Turkey and Russia escalate standoff in Syria

Turkey and Russia escalate standoff in Syria
A man stands on a rock in the Mazqaft water reservoir near Qahtaniyah, in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province, during Syrian Kurdish Nowruz, Persian New Year, celebrations, Mar. 21, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 22 March 2021

Turkey and Russia escalate standoff in Syria

Turkey and Russia escalate standoff in Syria
  • The Syrian Kurds have been under Russian pressure for some time to cede control of Ain Issa to Damascus
  • Ain Issa has become the focal point of Turkish and Syrian National Army attacks for a few months

ANKARA: Turkey has asked for Russia’s help in shielding northwestern Syria following mounting airstrikes in the area, which is home to 4 million people. 

The attacks are hitting civilian targets like hospitals as well as fuel facilities, which are vital for the infrastructure that Turkey wants to establish.

A missile targeted the town of Qah in northern Idlib as well as a truck and trailer park near Sarmada, wounding several civilians.

Syrian artillery also killed at least seven civilians and injured medical staff in an attack on a hospital in the rebel-controlled town of Al-Atareb. On Sunday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that strikes carried out by Russian jets hit a fuel depot in Bab al-Hawa, near the Turkish border.

The Turkish Defense Ministry sent a statement to Russia after the Qah airstrike, asking it to stop the attacks. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin.

Its request comes as Russia increases its pressure on Syrian Kurds to leave the strategically located town of Ain Issa while also trying to push Turkey back from gaining more space.

Analysts said that Russia’s latest moves in Idlib aimed to destabilize the region and undermine commercial activities.

But President Bashar Assad’s regime and Russia say they are only targeting militant Islamists.

“Turkey has only a few areas in Syria where it can really push the Russians, as needed,” Nicholas Heras, a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute in Washington, told Arab News.

“Although the Syrian Kurds are an irritant to Russia’s policy to reestablish the Assad regime’s control over all of Syria, the Kurds are also a useful chip for Russia in bargaining with Turkey and to try to convince the Kurds to pull away from the Americans.”

Ain Issa, which is held by Kurdish forces, has become a flashpoint between Turkey and Russia.

Russia expressed its displeasure a few days ago at Turkish movements around Ain Issa, viewing them as a violation of the Sochi agreement signed in Oct. 2019.

Kurdish forces withdrew 32 km back from the Turkish border under the deal, and Ain Issa is 37 km away from the frontier.

The Turks and Russians are conducting joint patrols in the area, and Russia already has a coordination center in Ain Issa.

Turkey is attacking the mainly Kurdish militia the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northwestern Syria and backs the Syrian National Army against them. It sees the YPG as a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is outlawed in Turkey and is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and EU.

Heras said that Russia’s guardianship of YPG-controlled areas in Aleppo was useful for Russia and that the Turks, who would like to take over those areas, were well aware of this.

“Turkish movements in these areas are messaging to the Russians that the Turks have the means to weaken Russia's hand in the game for control over northern Syria.”

The Syrian Kurds have been under Russian pressure for some time to cede control of Ain Issa to Damascus.

Russia is trying to avoid a military operation by Turkey in the region in order to restrict its influence, so is pressuring the YPG to withdraw or decrease its military presence.

Ain Issa has become the focal point of Turkish and Syrian National Army attacks for a few months.

Aydin Sezer, an expert on Turkey-Russia relations, expected a growing standoff by Russia that would remind Turkey about its unmet commitments on different fronts.

In January, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund signed a deal with Turkey on the co-production of its Sputnik V vaccine.

But there has been no progress so far, nor any statement from the Turkish side on how this cooperation will evolve.

Sezer also said that Russia had expressed its discomfort about Turkey’s supportive messages to Crimea and its non-fulfillment of commitments for joint energy projects.

“Russian moves in Syria and its unconditional support to Damascus should be seen from a wider perspective,” he told Arab News. “Apart from the vaccine issue, Russia is also uneasy with Turkey’s inaction in Idlib to eliminate all terrorist groups in the region in line with the Astana, Sochi and Moscow deals on Idlib.”

Russia was no longer convinced by Turkey’s longtime narrative about hitting Syrian Kurds in the region as it had the upper hand in military, diplomatic and political terms, he added.

“Therefore, the Kremlin did not even release any statement after Turkey’s Sunday announcement for helping to stop the attacks in Syria. Tensions run high and it is a consciously escalated standoff that might undermine the Turkey-Russia partnership in the region in the near term.”


UAE hits COVID-19 vaccine administration milestone

UAE hits COVID-19 vaccine administration milestone
Updated 22 April 2021

UAE hits COVID-19 vaccine administration milestone

UAE hits COVID-19 vaccine administration milestone
  • The UAE’s health ministry reported 1,931 new coronavirus cases overnight

DUBAI: The UAE hit a milestone in its nationwide COVID-19 vaccination campaign after achieving a vaccine distribution rate of 100.10 doses per 100 people.

The number signifies that at least one dose of the vaccine has been administered to all residents in the UAE. With 111,176 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine administered in the past 24 hours, the total number of doses provided now stands at 9,900,002.

The UAE’s health ministry reported 1,931 new coronavirus cases overnight, bringing the total number of recorded cases to 502,791, as well as two deaths. The COVID-19 related number of deaths in the country is now at 1,561.


Oman bars entry of travelers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as COVID-19 precaution

Oman bars entry of travelers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as COVID-19 precaution
Updated 22 April 2021

Oman bars entry of travelers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as COVID-19 precaution

Oman bars entry of travelers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as COVID-19 precaution
  • Ban on travelers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh starts on April 24

DUBAI: Oman has barred the entry of travelers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh effective on April 24 as a continuing precaution against the spread of the coronavirus disease.

The country’s Supreme Committee, tasked with tackling the coronavirus pandemic, said the ban would cover passengers who passed by any of the three South Asian countries over the past 14 days.

“The ban ‪begins at 6 p.m. on Saturday, 24 April 2021, and continues till further notice,” statement carried by state news agency ONA said.

Omani citizens, diplomats or health workers and their families arriving from the said countries are exempted and will undergo the prescribed entry procedures upon entry in the Sultanate.

The Omani government has also decided against allowing children below 12 years into commercial complexes and other trade outlets.

“The Committee instructs commercial complexes, commercial outlets, restaurants and cafeterias to comply and limit the entry therein of customers to 50% of the outlets’ capacity. Legal action will be taken against any party that fails to abide by the decisions,” the statement said.

School classes meanwhile would remain online for all public and private education institutions except for students whose personal appearance as part of their specializations are required, the committee added.

Oman reported 1,077 new coronavirus cases and 17 COVID-19 deaths overnight, bringing its caseload to 187,770 including 1,926 deaths.


Biden expected to recognize massacre of Armenians as genocide — sources

Biden expected to recognize massacre of Armenians as genocide — sources
Updated 22 April 2021

Biden expected to recognize massacre of Armenians as genocide — sources

Biden expected to recognize massacre of Armenians as genocide — sources
  • The White House would likely have “more to say” about the issue on April 24 when commemorations for the victims are held around the world annually, says Press Secretary Jen Psaki

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden is expected to formally recognize the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War One as an act of genocide, sources said on Wednesday, a move likely to infuriate Turkey and further strain already frayed ties between the two NATO allies.
The move would be largely symbolic but would mean breaking away from decades of carefully calibrated language from the White House and come at a time when Ankara and Washington are already at loggerheads over a string of issues.
Biden is likely going to use the word “genocide” as part of a statement on April 24 when annual commemorations for the victims are held around the world, three sources familiar with the matter said.
“My understanding is that he took the decision and will use the word genocide in his statement on Saturday,” said a source familiar with the matter.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday told reporters the White House would likely have “more to say” about the issue on Saturday, but declined to elaborate.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment and the White House National Security Council had no comment beyond what Psaki said.
A year ago, while still a presidential candidate, Biden commemorated the 1.5 million Armenian men, women, and children who lost their lives in the final years of the Ottoman Empire and said he would back efforts to recognize those killings as a genocide.
“Today, we remember the atrocities faced by the Armenian people in the Metz Yeghern — the Armenian Genocide. If elected, I pledge to support a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide and will make universal human rights a top priority,” he said on Twitter at the time.
Turkey accepts that many Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War One, but contests the figures and denies the killings were systematically orchestrated and constitute a genocide.

For decades, measures recognizing the Armenian genocide stalled in the US Congress and US presidents have refrained from calling it that, stymied by concerns about relations with Turkey and intense lobbying by Ankara.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had established a close bond with former US President Donald Trump, but he has yet to speak to Biden since he became president on Jan. 20.
While Turkish and American officials have held talks since then, the Biden administration has stepped up pressure on Turkey by frequently expressing its discontent over Ankara’s human rights track record, and the gap between the two sides over a host of issues including Turkey’s purchase of Russian weapons systems and policy differences in Syria remains.
Any move by Biden to recognize the mass killings as a genocide will further harm already strained ties between the NATO allies, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday.
Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group research and consulting firm, said Biden’s expected move reflected the deteriorating relationship between the NATO allies, but Erdogan’s response would be likely limited.
“Erdogan is ... unlikely to provoke the US with actions that could further undermine Turkey’s weak economy,” he said.
In 2019, the US Senate passed a non-binding resolution recognizing the killings as a genocide, in a historic move that deeply angered Turkey.
Representative Adam Schiff and a group of 100 bipartisan lawmakers sent a letter to Biden this week urging him to follow through on his campaign pledge and “right decades of wrongs.”

 


Israel strikes targets in Syria after missile attack near Dimona nuclear site

Israel strikes targets in Syria after missile attack near Dimona nuclear site
Updated 22 April 2021

Israel strikes targets in Syria after missile attack near Dimona nuclear site

Israel strikes targets in Syria after missile attack near Dimona nuclear site
  • The Israeli army said the missile landed in the Negev region and the air raid sirens were sounded in a village near Dimon
  • Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said four soldiers had been wounded in an Israeli strike near Damascus

JERUSALEM: A missile launched from Syria was fired into southern Israel early Thursday, setting off air raid sirens near the country’s top-secret nuclear reactor, the Israeli military said. In response, it said it attacked the missile launcher and air-defense systems in neighboring Syria.
The incident, marking the most serious violence between Israel and Syria in years, pointed to likely Iranian involvement. Iran, which maintains troops and proxies in Syria, has accused Israel of a series of attacks on its nuclear facilities, including sabotage at its Natanz nuclear facility on April 11, and vowed revenge. It also threatened to complicate US-led attempts to revive the international nuclear deal with Iran.
The Israeli army said it had deployed a missile-defense system but could not confirm if the incoming missile was intercepted, though it said there had been no damage. The air raid sirens were sounded in Abu Krinat, a village just a few kilometers (miles) from Dimona, the Negev desert town where Israel’s nuclear reactor is located. Explosions heard across Israel might have been the air-defense systems.
The Israeli military initially described the weapon fired as a surface-to-air missile, which is usually used for air defense against warplanes or other missiles. That could suggest the Syrian missile had targeted Israeli warplanes but missed and flown off errantly. However, Dimona is some 300 kilometers (185 miles) south of Damascus, a long range for an errantly fired surface-to-air missile.
Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said four soldiers had been wounded in an Israeli strike near Damascus, which also caused some damage. The agency did not elaborate other than to claim its air defense intercepted “most of the enemy missiles,” which it said were fired from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the missile strike or comment from Iran. But on Saturday, Iran’s hard-line Kayhan newspaper published an opinion piece by Iranian analyst Sadollah Zarei suggesting Israel’s Dimona facility be targeted after the attack on Natanz. Zarei cited the idea of “an eye for an eye” in his remarks.
Action should be taken “against the nuclear facility in Dimona,” he wrote. “This is because no other action is at the same level as the Natanz incident.”
The Dimona reactor is widely believed to be the centerpiece of an undeclared nuclear weapons program. Israel neither confirms nor denies having a nuclear arsenal.
While Kayhan is a small circulation newspaper, its editor-in-chief, Hossein Shariatmadari, was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and has been described as an adviser to him in the past.
Zarei has demanded retaliatory strikes on Israel in the past. In November, he suggested Iran strike the Israeli port city of Haifa over Israel’s suspected involvement in the killing of a scientist who founded Iran’s military nuclear program decades earlier. However, Iran did not retaliate then.
Israel and Iran are arch-enemies. Israel accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons and has opposed US-led efforts to revive the international nuclear deal with Iran. With Israel’s encouragement, then-President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.
Iran recently began enriching a small amount of uranium up to 60% purity, the highest level ever for its program that edges even closer to weapons-grade levels. However, Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes. It also has called for more international scrutiny of the Dimona facility.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said Israel will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability, and defense officials have acknowledged preparing possible attack missions on Iranian targets. Israel has twice bombed other Mideast nations to target their nuclear programs.
All the incidents come as Iran negotiates in Vienna with world powers over the US potentially re-entering its tattered nuclear deal with world powers. Negotiators there have described the talks as constructive so far, though they acknowledge the Natanz sabotage could strain the talks.
Israel’s government says the deal will not prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability. It also says it does not address Iran’s long-range missile program and its support for hostile proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.


UN reiterates it is not involved in Syrian presidential election

A poster depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad hangs along an alley in Damascus on April 21, 2021. (AFP/LOUAI BESHARA)
A poster depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad hangs along an alley in Damascus on April 21, 2021. (AFP/LOUAI BESHARA)
Updated 22 April 2021

UN reiterates it is not involved in Syrian presidential election

A poster depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad hangs along an alley in Damascus on April 21, 2021. (AFP/LOUAI BESHARA)
  • Comments came after Syria’s parliament confirmed Bashar Assad will run for re-election in next month’s poll
  • Secretary-general’s spokesman said the vote is not part of the political process set by Security Council resolution

NEW YORK: The UN on Wednesday reiterated that it is not involved in the upcoming Syrian elections and has “no mandate to be.”

In came after the Syrian parliament announced on Wednesday that President Bashar Assad will run for re-election on May 26 in what will be the second presidential election held during the decade-long civil war in the country.

“(Syria’s) elections have been called under the auspices of the current constitution and they’re not part of the political process established under Resolution 2254,” said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “For our part, we will continue to stress the importance of a negotiated political solution to the conflict in Syria.

“Resolution 2254 mandates the UN to facilitate a political process that culminates in the holding of free and fair elections in accordance with a new constitution, administered under UN supervision to the highest international standards, and that are inclusive of all Syrians including members of the diaspora.”

Pressed on whether or not his comment means the UN does not consider the elections to be free and fair, Dujarric said: “I think my words on Syria were pretty clear,” and reiterated his previous comments.

Geir Pedersen, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, has been working to support efforts to draft a new constitution as part of the political process aimed at ending the war and ensuring free and fair elections, supervised by the UN, in which all Syrians can vote, including refugees.

During a Security Council briefing last month, however, he acknowledged that due to a lack of “true engagement” by the Syrian regime, the political process has not succeeded in bringing about any tangible changes as yet, nor has it led to the adoption of a vision of the future for Syrians.

He said “free and fair elections” based on the provisions of Security Council Resolution 2254 still “seem far into the future.”

Assad has been accused by Western countries, including members of the Security Council, of deliberately delaying the drafting of a new constitution to avoid UN-supervised elections.

Last month Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the permanent US representative to the UN, asked the international community to “not be fooled by upcoming Syrian presidential elections. These elections will neither be free nor fair. They will not legitimize the Assad regime. They do not meet the criteria laid out in Resolution 2254, including that they be supervised by the UN or conducted pursuant to a new constitution.”

Barbara Woodward, the British envoy to the UN, said the UK “stands with the Syrian people to deliver all the steps enshrined in Resolution 2254: a nationwide ceasefire; unhindered aid access; the release of those arbitrarily detained; conditions for safe refugee return; and free and fair elections pursuant to a new constitution — all of which represent the only way out of this conflict.”