Idlib still turbulent despite virus agenda

Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, disinfects a tent for the displaced in Idlib as part of efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus. (AFP)
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Updated 26 March 2020

Idlib still turbulent despite virus agenda

  • Extremist factions, not controlled by Turkey have been harshly criticized for destabilizing activities

ANKARA: Three weeks after the signing of a cease-fire agreement, Ankara is expected to do its homework to uphold its shaky March 5 deal with the Kremlin on Idlib and to ensure full security along the strategic M4 highway.

After their first joint patrol on March 15 was cut short due to local protests against the presence of Russian troops, the Turkish and Russian military conducted a second joint patrol along the M4 highway on the section of the highway linking the cities of Aleppo and Latakia on March 23.

Again, the route of the second joint patrol had to be reduced over security concerns because of tough local dynamics, with some armed factions trying to block joint patrols along the highway.

“The first priority of Turkey and Russia now is to ensure the security of the M4 highway linking Syria’s east and west and to eliminate any potential risk of attack. Establishing the safe passage along this road is our specific duty right now and we have to fulfill it within the upcoming months,” Aydin Sezer, an Ankara-based Middle East analyst, told Arab News.

Turkey recently established three new military posts in the Jisr Al-Shughour countryside in Idlib, located in the villages of Badama, Al-Najiya and Al-Sainiya.

Extremist factions that are not controlled by Turkey, especially Caucasian and Central Asian fighters, have been harshly criticized for continuing their destabilizing activities in Idlib — recently detonating improvised explosive devices on the route of a Turkish convoy patrolling the village of Sfukhon in Idlib province.

The explosions damaged two armored vehicles and injured two Turkish soldiers on March 24. Ankara did not, however, release any official statement about the injury of its troops.

The attack on Turkish soldiers came just four days after the country’s first reported casualties since the cease-fire of early March. Two Turkish soldiers were killed and another was injured in a rocket attack by radical groups in Idlib.

“The Turkish side pledged in the near future to take measures to neutralize radical extremist groups that impede the movement of columns of joint patrols of the M4 highway in the security corridor,” the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria recently reported.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Damascus on March 23, the same day of the joint patrols with the Turks, for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The visit came just three days after Putin and Assad had a telephone conversation about developments in Idlib.

Turkey’s military is responsible for patrolling up to 6 km deep to the north of the security corridor being set up around the M4 highway, while Russian forces will patrol 6 km deep to the southern flank in the war-torn country’s last rebel bastion. Turkish-backed rebels are also expected to remain in place for not torpedoing Putin-Erdogan agreement of March 5.

As part of the implementation of the Astana de-escalation agreement of 2017, control groups keep monitoring the compliance with the cease-fire conditions and detecting some cease-fire violations in Idlib province.

In the meantime, humanitarian actions are being carried out for the Syrian population with a total of 4,021,4074 tons of humanitarian cargo delivered so far, according to data from the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria on March 25.

According to Sezer, there are signs of an impending escalation in northwestern Syria that are similar to the incidents in early February, and “the silence from Turkish authorities by not commenting either on any injury or on the implementation of the March 5 deal confirms it.”

While the Assad regime accuses Turkey of backing rebel sabotage of joint patrols in Idlib, some rebel groups, including Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), rejected the Moscow deal. Some other groups such as Hurras Al-Din, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria with a considerable number of foreign terrorist fighters in its ranks, is also seen as a rising threat.

“Turkey is expected to distinguish moderate armed opposition and terror groups in Idlib. If Ankara cannot persuade them to lay down arms, it has to enter into a fight to meet the commitments under the Moscow deal. What Russians expect is the total restoration of order in these territories. Therefore, it is early to anticipate a definite success from the Turkish side,” Sezer said.

Last month at least 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in a single attack by Russian-backed regime forces. During February, 60 Turkish soldiers died in Idlib.

Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

Updated 26 November 2020

Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

  • Erdogan defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts
  • Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq: analyst

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied the country has a “Kurdish issue,” even as he doubled down on his anti-Kurdish stance and accused a politician of being a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Erdogan was addressing members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Nov. 25 when he made the remarks.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched an insurgency against the state in 1984, and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and US. Erdogan accuses the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of links to the PKK, which it denies.

Erdogan told AKP members that Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s former co-chair who challenged him in the 2015 presidential elections, was a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Demirtas has been behind bars since Nov. 4, 2016, despite court orders calling for his release and faces hundreds of years in prison over charges related to the outlawed PKK.

The president defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast region since local elections in March 2019.

He also said the AKP would design and implement democratization reforms with its nationalistic coalition partner, which is known for its anti-Kurdish credentials.  

His words are likely to disrupt the peace efforts that Turkey has been making with its Kurdish community for years, although they have been baby steps. They could also hint at a tougher policy shift against Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

According to Oxford University Middle East analyst Samuel Ramani, Erdogan’s comments should be read as a reaction to Tuesday’s resignation of top presidential aide Bulent Arinc, who urged for Demirtas to be released and insisted that the Kurds were repressed within Turkey.

“This gained widespread coverage in the Kurdish media, including in Iraqi Kurdistan's outlet Rudaw which has international viewership,” he told Arab News. “Erdogan wanted to stop speculation on this issue.”

Ramani said that Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

“It is also an oblique warning to US President-elect Joe Biden not to try to interfere in Turkish politics by raising the treatment of Kurds within Turkey.”

But Erdogan’s comments would matter little in the long run, he added.

“Much more will depend on whether Turkey mounts another Operation Peace Spring-style offensive in northern Syria, which is a growing possibility. If that occurs during the Trump to Biden transition period, the incoming Biden administration could be more critical of Turkey and convert its rhetoric on solidarity with the Kurds into action.”

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been a key partner for the US in its fight against Daesh. During a campaign speech in Oct. 2019, Biden criticized the US decision to withdraw from Syria as a “complete failure” that would leave Syrian Kurds open to aggression from Turkey.

“It’s more insidious than the betrayal of our brave Kurdish partners, it’s more dangerous than taking the boot off the neck of ISIS,” Biden said at the time.

UK-based analyst Bill Park said that Erdogan was increasingly influenced by his coalition partners, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

“He might also believe that both the PKK and the HDP have been so weakened that he doesn't have to take them into consideration,” he told Arab News. “The Western world will not respond dramatically to this announcement but they are tired of Erdogan. There is little hope that Turkey's relations with the US or the EU can be much improved. The Syrian Kurdish PYD militia are seeking an accommodation with Damascus, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan, is indifferent to the fate of Turkey's Kurds and has problems of its own.”

The HDP, meanwhile, is skeptical about Erdogan’s reform pledges and sees them as “politicking.”

“This reform narrative is not sincere,” said HDP lawmaker Meral Danis Bestas, according to a Reuters news agency report. “This is a party which has been in power for 18 years and which has until now totally trampled on the law. It has one aim: To win back the support which has been lost.”

Turkey’s next election is scheduled for 2023, unless there is a snap election in a year.