Will Turkey succeed with its new charm offensive?  

Will Turkey succeed with its new charm offensive?  
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech as he attends meeting of ambassadors of European Union on January 12, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 16 January 2021

Will Turkey succeed with its new charm offensive?  

Will Turkey succeed with its new charm offensive?  
  • Erdogan said that he expects to “turn a new page” in ties with Europe and “set a positive agenda” in 2021
  • Turkey also initiated the 61st round of exploratory talks with Greece on Jan. 25 to resolve longstanding conflicts

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is downplaying Ankara’s tensions with a host of countries as he launches a charm offensive on a variety of fronts. 
Meeting with the ambassadors of EU member states in Ankara on Jan. 12, Erdogan said that he expects to “turn a new page” in ties with Europe and “set a positive agenda” in 2021. 
However, his comments came at the same time as Brussels draws up an expanded sanctions list targeting Turkish individuals over Ankara’s decision to drill for offshore natural gas near Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean. The punitive measures are set to be announced in March. 
Turkey also initiated the 61st round of exploratory talks with Greece on Jan. 25 to resolve longstanding conflicts over energy rights and maritime boundaries that pushed both countries to the brink of war last year. 
Similarly, Turkish and French presidents, after trading barbs last year, especially over their divergent regional policies, recently exchanged letters in which they agreed to resume talks to improve ties. The two countries are working on a roadmap to normalize relations. 
Despite growing tensions last year over the drilling activities of the Oruc Reis research ship in contested waters off Greece, Erdogan also called for cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean rather than competition. 
Experts remain skeptical about the success of this diplomatic sea-change and the hidden motivations behind it. Whether these steps will lead to tangible gestures in the region and globally is still a matter of concern. 
Ian Lesser, vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, believes Ankara is trying to modulate its foreign policy messaging, above all with the US and the EU. 
“Part of this is tactical, including the desire to forestall or limit future sanctions, and to offset the influence of more hawkish voices within the EU,” he told Arab News. 
According to Lesser, Ankara would prefer an agenda that is more German and less French in the coming months, and this will also be read closely by the new administration in Washington.  
“With the important exception of the eastern Mediterranean, the Trump administration was not overly concerned about Turkish-EU relations or the range of issues affecting these relations. The incoming Biden administration is likely to pay more attention to migration, human rights and media freedom, all issues on the EU agenda with Ankara,” he said. 
But according to Marc Pierini, a visiting academic at Carnegie Europe in Brussels and a former EU envoy to Turkey, “we have seen this movie before.” 
“When Turkey finds itself stuck with failed policy choices, it performs abrupt U-turns, this time on monetary policy, and relations with the US and the EU,” he told Arab News. 
In the meantime, Ankara hopes to rebuild its relations with Washington under Joe Biden, and failed to react harshly to the appointment of Brett McGurk, a staunch Turkey critic, as the National Security Council’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator. 
Pierini believes that such Turkish U-turns have zero credibility.  
“You can’t say that Turkey’s future is in Europe — only weeks after saying Germany was ‘Nazi’ and France needed to get rid of its mentally impaired president,” he said, referring to the feud between Erdogan and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron last year when the Turkish leader advised Macron to have a mental health checkup over his comments on Islam. 
“While dismantling the rule of law week after week, Turkey’s leadership wants European leaders to believe that major governance reforms are around the corner and that its accession ambitions are alive,” Pierini said. 
“The same goes with NATO, at a time when Turkey has deliberately facilitated Russia’s strategic objectives against the Atlantic alliance,” he added. 
Ankara’s stubborn stance over the S-400 Russian air defense system remains a strong deterrent for any normalization with the US administration as the system is considered incompatible with the NATO version and could be used by Moscow to obtain classified details on the US F-35 jets. 
However, experts are divided about whether these efforts will prove successful.
Lesser believes that rhetoric does make a difference, and that the Turkey debate has become so critical on both sides of the Atlantic that leaders and observers are looking for concrete change on the S-400 issue and other fronts. 
“This will not be easy. There is probably a time-limited window for Ankara to demonstrate that there is substance behind these multiple signals of detente,” he said. 
For Pierini, to find a way out of these massive contradictions, EU leaders will have to strike a balance between their own credulity and the artificial narratives emanating from Ankara. 
“Before doing so, they will talk to the Biden administration,” he said. 
At the end of 2020, Erdogan also expressed a desire to mend ties with Israel amid speculation that both countries would reappoint ambassadors. 
Gallia Lindenstrauss, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, said that the drivers behind Turkey’s overtures to Israel include: Preparations for the incoming US administration; tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, and the desire to drive a wedge between Israel, Cyprus and Greece; the Abraham accords and the end of the blockade on Qatar which requires Turkey to rethink its policies toward the Middle East; and the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan that reminded Ankara of the advantages of cooperating with Israel.
Although the return of diplomatic ties is a feasible aim, she doesn’t expect any change before the Israeli elections in March and the formation of a new government. 
“However, this will not fundamentally improve relations as there is deep suspicion between the two states,” Lindenstrauss told Arab News.
“Also Israel will likely make additional demands from Turkey to show that its overtures are sincere, such as Ankara halting Hamas military activity organized on its soil and directed against Israel and the West Bank, as well as more transparency about Turkey’s projects in East Jerusalem,” she added. 


Blast at US outpost in Syria, no American injuries — US officials

Blast at US outpost in Syria, no American injuries — US officials
Updated 46 min 8 sec ago

Blast at US outpost in Syria, no American injuries — US officials

Blast at US outpost in Syria, no American injuries — US officials

WASHINGTON: A US outpost in southern Syria was attacked on Wednesday, but there were no reports of any American casualties from the blast, US officials told Reuters.
The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was too early to say who was responsible for the attack.
One of the officials said it was believed to have been a drone attack.
The garrison, known as Tanf, is located in a strategic area near Syria’s Tanf border crossing with Iraq and Jordan.
The garrison was first set up when Islamic State fighters controlled eastern Syria bordering Iraq but since the militants were driven out, it is seen as part of the larger US strategy to contain Iran’s military reach in the region.
Tanf is the only position with a significant US military presence in Syria outside the Kurdish-controlled north.
While it is not common for attacks on the US troops at the outpost, Iranian-backed forces have frequently attacked American troops with drones and rockets in eastern Syria and Iraq


Yemen counters Houthi attacks in Shabwa province

Yemen counters Houthi attacks in Shabwa province
Updated 20 October 2021

Yemen counters Houthi attacks in Shabwa province

Yemen counters Houthi attacks in Shabwa province
  • Army troops and allied tribesmen trying to regain three strategic areas Iran-backed Houthis captured in the past month

AL-MUKALLA: Yemen’s army troops and allied tribesmen on Wednesday launched counterattacks in the southern province of Shabwa with the aim of liberating three strategic areas that the Iran-backed Houthis captured during the past couple of weeks.
Local officials said hundreds of Yemeni troops attacked Houthis in the district of Bayhan and managed to recapture a military base along with a large swathe of land in the district after killing and capturing dozens of rebels.
Rashad Al-Mekhlafi, a military official at Yemen’s Armed Forces Guidance Department, told Arab News on Wednesday that military units from Shabwa’s capital Attaq, Abyan province, along with security forces also took part in the offensive in Shabwa.
“This is a well-prepared military offensive,” Al-Mekhlafi said. “There are great advances for the government forces.”
After months of relentless attacks on government forces, the Houthis have recently managed to seize control of three areas in Shabwa and the besieged Abedia district in the province of Marib. The advancement put them closer to oil and gas fields and Marib city, the main goal of their continuing offensive in the province.
In Marib, dozens of combatants were killed in fierce fighting between government forces and the Houthis outside the city of Marib as the Arab coalition intensified airstrikes in the province.
Al-Mekhlafi said that at least three Houthi field leaders were killed in fighting with government forces or in the coalition’s airstrikes. Several army officers and tribesmen were also killed in the fighting.
The focus of Wednesday’s fighting was on the Juba and Hareb districts, south of Marib city, where government forces pushed to expel the Houthis from areas they controlled during their latest incursions.
Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdul Malik pledged full support to army troops and tribesmen who have fought off relentless Houthi attacks in Marib. He also urged international aid organizations to help displaced people and civilians who come under Houthi missiles, drones, and ground strikes in Marib province.
The official Yemen News Agency (SABA) reported that the prime minister called the governor of Marib, Sultan Al-Arada, to express the government’s support with Marib’s authorities in their battles against Houthis. He also praised their handling of the desperate humanitarian situation in the city of Marib, which hosts more than 2 million internally displaced people.
Abdul Malik accused the Houthis of committing genocides in Abedia and other areas in the province. The Yemeni prime minister vowed to throw full weight behind government forces in order to win the “existential” battle in Marib.
Thousands of combatants and civilians have been killed in Marib province since early this year when the Houthis resumed a major military offensive to control Marib city, the government’s last stronghold in the northern half of the country.


UN Security Council condemns Houthi violations in Yemen, Saudi Arabia

UN Security Council condemns Houthi violations in Yemen, Saudi Arabia
Updated 21 October 2021

UN Security Council condemns Houthi violations in Yemen, Saudi Arabia

UN Security Council condemns Houthi violations in Yemen, Saudi Arabia
  • Saudi envoy to the UN Abdallah Al-Mouallimi welcomes the Security Council statement, says it constitutes a strong condemnation of the Houthis

LONDON: The UN Security Council on Wednesday condemned the threat posed by the Iran-backed Houthi militia to navigation in the Red Sea and its increasing attacks on commercial ships off the coast of Yemen.
The Security Council called on the Houthis to reduce their military escalation in Marib, lift its blockade on nearby Abedia, and for an immediate nationwide cease-fire.
The Houthi militia has stepped up its offensive to take control of the strategic city of Marib in recent weeks, following a lull in September.
The UN Security Council also condemned the Houthis’ recruitment and exploitation of children in the conflict, some of whom are subjected to sexual abuse
The top UN body also expressed its concern about the faltering peace efforts in Yemen and called on all parties to constructively implement the Riyadh Agreement.
It said it welcomes and supports the Saudi initiative to end the war in Yemen and expressed its full support for the efforts of UN envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg, calling on all parties to cooperate with him without preconditions.
The Security Council also condemned the Houthis’ attempts to target Abha International Airport in Saudi Arabia using explosive-laden drones.
Member countries also implicitly warned the Houthi militia against using Hodeidah port for military purposes, and renewed its warning of the risk posed by the lack of maintenance of a floating oil tanker moored in the Red Sea. They reminded the Houthis of their responsibility for the Safer tanker.
The Security Council stressed its full commitment to the unity, sovereignty and independence of Yemen, and emphasized the need to respect the arms embargo on Yemen.
It also expressed its support for the return of the Yemeni government to the interim capital, Aden, while also condemning an assassination attempt on the governor of Aden and the Yemeni minister of agriculture on Oct. 10.
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN Abdallah Al-Mouallimi welcomed the Security Council statement and said it constitutes a strong condemnation of the Houthi militia, Al Arabiya reported.
He also welcomed the statement on Abha airport and said he hoped that the UN envoy to Yemen has benefited from the council’s statement.


US mediator and Lebanese officials discuss future of border talks with Israel

US mediator and Lebanese officials discuss future of border talks with Israel
Updated 20 October 2021

US mediator and Lebanese officials discuss future of border talks with Israel

US mediator and Lebanese officials discuss future of border talks with Israel
  • Amos Hochstein met President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, PM Mikati and other ministers
  • Lebanon is ready “to continue to cooperate positively,” Aoun said

BEIRUT: Amos Hochstein, the US envoy appointed by the Biden administration this month to mediate Lebanon’s maritime border dispute with Israel, held talks on Wednesday with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Najib Mikati on the future of the negotiations.
Aoun expressed “Lebanon’s readiness to continue to cooperate positively” with the process. However, the points of contention remain.
“The administration of President Joe Biden is ready to help Lebanon and Israel find a mutually acceptable solution to their common maritime borders,” the State Department said.
Hochstein, who is also the State Department’s senior adviser for energy security, also met Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib, Energy Minister Walid Fayyad and army commander Gen. Joseph Aoun.
The speaker’s office said Berri’s discussion with Hochstein focused on “multiple files, particularly the demarcation of the maritime and land border between Lebanon and occupied Palestine. The framework agreement announced in October last year was confirmed.”
The US administration’s framework agreement for talks, which was implemented a year ago by Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker, includes two demarcation zones, for land and maritime borders. In accordance with the agreement, the US acts as mediator at the request of both sides.
Lebanon has been seen as struggling with the demarcation of its maritime borders. After submitting a border proposal to the UN in 2011, Lebanese officials decided that it was based on mistaken estimates and demanded an additional 1,430 square kilometers, an area that includes part of Israel’s Karish gas field. The Israelis oppose this.
Berri told Hochstein: “We have a new opportunity to resume negotiations in the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura, thanks to the new US efforts in this context.”
He also highlighted “the importance of excluding Lebanon from the sanctions of Caesar’s law in the topics of piping Egyptian gas and electricity from Jordan through Syria to Lebanon.” Lebanon has been experiencing widespread power outages as a result of fuel shortages amid a crippling economic crisis. The Caesar Act is US legislation sanctioning the Syrian government for war crimes against the Syrian people.
“The US envoy conveyed to Berri an optimistic view about positive progress being achieved in what relates to these matters,” the speaker’s office said.
Oil industry governance expert Diana Al-Qaisi told Arab News: “The US mediator has reached out to the Egyptian minister of electricity regarding redirecting the Egyptian gas into Lebanon.”
She added that Hochstein’s talks in Lebanon focused on diplomacy and how best to facilitate negotiations between Lebanon and Israel on their maritime border to agree a mutually acceptable solution, though Lebanon continues to stand firm in its demands.
Lebanese officials have yet to agree a strategy for the next phase of negotiations and their starting point for talks on the border.
The focus of Lebanese authorities then shifted on Wednesday to the nation’s financial crisis and a forensic audit of Banque du Liban, the country’s central bank. President Aoun met a delegation from the company Alvarez and Marsal, who informed him that the audit of the bank’s accounts was due to begin on Thursday morning. Aoun urged them to work quickly due to the urgency of the task.
On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund opened negotiations with the Lebanese government to agree a strategy to begin to address the country’s insolvency.
Jihad Azour, director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, stressed the need to address the losses faced by the financial sector and determine an accurate picture of the current financial situation in the country.
“Last time we had a full update of the situation was August 2020, before the resignation of the previous government, therefore many things have happened and we need to update the numbers and have a new baseline,” he said.


New violence erupts in Syria with 14 killed in Damascus bus bombing

New violence erupts in Syria with 14 killed in Damascus bus bombing
Updated 20 October 2021

New violence erupts in Syria with 14 killed in Damascus bus bombing

New violence erupts in Syria with 14 killed in Damascus bus bombing
  • Regime kills 13 in retaliatory shelling of Idlib

JEDDAH: At least 27 people died in separate attacks in Syria on Wednesday in the country’s worst day of violence for nearly five years.

Two bombs planted on an army bus in central Damascus were detonated early in the morning, killing 14 people. Video footage showed emergency crews searching the charred shell of the bus and a bomb squad defusing a third device near by.
The bombs were detonated as the bus passed near the Hafez Al-Assad bridge, close to the national museum.The capital had been largely spared such bloodshed since troops and allied militias retook the last significant nearby rebel stronghold in 2018.
“We hadn’t seen violence of that type in a long time,” Salman, a fruit seller, said at the scene. “We thought we were done with such attacks.”
The bus attack was the deadliest in Damascus since a Daesh bombing targeted the Justice Palace in March 2017, killing at least 30 people.
No one admitted Wednesday’s bombing, but the finger of blame was pointed at Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, an alliance of militants who control the northwest Idlib province. An hour after the attack, Assad regime forces began shelling the opposition-held town of Ariha in Idlib. Four children on their way to school were among 13 people killed, the highest civilian toll since a March 2020 truce brokered by Turkey and Russia effectively put fighting in Idlib on hold.
“At 8 a.m. we woke up to the bombardment. The children were terrified and were screaming,” said Bilal Trissi, a father of two who lives near by. “There are children who died and people who lost their limbs. We don’t know why, what are we guilty of?”
The Save the Children charity said the shelling caused minor damage to two schools in the area.
The UN children’s agency UNICEF condemned the shelling, which it says was a “reminder that the war in Syria has not come to an end.”
The Damascus bombing will also challenge the Assad regime’s assertion that Syria’s decade-old civil war wasover and that stability was guaranteed for reconstruction and related investment.
The conflict erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of unarmed protesters demanding regime change and it has left about half a million people dead. Bashir Assad’s position once hung by a thread, but Iranian support and Russia’s military intervention in 2015 marked the start of a long and bloody fightback.
Regime forces have recaptured nearly all key cities, while US-backed Kurdish forces still run the northeast.The regime’s main focus is now Idlib region, home to opposition forces who were forced to surrender elsewhere.
In a separate incident on Wednesday, six members of a pro-Assad militia were killed in an arms depot blast in the central province of Hama. Regime sources said a “technical error” caused the explosion.