No plan for Erdogan-Putin meeting on Idlib, says Kremlin

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters ride a tank in the town of Saraqib in the eastern part of the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, as fierce fighting raged on in its outskirts on Thursday. (AFP)
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Updated 28 February 2020

No plan for Erdogan-Putin meeting on Idlib, says Kremlin

  • The meeting in Istanbul was expected to gather Russia, France, Germany and Turkey

ANKARA: In a surprise move, the Kremlin on Thursday said Russian President Vladimir Putin does not have a scheduled meeting with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 5.

Erdogan on Wednesday said he could meet Putin in Istanbul next week for talks on Syria’s Idlib province. The meeting was expected to gather Russia, France, Germany and Turkey.

The Kremlin announcement is seen as yet another sign of deteriorating ties between Putin and Erdogan after the failure of a fragile cease-fire agreement in rebel-held Idlib.

Erdogan recently criticized Russian support for Damascus. At least 18 Turkish soldiers have been killed by Syrian regime airstrikes in recent weeks.

Security analyst Metin Gurcan said the Kremlin announcement “means that the coming three or four weeks will determine the outcome of the power struggle and regional dynamics on the ground.”

Amid heavy clashes between Turkish and regime troops in recent weeks, Erdogan has given Damascus a deadline of the end of this month to withdraw behind Turkish observation posts in Idlib or face a military offensive.

Against this backdrop, talks between Turkey and Russia have continued for weeks without any concrete outcome so far.

Turkish government spokesman Omer Celik on Thursday said a meeting between Erdogan and Putin “needs to be held soon.”

Meanwhile, Ankara is sending more reinforcements, including air defense units, to Idlib. The number of Turkish soldiers deployed since the beginning of February in Idlib and Aleppo has reached 7,800.

“Turkey has an intention and offer to meet with Russia to resolve the Idlib quagmire, but Turkish decision-makers keep announcing unconfirmed dates of summits without getting official acceptance from the Russian side,” Aydin Sezer, an expert on Turkish-Russian relations, told Arab News.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar talked to his US counterpart Mark Esper about Idlib on Thursday.

Samuel Ramani, a Middle East analyst at the University of Oxford, said Russia is deeply frustrated with Ankara’s willingness to intervene militarily in Idlib, and is concerned about the implications for the regime’s offensive there, given that the village of Nairab has fallen to Syrian rebels and the town of Saraqeb is at risk.

“The loss of these towns could have a cascade effect and give Turkish-backed rebels control over the M4/M5 highways and vital Syrian infrastructure once again,” he told Arab News.

“While Russia is happy to send a delegation to Turkey to discuss the Idlib crisis, it feels that a meeting between Putin and Erdogan would be a sign that Moscow is intimidated by Turkish conduct.”

Ramani said Russia is playing hardball on a Putin-Erdogan meeting, and is instead urging Turkey to commit to de-escalation in Idlib.

Ankara and Moscow agreed in September 2018 to turn the province into a “de-escalation zone.”

Ramani said: “Russia is fairly confident that Turkey will agree to de-escalation … because it sees Ankara’s military intervention as unsustainable, as Turkey is committed in northern Syria and Libya, and is seeing its currency crisis worsen once again.”

Tehran mayor sees ‘threat’ in Iranians’ dissatisfaction

Updated 47 min 13 sec ago

Tehran mayor sees ‘threat’ in Iranians’ dissatisfaction

  • The International Monetary Fund predicts Iran’s economy will shrink by 6 percent this year

TEHRAN: Iran’s low voter turnout reflects a wider malaise in a country long buckling under sanctions and more recently also hit hard by the coronavirus, spelling “a threat for everyone,” Tehran’s mayor Pirouz Hanachi told AFP.

“The turnout at the ballot box is a sign of people’s satisfaction level,” said Hanachi, mayor of Iran’s political and business center and largest city, with more than 8 million people.

“When there is dissatisfaction with the government or the state, it then reaches everyone and that includes the municipality too,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Iran has suffered the double blow of a sharp economic downturn caused by US economic sanctions over its contested nuclear program, and the region’s most deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

Reformists allied with moderate President Hassan Rouhani lost their parliamentary majority in a landslide conservative victory in February, in a major setback ahead of presidential elections next year.

Voter turnout hit a historic low of less than 43 percent in the February polls after thousands of reformist candidates were barred from running by the Islamic republic’s powerful Guardian Council.

Such voter fatigue “can be a threat for everyone, not just reformists or conservatives,” warned the mayor, a veteran public servant with a background in urban development who is tied to the reformist camp.

The conservative resurgence reflects dissatisfaction with the Rouhani camp that had sought reengagement with the West and the reward of economic benefits — hopes that were dashed when US President Donald Trump in 2018 pulled out of a landmark nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions.

The International Monetary Fund predicts Iran’s economy will shrink by 6 percent this year.

“We’re doing our best, but our situation is not a normal one,” Hanachi said. “We are under sanctions and in a tough economic situation.”

As he spoke in his town hall office, the shouts of angry garbage truck drivers echoed from the street outside, complaining they had not received pay or pensions for months.

The mayor downplayed the small rally as the kind of event that could happen in “a municipality in any other country,” adding that the men were employed not by the city itself but by contractors.

Iran’s fragile economy, increasingly cut off from international trade and deprived of crucial oil revenues, took another major blow when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit in late February.

Since then the outbreak has killed more than 12,000 people and infected over 248,000, with daily fatalities reaching a record of 200 early this week, according to official figures.

A temporary shutdown of the economy in recent months and closed borders sharply reduced non-oil exports, Iran’s increasingly important lifeline.

This accelerated the plunge of the Iranian rial against the US dollar, threatening to further stoke an already high inflation rate.

In just one impact, said Hanachi, the Teheran municipality lost 2 trillion rial ($9 million) because of sharply reduced demand for public transport in recent months.

As many Tehran residents got back into their cars to avoid tightly packed subways and buses, this has done nothing to help solve Tehran’s long-standing air pollution issue.

Tehran has had only 15 “clean” air quality days since the March 20 Persian New Year, according to the municipality.

One of Hanachi’s tasks is to fight both the virus and air pollution — a tough juggling act as car travel is safer for individuals but also worsens the smog that often cloaks the capital.

The mayor said he worried that, after restrictions on car travel were reimposed in May to reduce air pollution, subways are once again packed during peak hours, as is the bustling city center.

Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, which is now crowded with shoppers, warned Hanachi, “can become a focal point for the epidemic.”