Turkey-backed rebels regain key Syrian town of Saraqeb

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters load ammunition at a frontline near the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province. (AP)
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Updated 27 February 2020

Turkey-backed rebels regain key Syrian town of Saraqeb

  • Three weeks ago, the armed opposition lost the northwestern town at the junction of two main highways
  • Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by the latest fighting

AMMAN: Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish military have recaptured the strategic town of Saraqeb, the first significant reverse for the Syrian army in a Russian-backed offensive that had made swift gains, the rebels said on Thursday.
Three weeks ago, the armed opposition lost the northwestern town at the junction of two main highways, following advances by the Syrian army in its bid to retake the last large rebel-held region in Syria after nine years of war.
Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by the latest fighting.
“The city of Saraqeb has been liberated completely from Assad’s gangs,” Naji Mustafa, a spokesman for a Turkey-backed coalition of rebel factions, the National Liberation Front, said in a statement, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
With Russian backing, government forces aided by Iranian militias have gained ground in northwest Syria since December.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported on Thursday that Russian-backed government forces had seized full control of southern Idlib province after fresh advances against the rebels.
Government forces have seized about 60 towns and villages in the southern Idlib area and the adjoining province of Hama in the last three days, the Observatory said.
The opposition advance on Saraqeb comes ahead of an end-February deadline set by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for Assad’s forces to pull back from territory that Turkey says is part of a buffer zone agreed with Russia.
Erdogan has said Turkey would otherwise drive them back.
Turkish and Russian officials were expected to hold a second day of talks in Ankara on Thursday on the conflict.
Ankara has sent thousands of troops and truckloads of equipment into Syria’s northwest corner bordering Turkey to back the rebels and set up new outposts that rebels say was in preparation for a Turkish operation to push back Assad’s forces.
Ibrahim Al-Idlibi, an opposition figure in touch with the rebel factions, said the seizure of the town eases pressure on rebels who in recent days lost a string of significant territory in southern Idlib province and Jabal al Zawiya highlands.
“The rebels this morning completed their control of Saraqeb after having advanced from several fronts. This eases the pressure after the Syrian army’s recent gains,” Idlibi said.
Saraqeb is at the juncture of two main roads linking the capital of Damascus and its second largest city of Aleppo and another highway west to the Mediterranean.
Taking back the M5 highway, which goes south to Damascus, from the insurgents had marked a big gain for Assad’s forces as they restored state control over the route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years of conflict.
Opening major highways in rebel hands to revive a shattered war economy has been a key goal of the Russian-led campaign.
“The opposition have now cut the highways and brought the regime to square one,” said Syrian opposition defector general Ahmad Rahhal.


Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia return to talks over disputed dam

Updated 03 August 2020

Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia return to talks over disputed dam

  • Khartoum and Cairo have repeatedly rejected the filling of the massive reservoir
  • Ethiopia says the dam will provide electricity to millions

CAIRO: Three key Nile basin countries on Monday resumed their negotiations to resolve a years-long dispute over the operation and filling of a giant hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, officials said.
The talks came a day after tens of thousands of Ethiopians flooded the streets of their capital, Addis Ababa, in a government-backed rally to celebrate the first stage of the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s 74 billion-cubic-meter reservoir.
Ethiopia’s announcement sparked fear and confusion downstream in Sudan and Egypt. Both Khartoum and Cairo have repeatedly rejected the filling of the massive reservoir without reaching a deal among the Nile basin countries.
Ethiopia says the dam will provide electricity to millions of its nearly 110 million citizens, help bring them out of poverty and also make the country a major power exporter.
Egypt, which depends on the Nile River to supply its booming population of 100 million people with fresh water, asserts the dam poses an existential threat.
Sudan, between the two countries, says the project could endanger its own dams — though it stands to benefit from the Ethiopian dam, including having access to cheap electricity and reduced flooding. The confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile near Khartoum forms the Nile River that then flows the length of Egypt and into the Mediterranean Sea.
Irrigation ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia took part in Monday’s talks, which were held online amid the coronavirus pandemic. The virtual meeting was also attended by officials from the African Union and South Africa, the current chairman of the regional block, said Sudan’s Irrigation Minister Yasir Abbas. Officials from the US and the European Union were also in attendance, said Egypt’s irrigation ministry.
Technical and legal experts from the three countries would resume their negotiations based on reports presented by the AU and the three capitals following their talks in July, Abbas said. The three ministers would meet online again on Thursday, he added.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attributed the reservoir’s filling to the torrential rains flooding the Blue Nile — something that occurred naturally, “without bothering or hurting anyone else.”
However, Egypt’s Irrigation Minister Mohammed Abdel-Atty said the filling, without “consultations and coordination” with downstream countries, sent “negative indications that show Ethiopian unwillingness to reach a fair deal.”
Ethiopia’s irrigation ministry posted on its Facebook page that it would work to achieve a “fair and reasonable” use of the Blue Nile water.
Key sticking points remain, including how much water Ethiopia will release downstream if a multi-year drought occurs and how the countries will resolve any future disputes. Egypt and Sudan have pushed for a binding agreement, which Ethiopia rejects and insists on non-binding guidelines.