a background in port and maritime security, noted weaknesses in security camera coverage and other aspects of port management but was not assessing safety issues, according to the US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of a planned public statement.
While inside the warehouse where ammonium nitrate was stored, the contractor saw problems such as poor ventilation and inadequate physical security, which he noted to the port official accompanying him, the officials said. It is unclear whether the port official reported this concern to his superiors.
The thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored in the warehouse for more than six years, apparently with the knowledge of top political and security officials. The catastrophic explosion one week ago Tuesday killed at least 171 peoples and plunged Lebanon into a deeper political crisis.
The contractor was working for the US Army’s Security Assistance Training Management Organization, headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He provided instruction to members of the Lebanese armed forces in naval vessel traffic systems and small boat operations. His class was visiting the Beirut port as part of that instruction program when the port official asked him for the inspection, which US officials said lasted about 45 minutes.
The United States has a close security relationship with Lebanon. According to the State Department, the US government has provided Lebanon with more than $1.7 billion in security assistance since 2006. The assistance is designed to support the Lebanese armed forces’ ability to secure the country’s borders, counter internal threats, and defend national territory.
Last September a US Navy ship, the guided-missile destroyer USS Ramage, visited Beirut. It was the first time in 36 years an American warship had made a port visit there, according to the US military at the time.