First Russian airstrikes in three months hit northwest Syria

A youth rides a motorcycle carrying a woman and children past a Turkish armored vehicle part of a joint Turkish-Russian military patrol along the M4 highway in Ariha in the opposition-held northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. (AFP)
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Updated 04 June 2020

First Russian airstrikes in three months hit northwest Syria

  • Action, aimed to target militants, triggers a fresh wave of displacement

BEIRUT/DAMASCUS: Russian airstrikes have hit Syria’s last major opposition bastion for the first time since a March cease-fire came into force, a war monitor said on Wednesday.

The Russian strikes on Tuesday evening and at dawn on Wednesday hit an area of the northwest where the boundaries of Hama, Idlib and Latakia provinces meet, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham alliance (HTS), led by Syria’s former Al-Qaida affiliate, and its hard-line allies enjoy a significant presence in the area, the Britain-based monitoring group added.

Home to some 3 million people, the Idlib region of the northwest is controlled by HTS and affiliated militant groups.

A Russian-backed regime offensive between December and March displaced nearly a million people in the region.

Some 840,000 of the nearly 1 million remain displaced, while some 120,000 have returned to their home communities since the cease-fire went into force, according to the UN.

The truce, which coincided with the coronavirus crisis, had put a stop to the relentless airstrikes by regime forces and their Russian allies that killed at least 500 civilians in four months.

The Observatory said the latest strikes were intended to push militants away from the key M4 highway in northern Syria, where Turkish and Russian forces often conduct joint patrols as part of the truce agreement.

They were also intended to push HTS and its allies further away from the Sahl Al-Ghab area in the north of Hama province, where government and Russian forces are present, it added.

The airstrikes triggered a fresh wave of displacement from Sahl Al-Ghab and the Jabal Al-Zawiya district of neighboring Idlib, the Observatory added.

Nearly half of the 3 million people living in the Idlib region have been displaced from other parts of Syria recaptured by the regime.

After holding barely a fifth of the country five years ago, Russian intervention has helped the regime reclaim control of more than 70 percent of Syria.

In the northwest, HTS and its allies control around half of Idlib province and slivers of territory in the neighboring provinces of Hama, Latakia and Aleppo.

The war in Syria has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced nearly half of the country’s pre-war population since it started in 2011.

The month of May saw the lowest civilian death toll since the start of the conflict nine years ago with 71 civilians reported killed, the Observatory said on Tuesday.

US sanctions

A new wave of US sanctions is about to hit the Assad regime this month.

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which gained bipartisan support in Congress in December, envisages sanctions on Syrian troops and others responsible for atrocities committed during Syria’s civil war and funding for war crimes investigations and prosecutions. President Donald Trump later signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the Caesar act, into law.

Caesar is a code name for a Syrian forensic photographer who took thousands of photographs of victims of torture and other abuses and smuggled them out of the country. The images, taken between 2011 and 2013, were turned over to human rights advocates, graphically exposing the scale of the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown.

The bill applies sanctions to those who lend support to “the Assad regime’s military efforts” in the war, and grants authorities to the US secretary of state to support entities collecting evidence and pursuing prosecutions against those who have committed war crimes in Syria.

It gives the US another means to punish Bashar Assad and his allies with sanctions. Washington has already imposed sanctions on Assad and a number of his top officials, but the new authority allows foreign companies to be targeted if they are found to be supporting repression.


Tensions between Turkey, France pose threat to NATO alliance, warn experts

Updated 07 July 2020

Tensions between Turkey, France pose threat to NATO alliance, warn experts

  • Turkey ‘challenging’ international norms by breaking arms embargo on Libya, invading northern Syria, claims analyst

JEDDAH: Increasing tensions between France and Turkey were posing a threat to the cohesion of the NATO alliance, experts have warned.

Paris’ recent decision to suspend its involvement in the NATO Sea Guardian maritime security operation in the eastern Mediterranean following an incident between a French frigate and Turkish vessels, has highlighted the organization’s difficulties in maintaining order and harmony among its members.

Months of escalating dispute between France and Turkey came to a head on June 10, when Paris claimed that its La Fayette-class Frigate Courbet was targeted three times by Turkish Navy fire control radars while it was trying to approach a Tanzanian-flagged civilian cargo ship suspected of trafficking arms to Libya.

The cargo ship was under the escort of three Turkish vessels, but Ankara denied harassing the Courbet and demanded an apology from France for disclosing “improper information,” saying the ship in question had been carrying humanitarian aid.

The incident resulted in France pulling out of the NATO operation, partly aimed at enforcing a UN embargo on arms supplies to Libya, and accusing Turkey of importing extremists to Syria.

French President Emmanuel Macron said: “I think that it’s a historic and criminal responsibility for a country that claims to be a member of NATO. We have the right to expect more from Turkey than from Russia, given that it is a member of NATO.”

The classified report on the Courbet incident is expected to be discussed soon by member states of the alliance.

Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system has also angered some NATO members over concerns it could undermine Western defense systems and led to Turkey’s expulsion from the alliance’s F-35 stealth fighter jet program.

Seth J. Frantzman, executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, told Arab News: “NATO faces increasing challenges from its member state Turkey which behaves contrary to NATO’s mission and values.

“Turkey’s government has begun to violate international norms by breaking an arms embargo on the Libyan conflict and invading northern Syria, backing extremist groups, and bombing northern Iraq.

“Ankara has tried to strong-arm NATO into supporting it through threats to hold up a Baltic defense plan and also through threatening and insulting other NATO members.

“Turkey insinuated to the US that Turkey would brush US forces aside in Syria in 2019 if the US didn’t leave, it has escalated conflicts rather than reducing them, and threatened to send refugees to Greece while staking counter claims to the Mediterranean against Greek claims,” he added.

Frantzman pointed out that the controversy with France was a byproduct of this.

“NATO increasingly looks like it is being called upon to appease Ankara’s monthly crises that involve new military operations in several countries. Once a key and helpful ally of NATO, Turkey looks increasingly like it seeks to exploit its NATO membership, using it as a cover for military operations that undermine human rights, democracy, and international norms,” he said.

Turkey is seen as an important and strategic member of the military alliance. On its website, NATO says that all the organization’s decisions are made by consensus, following discussions and consultations among members. “When a ‘NATO decision’ is announced, it is therefore the expression of the collective will of all the sovereign states that are members of the alliance.”

However, recent disagreements within NATO led Macron to say that the alliance was “suffering brain death” over Turkey’s cross-border military offensive into northern Syria last year.

On Turkey’s unilateral behavior, Frantzman said: “This is part of a global rising authoritarian agenda but appears to be counter to the NATO mission that once ostensibly was about defending Western democracies from the Soviet totalitarian threat.

“This calls into question the overall NATO mission and whether NATO is now enabling Ankara’s authoritarian trend. NATO countries are generally afraid to challenge Turkey, thinking that without Turkey and with a US disinterested in global commitments, NATO would become a European club with an unclear future. For Russia that is good news as it supplies S-400 systems to Turkey, further eroding NATO,” he added.

Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, felt NATO would be able to manage the spat between France and Turkey.

“Libya isn’t really a NATO issue. It is out of the area for the alliance. I see this more as a bilateral dispute between two rival powers in the Mediterranean.

“What I worry more about is how NATO members, including both Turkey and France, are letting these bilateral squabbles seep into the North Atlantic Council. They should keep their fights to themselves.”