Turkey’s Syria push heading down uncertain path

Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters drive down a road near the town Taftanaz in northeastern Idlib province, on Friday. (AFP)
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Updated 29 February 2020

Turkey’s Syria push heading down uncertain path

  • How NATO will react is uncertain if Ankara requests its assistance

ANKARA: Following the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in northeastern Syria on Thursday night, NATO held an emergency meeting on Friday at the request of Ankara under Article 4 of the alliance’s founding treaty.

The article permits any ally to ask for consultations if it feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security is under serious threat. Five years ago, Turkey referred to the article over attacks on its soil from Syrian territory.
“Even in the face of the tragic outcome of the Idlib attacks, we shouldn’t expect anything more than political support and words of solidarity to Turkey from NATO,” Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank, told Arab News.
According to Ulgen, if Turkey needs military support against attacks from Syrian forces, it should refer to the US.
Besides some aerial surveillance capabilities over Syria, the alliance has no direct role in the country. Its members are conflicted over deep disagreements on Turkey’s actions.
How NATO will react is uncertain if Ankara requests its assistance under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty — which requires all allies to come to the defense of another member under attack — because the attack did not occur on Turkish soil.
Meanwhile, large numbers of migrants are waiting at the Turkish border with Greece and Bulgaria for entry into European territories.
Greece has tightened its control over land and sea borders after Ankara announced that it would no longer prevent refugees from fleeing to Europe.
Turkish news agencies showed footage of hundreds of people, including women and children, walking in northwest Turkey toward the EU border in tough, wintry conditions.
Mehmet Ogutcu, chairman of the London Energy Club and a former diplomat, criticized Ankara’s move to ask for Western security support in Syria while also threatening them with the refugee card.
“It is a move that contradicts international law,” he told Arab News.
Turkey currently hosts approximately 4 million Syrian refugees. They have often been used as a bargaining chip with Western countries to barter for protection.

FASTFACT

The fate of Moscow-Ankara ties remain a concern following the violence under Russian-controlled airspace.

Navar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said: “Opening the gates for refugees is a bargaining card to push NATO to activate Article 5, but it cannot trigger a joint defense clause for Syrian territories.”
Saban added: “Refugees shouldn’t be considered an asset to be used in different conditions. They are people.”
The EU called on Ankara to uphold its 2016 migrants’ deal to cut the volume of migrant flow toward the continent.
Meanwhile, the fate of Moscow-Ankara ties remain a concern following the violence under Russian-controlled airspace.
Independent Syria analyst Danny Makki said the confrontation between Turkey and Russia over Idlib reached new heights with the air strikes on Turkish forces.
“Although Russian jets targeting Turkish soldiers in their sorties over Idlib has become an almost-daily occurrence, yesterday’s events now give the standoff in Syria’s last rebel-controlled province added dimensions,” he told Arab News.
However, experts don’t expect any Turkish withdrawal following rising casualties in Idlib.
Ogutcu said: “Any withdrawal would pull Turkey into another crisis. Ankara will accelerate its diplomatic engagement with Russia for aerial support in the region. As a gesture, NATO can also ask its European members to deploy air defense batteries on TuWWWrkish soil to boost its security.”
Makki agreed: “Turkey is unlikely to pull back from what it sees as a national security issue, while Russia has been continuing to exert its hegemony and dominate the Syrian arena,” he said, adding: “Thursday’s events are a watershed moment in Turkish-Russian relations, which have been teetering on the brink since the Syrian regime offensive began advancing quickly in Idlib.”
Ankara has rejected Moscow’s claim that Turkish troops killed in Idlib were embedded with “terrorist elements.”
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said: “During this attack, there were no armed groups around our military units.”
Makki said Turkey has been quiet on Idlib: “Ankara is unwilling to even admit that Russia was behind the attacks, preferring to say that the ‘Assad regime’ conducted the strikes.
“Turkey is clearly frightened of a costly escalation with Russia and hasn’t received the support it expected from NATO and the West. It has to make a decision on how far it is going to go to maintain its Idlib policy, especially as Russia has proven indifferent to escalation.”
Speaking after the emergency meeting of NATO in Brussels, the alliance’s Secretary-General Stoltenberg said it condemned the attack.
“The allies condemn the continued indiscriminate airstrikes by the Syrian regime and Russia in Idlib province,” he said and called on them “to stop their offensive to respect international law and to back UN-led efforts for a peaceful solution.”


Hagia Sophia prayers ‘sparked Turkey’s new COVID-19 cases’

Updated 1 min 25 sec ago

Hagia Sophia prayers ‘sparked Turkey’s new COVID-19 cases’

  • Government figures disputed by health professionals who warn that several provinces bearing brunt of pandemic

ISTANBUL: Prayers at Hagia Sophia sparked new coronavirus cases in Turkey as preventive measures were not strictly followed during the congregational worship, according to health professionals.
Around 350,000 people swarmed the Hagia Sophia on July 24 and the area around it after the Byzantine-era landmark became a mosque again after functioning for decades as a museum.
Some of the 500 guests inside the mosque, including parliamentarians and journalists, have been diagnosed with the disease. There was a lack of social distancing and mask wearing.
The number of new daily COVID-19 cases began rising and exceeding 1,000 just after the Eid Al-Adha holidays. The government’s decision to withhold figures about the number of patients in intensive care and those who are intubated has increased concern about the country’s coronavirus reality.
Health professionals contacted by Arab News said the pandemic had worsened in the last month, and that the opening of Hagia Sophia for prayers without appropriate and tough precautions in place was a reason for the surge.
“Following the opening of Hagia Sophia, we also heard of many cases among politicians,” a doctor who preferred to remain anonymous told Arab News. “But it is because they go through a regular screening every three days in order to make sure they are healthy.”
The doctor, who works in a hospital in the central Anatolian province of Sivas, added: “If ordinary citizens also get a similar test, the real case rates will be higher. If things go on like this, there will be nobody in the hospital who is not infected … There might even be a shortage of medical personnel who either resign from the job or become sick.”
A “long list” of Muslim and Christian world leaders, including Pope Francis, were invited to the inaugural prayer at the Hagia Sofia, according to Dr. Ergin Kocyildirim, who is a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon and an assistant professor in the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine. “It seems like none of them attended the prayer, but coronavirus did,” he told Arab News.
Kocyildirim said that a visit from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Hagia Sophia the following week made it look like social distancing rules were hard to uphold inside the landmark due to the large crowds who wanted to see the president or take pictures.
“I believe those images made many health care professionals feel upset, as a sudden step like this might ruin the months-long efforts to contain the virus. While trust takes time to be established, it can be lost quickly,” he added.
Health professionals warned that several Anatolian provinces were bearing the brunt of the pandemic with a sharp rise in local cases since the beginning of June, when anti-contagion measures were relaxed and intercity travel as well as crowded wedding ceremonies were permitted.
Government reports of daily cases have been disputed by some health professionals and the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), claiming that the actual daily figure is more than 3,000. The Health Ministry has also been criticized for ignoring the filiation method as a form of contact tracing among close relatives in order to artificially decrease the number of cases and open the way for tourism and the normalization of economic activity.
“When thousands of health professionals are fighting against the disease, and when dozens of citizens lose their lives because of the pandemic, everyone and especially public authorities should have been much more responsible,” Murat Emir, a parliamentarian from the main opposition Republican People’s Party and a doctor by profession, told Arab News.
“Unfortunately, during the opening of the Hagia Sophia Mosque, thousands of citizens gathered without respecting social distancing measures and wearing face masks. Various municipalities from Anatolia organized bus tours to this opening, and nobody knows whether they got an official code from the Health Ministry for domestic travel or sat with social distancing during transit.”
Emir warned that such gatherings where social distancing measures were not applied were enough to fuel the spread of COVID-19.
To date 5,858 people have died from the virus in Turkey, according to official figures, and the country is not yet on the list of safe travel countries regularly updated by the EU.