Turkey’s new military deployment in Idlib puts spotlight on Syria

A Syrian rebel fighter looks on while on guard duty in the west of Tal Abyad in Raqqa province, along the front-line with Syrian Kurdish forces. (AFP)
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Updated 03 October 2020

Turkey’s new military deployment in Idlib puts spotlight on Syria

  • How Turkey’s new military build-up will be considered by Moscow or whether it will lead to new concessions between the two countries

Despite claims that the South Caucasus is the new flashpoint for Turkey and Russia, the recent military reinforcements in Syria hint that the balance in the province is still fragile and could provoke a regional crisis.

On Friday, a Turkish military convoy, with.  more than 25 armored vehicles and trucks carrying logistical materials, entered northwestern Idlib province to reinforce Turkish military points in the area.

How Turkey’s new military build-up will be considered by Moscow or whether it will lead to new concessions between the two countries, which back opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, are still a source of concern.

Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, thinks that this military reinforcement is likely to disturb Russia because the Kremlin expects Turkey to reduce its military presence in Syria, mainly in the area south of the M4 highway, which runs parallel to the Turkish-Syrian border.

“Russia began allowing the regime to mobilize some of its forces in the area south of the M4. There will not be a huge military confrontation, but there may be some artillery attacks from the regime on where Turkish forces are located,” he told Arab News.

The number of Turkish military vehicles in the area is estimated to have exceeded 9,750 in the past seven months.

Russia refused to conduct new joint patrols as long as there is instability in the area.

The latest joint military drill of Turkish and Russian troops recently was held in Idlib on Sept. 21.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced on Sept. 22 that the two countries will resume joint patrols in northern Syria when the situation stabilizes after the attacks by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) targeting the Russian Hmeimim airbase.

Kyle Orton, a UK-based researcher on Syria, said Turkey’s military build-up in Idlib is intended as a message that Ankara will not surrender the remaining parts of the province.

“Turkey gave up more territory than expected and certainly more than many of its Syrian proxies were hoping. But the Turkish government does have a real red line: it needs a buffer area to keep the terrorists and refugees out of Turkey,” he said.

He sees this as a response from Turkey to recent signals from Damascus and Iran that another offensive is coming in Idlib, indicating that Ankara will resist any such action.

“The Russians are unlikely to be too alarmed by Turkey’s actions; Moscow is content to leave Turkey with Idlib, but Moscow cannot control the Assad and Iranian system, which has as its ultimate goal the reconquest of every inch of Syria,” he said.

In the meantime, the Turkish Presidency submitted a motion to parliament on Oct. 1 to extend its authority to launch cross-border military operations in northern Iraq and Syria for another year until Oct. 30, 2021. The motion underlines Turkey’s continued “security responsibilities” in northern Syria, east of the Euphrates River and in the Idlib province.

According to Ruwan Al-Rejoleh, an independent analyst in Washington, DC, there has always been talk about a “new operation” in Idlib, the last rebel bastion.

“All players have been anticipating it, preparing for it and promoting it every once in a while but the pandemic conditions postponed it. Russia has an interest in controlling all the M4 highway,” Al-Rejoleh said.

The regime forces and Russian fighter jets have recently increased their attacks on HTS and other terror groups in Idlib province with heavy bombardments.

The March agreement that was brokered between Russia and Turkey required the establishment of a security corridor around M4 highway, cleansing the area from radical elements as well as conducting joint patrols to serve a buffer between regime forces and rebels.

During a video conference on Saturday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “Turkey will wipe out terror zones in Syria if others fail to keep their promise.”

According to Al-Rejoleh, the problem remains in the defining who are the terrorist groups between Turkey and Russia.

“While Turkey sees the existence of armed separate entities operating in northeastern Syria, such as People’s Protection Units (YPG) which are connected to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as the immediate threat to its borders, Russia’s priority is to get rid of HTS, an internationally designated terrorist group, and other Syrian opposition armed groups that have connections to Turkey either through direct support or through Turkish intelligence channels,” she said.

On the Syrian front, Al-Rejoleh added, Turkey and Russia are likely to come to an agreement about possible concessions, where Turkey will “again” give up control of certain parts of Idlib in return for pressure-relief in other conflict zones or potentially the elimination of certain figures affiliated with PKK and a guarantee to prevent any new wave of refugees.

US officials: Iran sent emails intimidating American voters

Updated 22 October 2020

US officials: Iran sent emails intimidating American voters

  • Intelligence director: “These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries”

WASHINGTON: US officials accused Iran on Wednesday of being behind a flurry of emails sent to Democratic voters in multiple battleground states that appeared to be aimed at intimidating them into voting for President Donald Trump.
The announcement at a rare, hastily called news conference just two weeks before the election underscored the concern within the US government about efforts by foreign countries to spread false information meant to suppress voter turnout and undermine American confidence in the vote.
The activities attributed to Iran would mark a significant escalation for a nation that some cybersecurity experts regard as a second-rate player in online espionage, with the announcement coming as most public discussion surrounding election interference has centered on Russia, which hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 election, and China, a Trump administration adversary.
“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” said John Ratcliffe, the government’s top intelligence official, who, along with FBI Director Chris Wray, insisted the US would impose costs on any foreign countries that interfere in the 2020 US election and that the integrity of the election is still sound.
“You should be confident that your vote counts,” Wray said. “Early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.”
Wray and Ratcliffe did not describe the emails linked to Iran, but officials familiar with the matter said the US has linked Tehran to messages sent to Democratic voters in at least four battleground states that falsely purported to be from the neo-fascist group Proud Boys and that warned “we will come after you” if the recipients didn’t vote for Trump.
The officials also said Iran and Russia had obtained voter registration data, though such data is considered easily, publicly accessible. Tehran used the information to send out the spoofed emails, which were sent to voters in states including Pennsylvania and Florida.
Ratcliffe said the spoofed emails were intended to hurt Trump, though he did not elaborate on how. An intelligence assessment released in August said: “Iran seeks to undermine US democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections. Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on online influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-US content.”
Trump, speaking at a rally in North Carolina, made no reference to the press conference but repeated a familiar campaign assertion that Iran is opposed to his reelection. He promised that if he wins another term he will swiftly reach a new accord with Iran over its nuclear program.
“Iran doesn’t want to let me win. China doesn’t want to let me win,” Trump said. “The first call I’ll get after we win, the first call I’ll get will be from Iran saying let’s make a deal.”
Both Russia and Iran also obtained voter registration information, though such data is considered easily, publicly accessible. Tehran used the information to send out the spoofed emails, which were sent to voters in states including Pennsylvania and Florida.
Asked about the emails during an online forum Wednesday, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said she lacked specific information. “I am aware that they were sent to voters in multiple swing states and we are working closely with the attorney general on these types of things and others,” she said.
While state-backed Russian hackers are known to have infiltrated US election infrastructure in 2016, there is no evidence that Iran has ever done so.
The voter intimidation operation apparently used email addresses obtained from state voter registration lists, which include party affiliation and home addresses and can include email addresses and phone numbers. Those addresses were then used in an apparently widespread targeted spamming operation. The senders claimed they would know which candidate the recipient was voting for in the Nov. 3 election, for which early voting is ongoing.
Federal officials have long warned about the possibility of this type of operation, as such registration lists are not difficult to obtain.
“These emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections,” Christopher Krebs, the top election security official at the Department of Homeland Security, tweeted Tuesday night after reports of the emails first surfaced.