Why Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is seen as Iraq’s safest pair of hands

Why Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is seen as Iraq’s safest pair of hands
The assurance of support from the international community that Iraqi PM Mustafa Al-Kadhimi evidently enjoys is something that eluded his predecessors. (AFP)
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Updated 15 September 2021

Why Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is seen as Iraq’s safest pair of hands

Why Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is seen as Iraq’s safest pair of hands
  • The PM seems determined to chart a pragmatic course for his country despite challenges
  • Recently held Baghdad conference has cemented Iraq’s links with regional and Western powers

IRBIL: When explosive-laden drones targeted a US military base inside Irbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan late on Saturday, the story got buried by reports about the memorials commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

But to observers of Iraq, the incident in Irbil was the latest shot fired across the bows of a prime minister who is determined not to play into the hands of political adversaries and malign actors as he charts a course that differs significantly from those of his predecessors.

Take the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership hosted by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi on August 28. It was attended by high-level delegations from France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and the UAE in addition to the general secretaries of the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.

That the Iraqi PM managed to bring so many heads of governments and organizations under one roof, even if for only one day, was undoubtedly a major diplomatic achievement.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi listens as US President Joe Biden speaks during a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on July 26, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

The assurance of support from the international community that Al-Kadhimi evidently enjoys is something that eluded his predecessors — Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Haider Abadi and Nouri Al-Maliki — and will probably continue to be his strong suit going forward.

Few things are more daunting than having to steer the ship of state in a part of the Middle East riven by sectarian and political conflict. But being seen as a rare safe pair of hands means that true friends of Iraq, mindful of the competing interests that Al-Kadhimi has to juggle, are willing to cut him some slack, particularly in how he deals with the challenge posed by militias. 

As usual, no group claimed responsibility for the Sept. 11 night Irbil attack, but it was at least the sixth time that drones or rockets had targeted the heavily fortified site in the past year. The US blames the assaults on the Shiite-majority Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), paramilitary groups that strongly oppose the presence of American troops in Iraq.

In addition to harassing the Biden administration, analysts say, elements within the PMF are intent on influencing the outcome of the Iraqi general election next month, and undermining a carefully constructed ceasefire arranged by the government in Baghdad.

“This attack is a message from the militias directed at the United States, which is to withdraw from Iraq, and quickly,” said Nicholas Heras, a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

Noting that the attack was not particularly destructive, he added that it signaled “that the US should expect more of these strikes until it leaves Iraq. It presents an unwelcome complication to US policy on Iraq and Syria at a time when the Biden team is trying to manage the political rancor over the withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

There are at least 2,500 US troops in Iraq, most notably in the capital, Baghdad, and at the Ain Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province. The base in Irbil is an important logistical hub, supporting the military presence and anti-terrorism operations in neighboring Syria.

In July, President Joe Biden and Al-Kadhimi agreed to end the US combat mission in the country by the end of this year. The remaining troops will continue to assist Iraqi and Kurdish military forces in an advisory role.

The drone assault on Saturday was the latest in a series of often ineffective, sometimes lethal, politically motivated strikes. The first attack on Irbil airport took place on Sept. 30 last year, when six rockets were fired at it.

They did not cause any casualties or damage but they clearly demonstrated that American troops could be targeted in Iraqi Kurdistan, a largely stable autonomous region controlled by the pro-Western Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

On Feb. 15 this year another barrage targeted the airport, this time using 14 rockets, many of which landed in nearby residential areas. A civilian contractor and a Kurdish civilian were killed and eight people were injured.

On April 14, drones packed with explosives were used in an attack in the region for the first time, but there were no casualties. On June 26, a drone attack damaged a house on the outskirts of Irbil, a stone’s throw from the site where a new US consulate is being built. On July 6 another drone attack targeted American troops at the airport, but again there were no reports of casualties or damage.

Analysts have suggested the recent attacks might be deliberately designed to avoid causing US fatalities so that militia factions can be seen to be actively resisting the US military presence without provoking any large-scale retaliation.

Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, believes the intention of the most recent attack in Irbil was to undermine a ceasefire agreement arranged by Iraqi National Security Adviser Qasim Al-Araji. He announced on Friday that the government had reached a two-stage truce with the militia factions that have been targeting US troops.

The first stage envisions the cessation of hostilities until after the parliamentary elections on Oct. 10, so that Iraqis can vote in a secure and stable environment. The second stage is supposed to run until the end of the year, when the US combat mission in the country is due to formally end.

Al-Araji had “just announced he had (arranged) a ceasefire with these factions and then one group carried out this attack to thumb its nose at him,” Wing said.

He added that the central government in Baghdad and the Irbil-based KRG are trying to stop the attacks. They have increased security and intelligence efforts in the unstable, disputed territories from which the militias carry out many of their strikes. Despite this growing cooperation, however, countering drone and missile strikes is difficult.

“The security forces have found some rockets before they have been launched, but there is no real protection from drones because they can be launched from anywhere within the device’s range,” Wing said.

Al-Kadhimi has adopted a cautious yet pragmatic approach to government efforts to reduce the power of the PMF factions, while seeking to avoid a showdown that could lead to a violent conflict. He has, for example, earned praise from powerful Shiite parties by sealing the deal to end the US combat mission.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, right, receives Dubai’s Ruler and UAE Vice President Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum on his arrival for the Baghdad regional summit. (Prime Minister’s Media Office/AFP)

Substantive or stylistic, these policy adjustments have differentiated Al-Kadhimi from his predecessors, who were widely viewed as failures when it came to navigating the region’s treacherous political waters.

At the same time, Iraq’s nascent reputation as a mediator capable of bringing together regional rivals around the same table is expected to have a positive influence on Al-Kadhimi’s standing in domestic politics despite the sharp divides.

This is not to say that the going has been easy for Al-Kadhimi. In June last year Kataib Hezbollah, one of the militias under the PMF umbrella, tried to intimidate him inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, the center of Iraq’s political life, even mounting a show of force outside the prime minister’s residence. This was intended to put pressure on the government to release Kataib members arrested for plotting a rocket attack on the US embassy.

In May this year, another group of PMF fighters staged a show of strength in the Green Zone and succeeded in forcing the country’s elected leaders to release a militia commander who had been arrested in Anbar.

Abdulla Hawez, a Kurdish-affairs analyst, said that Saturday’s strike differed from previous incidents in that it came after the US and Iraq had agreed to end the combat mission, and after the militias said they would cease their attacks. He also pointed out that on this occasion the militias did not launch attacks on US interests elsewhere in Iraq.

“The message appears to be different from the other attacks — this is more Kurdistan-specific,” he told Arab News. “This one might have been a warning to the KRG that these factions will not accept the US staying in Kurdistan if there is any such attempt through US-KRG dialogue or through backchannels.”

Could the militias behind the attacks also be looking to appeal to their supporters ahead of next month’s vote?

“Anti-KRG rhetoric is popular in the south, but this alone is unlikely to tip the balance in favor of the militias, especially given that people nowadays care more about basic services and the economy and less about sectarian politics,” Hawez said.

No matter what the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 Irbil attack intended, it is unlikely to have gone down well with Iraqis who are focused less on politics and more on the basic necessities of life.

Yemen’s civilians paying the price for delisting of Houthis from US terror list

Newly recruited Houthi fighters take part in a gathering in the capital Sanaa. (AFP/File Photo)
Newly recruited Houthi fighters take part in a gathering in the capital Sanaa. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 36 min 29 sec ago

Yemen’s civilians paying the price for delisting of Houthis from US terror list

Newly recruited Houthi fighters take part in a gathering in the capital Sanaa. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Conflict mapping shows militia has killed more people since the Biden administration revoked its FTO designation
  • Saudi diplomat says the Kingdom will continue to use UN mechanisms to expose the Houthis’ true terrorist face

LONDON: Seven months after the US removed the Houthis from its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations, the militia is killing more people than before and intensifying its efforts to bring the entire country of Yemen under its extremist doctrine, according to experts.

Within days of their removal, the Houthis escalated their assault on Yemen’s Marib, a province that provides temporary shelter to thousands of internally displaced people and acts as a bastion of the UN-backed government’s pushback against the Houthis’ religious tyranny.

Six months later, the siege of Marib continues to claim lives daily — on both sides — and perpetuates Yemen’s twin humanitarian and economic crises.

If these developments in Yemen are anything to go by, one of Joe Biden’s first acts as US president has backfired badly.

“I am revoking the designations of Ansar Allah, sometimes referred to as the Houthis, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization,” Biden said on Feb. 12.

Citing the “dire humanitarian situation in Yemen,” he said the group’s inclusion on the list would only obstruct the delivery of aid.

“By focusing on alleviating the humanitarian situation in Yemen, we hope the Yemeni parties can also focus on engaging in dialogue.”

Granted, hindsight is always 20/20 but the Biden team never really tried to defend the rationale behind the move with evidence.

“The delisting gave the Houthis and, more importantly, their Iranian sponsors a sense of impunity,” Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Arab News. “The delisting also eviscerated international efforts to prevent Houthi supply and finance.”

In fact, Rubin says, the Biden administration’s justification for the delisting of the Houthis — to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid — never made sense in the first place.

“There was already an inspection regime” in place, Rubin said. “The UN had repeatedly reported on the delivery of humanitarian goods. Ironically, it was often the Houthis which prevented the delivery of goods to cities like Taiz not under Houthi control.”

In Rubin’s view, Biden’s decision to delist the Houthis may have had more to do with domestic American politics than what was best for the Yemeni people — and it may have emboldened other regional terrorist groups in the process.

“The Biden administration’s delisting had more to do with reversing what (former president Donald) Trump had done than any consideration of the realities on the ground,” he said.

“As such, Biden’s delisting for purely political reasons undermined the legitimacy of US listings and also encouraged other terrorist groups to demand delisting as a diplomatic concession.”

Drone missiles used by Houthis in Yemen in battles against the coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia and UAE. (AFP/File Photo)

Not only has the delisting failed to concretely resolve the humanitarian situation in Yemen, but it may also have cost more people their lives.

Alexander Jalil is a Middle East and North Africa analyst at the Armed Conflict Location Event Data Project, a highly specialized organization dedicated to recording instances of fatal and non-fatal violence in conflicts or politically unstable locations across the world.

Jalil told Arab News that ACLED’s data, painstakingly collected and verified based on local sources, suggests that not only were the Houthis involved in a higher proportion of the fighting in Yemen after they were removed from the terror list, but they were actually responsible for the deaths of more people.

“The events in the six months after the group was removed from the US terror designation list were also deadlier, as our fatalities count saw an increase between Feb. 12, 2021, and Aug. 12, 2021, compared to Aug. 12, 2020, and Feb. 12, 2021,” Jalil said.


* 7,998 - Number of fatalities attributed to Houthis in the 6 months prior to delisting.

* 9,312 - Number of fatalities attributed to Houthis in the 6 months since delisting.

(Source: ACLED)

ACLED’s data shows that in the six months preceding the Houthis’ removal from the terror blacklist, they were responsible for 7,998 fatalities. In the six months after they were removed, they killed 9,312 people — a rise of more than 1,314.

It is not clear exactly what caused this jump in fatalities, but Asif Shuja, a senior research fellow who specializes in Iran at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, told Arab News “the delisting of the Houthis by the Biden administration tilted the balance in favor of Iran.”

Iran has long supported the Houthis, who are ideologically aligned with Tehran’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih — or guardianship of the Islamic jurist. This ideology places supreme control of the state in the hands of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the basis of a religious worldview prescribed by his revolutionary predecessor Ruhollah Khomeini.

Saudi Arabia’s 2015 intervention in Yemen was launched in order to uphold the legitimate Yemeni government, which was forced from the capital Sanaa by the Houthis earlier that year, and to prevent further attacks on the Kingdom.

Tehran now provides funding, arms, training, and ballistic missiles to the Houthis — many of which have been turned against Saudi Arabia, its citizens, and its allies.

The Houthis unleashed a wave of ballistic missile and drone attacks against the Kingdom on Sept. 4, defying calls by the international community for a return to the negotiating table.

All of the missiles and drones were intercepted and destroyed, but falling debris from a missile shot down over Eastern Province injured a boy and a girl in Dammam city.

Falling debris also caused damage to 14 residential houses, coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Turki Al-Maliki said in a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency.

A second missile targeted the southwestern region of Najran followed by a third on the adjacent region of Jazan. Earlier that same day, coalition air defenses intercepted three booby-trapped drones launched by the Houthis.

Houthi attempts to target civilians and civilian objects are not only hostile and barbaric but also “incompatible with heavenly values ​​and humanitarian principles,” Al-Maliki told SPA.

Another attack at the end of August struck an airport in Abha, wounding eight civilians and damaging a commercial airliner.

A speech by Shiite Houthi leader Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi is screened as supporters take part in a rally. (AFP/File Photo)

“Houthi attacks are perpetuating the conflict, prolonging the suffering of the Yemeni people, and jeopardizing peace efforts at a critical moment,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement at the time.

Abdullah Al-Mouallimi, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the UN, told Arab News the Kingdom is actively working to expose the Houthi militia’s true nature as a terrorist organization through the UN Security Council.

“When we send letters to the UNSC or to the secretary-general regarding the various attacks that the Houthis try to launch against Saudi Arabia, our main objective is simply to record the fact,” he said.

Al-Mouallimi added: “We are repulsing these attacks, foiling them well before they hit targets in most cases, and we are exposing them to the international community. We are making them well known to the international community and the world at large.”

Saudi Arabia has confronted the Houthis with force but has also consistently pushed for a peaceful resolution to the war in Yemen that places the people at the heart of any political settlement. But a peaceful end to the conflict is not a goal shared by the Houthi militia.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, King Salman of Saudi Arabia said: “The peace initiative in Yemen tabled by the Kingdom last March ought to end the bloodshed and conflict. It ought to put an end to the suffering of the Yemeni people. Unfortunately, the terrorist Houthi militia rejects peaceful solutions.”


Twitter: @CHamillStewart

Sudan’s Hamdok outlines ambitions and challenges for newly free nation

Sudan’s Hamdok outlines ambitions and challenges for newly free nation
Updated 12 sec ago

Sudan’s Hamdok outlines ambitions and challenges for newly free nation

Sudan’s Hamdok outlines ambitions and challenges for newly free nation
  • Urges world leaders to work together to deliver more COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries
  • He thanked international partners, such as Saudi Arabia, who have provided assistance to Sudan’s fledgling government

UNITED NATIONS: The prime minister of Sudan’s transitional government has outlined his government’s plans for a ‘safe and stable Sudan’ and urged world leaders to work together to deliver more COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries.

“The transitional government in Sudan continues to implement policies aiming to lay the foundations for democracy and rule of law, and to promote human rights,” Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok told General Assembly delegates.

“At the same time, it aims to tackle the chronic structural problems beleaguering our economy. These programs and these policies underpin a common goal,” said Hamdok, “that is, building a safe and stable Sudan where everyone lives in peace, prosperity, freedom and justice — as expressed in the slogans of the glorious revolution of December.”

At the end of 2018 and into 2019, the Sudanese people overthrew the longtime ruler of Sudan, Omar al Bashir, bringing to an end 30 years of his autocratic rule.

Since then, he continued, “the reforms undertaken have had an effect on the most vulnerable people in our society. We’ve launched social protection programs … with the aid of regional and international partners.”

Among those international supporters is Saudi Arabia, which in May this year provided Sudan a $20 million grant to assist it with servicing its debts to the International Monetary Fund. More investment by the Kingdom in Sudan is also expected.

But while Sudan’s revolution achieved its initial goal of establishing a civilian government, the country faces a plethora of systemic and economic challenges, including economic issues and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Hamdok said that Sudan has witnessed an influx of refugees from neighboring countries and that his country does not have the resources available to effectively manage this.

“Host communities are the first providers of protection and solidarity of these people. They share their scant resources and do not, unfortunately, receive the support they require,” he said.

“Conditions in refugee camps are better than those in many host communities. The international community needs to effectively contribute to the development of these communities as part of distributing the burden involved,” said Hamdok. “More money is needed.”

Hamdok also urged regional countries to reach a lasting agreement on the Grand Renaissance Dam, which has fueled tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia, and to a lesser-extend Sudan, because of the river Nile's critical importance to each country.

The interim PM commended the role of the World Health Organization in combating the Covid-19 pandemic, which he said had hit poor nations particularly hard.

Hamdok explained that “international cooperation and multilateral action” is required to ensure people in poor countries are able to access the Covid jabs.

A cooperative and global approach such as this to ending the pandemic, he said, is “the only way to give true meaning to the slogan 'no one is safe until everyone is safe.’”

Sudanese protesters block key pipelines, says oil minister

Sudanese protesters block key pipelines, says oil minister
Updated 26 September 2021

Sudanese protesters block key pipelines, says oil minister

Sudanese protesters block key pipelines, says oil minister
  • Port Sudan is the country’s main seaport and a vital trade hub for its export-dependent economy

KHARTOUM: Sudanese protesters on Saturday blocked two key oil pipelines in Port Sudan, the main seaport on the Red Sea, over a peace deal with rebel groups, the oil minister said.

Warning of “an extremely grave situation,” Oil Minister Gadein Ali Obeid told AFP one pipeline transports oil exports from South Sudan while the other handles Sudanese crude imports.

“Entrances and exits at the port’s export terminal have been completely shuttered” since early Saturday, he said.

Last October, several rebel groups signed a peace deal with Sudan’s transitional government which came to power shortly after the April 2019 ouster of longtime President Omar Bashir.

The protesters, from Sudan’s Beja minority, say that the deal, with rebels from the Darfur region and Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, ignored their interests.

Beja rebels agreed on a peace deal with the Bashir regime in 2006 after a decade of low-level conflict in Port Sudan and the east.

Port Sudan is the country’s main seaport and a vital trade hub for its export-dependent economy.

The Khartoum government receives around $25 for every barrel of oil sold from South Sudan, according to official figures.

South Sudan produces around 162,000 barrels per day, which is transported by pipeline to Port Sudan and then shipped to global markets.

“There are enough (oil) reserves to last the country’s needs for up to 10 days,” Sudan’s oil ministry said in a statement.

It warned the export pipeline could sustain damage after demonstrators prevented a vessel from loading crude.

Protests against the October 2020 deal have rocked east Sudan since last week.

On Sept. 17, demonstrators impeded access to the docks in Port Sudan.

On Friday, demonstrators blocked the entrance to the airport and a bridge linking Kassala state with the rest of the country.

The unrest comes as Sudan grapples with chronic economic problems inherited from the Bashir regime.

Shortly after it began, the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said it had foiled a coup attempt by supporters of the ousted president.

Lebanese teacher swims 5.5 km to island off Tripoli coast to challenge obesity bullies

Lebanese teacher swims 5.5 km to island off Tripoli coast to challenge obesity bullies
Yahya Kabbara, a Lebanese math teacher, chose his own method to fight bullying by swimming 5.5 km to a rocky island off Lebanon’s coast to prove that “being overweight doesn’t impede oneself from notching achievements’. (Supplied/Yahya Nabil Kabbara)
Updated 25 September 2021

Lebanese teacher swims 5.5 km to island off Tripoli coast to challenge obesity bullies

Lebanese teacher swims 5.5 km to island off Tripoli coast to challenge obesity bullies
  • Double Ph.D., Yahya Kabbara, was bullied as a youth for being obese until he ‘notched a physical success’
  • “Classmates and friends never allowed me to play any sport with them because, according to them, my obesity always made them lose,” he told Arab News

DUBAI: Yahya Nabil Kabbara has always been perceived as academically distinguished, but not athletically, due to being subjected to nightmarish waves of bullying over his obesity since childhood.
A Lebanese math teacher, Kabbara chose his own method to fight bullying by swimming 5.5 km to a rocky island off Lebanon’s coast to prove that “being overweight doesn’t impede oneself from notching achievements.”
Since a teenager, friends and classmates never allowed Kabbara to play any sport with them because they said his “obesity makes them lose.”
“That left a scar in me and pushed me to set that personal challenge to swim to the furthest island off Tripoli’s seashore,” Kabbara told Arab News.
Born in the northern Lebanese city in 1987, the 34-year-old tutor currently teaches math for secondary classes at a public high school.
Commonly known as “Araneb Island” or “Rabbit’s Island,” his target is the biggest of three flat rocky islands that constitute the Palm Islands Nature Reserve. The three islands’ area is around 4.2 sq km.
On Sunday, Sept. 19, Kabbara put on a pair of paddles, jumped into the ocean and swam for nearly four-and-a-half hours until he reached Rabbit’s Island.
Having once weighed over 140kg, Kabbara has been training seriously by swimming, walking, hiking, mountain climbing and preparing himself mentally and physically to be able to fulfill what he describes as a “personal challenge and a message to all those who bullied him for being overweight.”
He added: “Classmates and friends never allowed me to play any sport with them because, according to them, my obesity always made them lose. That hurt me a lot … it left an aching scar in me that I always stayed alone. My family once thought I had autism,” he said.
Coming from a hardworking family, Kabbara started teaching at the age of 14 because he adores the profession and needed to earn pocket money to support his father.
Despite having two doctorates, he could not land a university job because, according to him, “you need a wasta (support from a politician or influential person), meanwhile I’ve never been affiliated to or supported any Lebanese politician.”
In 2015, Kabbara obtained a Ph.D. in applied Mathematics at the Lebanese University while also picking up a doctorate from Paris-Est Creteil University in France.  
The father of a nine-month-old daughter said the fact that he was constantly bullied at youth pushed him to work “seriously and really hard” on his fitness to prove to others that being overweight “should not cripple oneself from fulfilling their goals.”
“At a certain point of my life I realized that I have fulfilled a lot academically and that the time has come for me to accomplish something physical,” he said, reiterating that he set up his swimming challenge “to prove to himself and others that with perseverance any goal is attainable.”
Kabbara explained that the idea to swim to Rabbit’s Island was like a dream to him since childhood.
When the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) surfaced in early 2020, the 34-year-old had still been suffering from obesity and feared that lockdowns would force him to gain more weight and feel “desolate and depressed.”
“But I told myself ‘no.’ I walked as much as possible and swam a lot after borrowing my cousin’s paddles. I love swimming so I swam 300 meters, then 500. In November I swam to the nearest island, Al-Ballan. It took me an hour. Then I went to the second island of Al-Rmayleh,” said Kabbara.
“All I wanted to do is accomplish my goal and prove to myself and others that everything is possible,” concluded Kabbara, who said that he had dropped his weight to 109kg.

Ahead of Erdogan-Putin meeting, Idlib quagmire is a fresh test 

Ahead of Erdogan-Putin meeting, Idlib quagmire is a fresh test 
Updated 25 September 2021

Ahead of Erdogan-Putin meeting, Idlib quagmire is a fresh test 

Ahead of Erdogan-Putin meeting, Idlib quagmire is a fresh test 
  • Putin criticized the presence of foreign troops without a UN mandate last week during a meeting with Assad
  • Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has urged Turkey to withdraw its forces from Syrian soil immediately

ANKARA: Turkey has deployed more troops to northwestern Syria as a deterrent against any major offensive by Russian-backed Syrian forces, ahead of a meeting between the Turkish and Russian leaders next week.

Ankara is concerned that an escalation in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in northwest Syria, would push a new wave of refugees toward Turkey, which has been hosting about 4 million Syrians since the start of the conflict a decade ago.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to raise this issue during his meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Sept. 29. To what extent Russia’s position will find a common ground with Ankara is still unclear.

Last week, during a meeting between Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Russian president criticized the presence of foreign troops without a UN mandate.

Three Turkish soldiers were killed on Sept. 11 in Idlib as the Syrian regime forces have intensified their attacks.

“Russia is frustrated with Turkey’s unwillingness to expel Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham from Idlib and is using its warplanes as well as Syrian ground forces to put pressure on Turkey,” Samuel Ramani, a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, told Arab News.

Russia is holding Turkey to its 2018 commitment to separate radicals such as HTS, the dominant group in Idlib, from other rebels in Idlib. But Ankara rejects claims that it has failed to deliver on its promise.

HTS has been distancing itself from Al-Qaeda and rebranding itself as a moderate rebel group — an image makeover before the international community. But it is still designated by the US, the UN Security Council and Turkey as a terror group.

“Turkey does not view a limited escalation of this kind as a major cross-border threat but would certainly fear a refugee influx if Assad and Putin carry out a much larger assault on Idlib, which mirrored the events of late 2019 and early 2020,” Ramani said. “So Turkey’s troops are there to deter such a scenario from taking place and ensure that the status quo holds until the Putin-Erdogan meeting.”

However, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has urged Turkey to withdraw its forces from Syrian soil immediately and said he considered Turkish presence an act of occupation.

Ramani said that in the past Putin-Erdogan meetings have often reduced the conflict in Syria, for example after the Operation Peace Spring in October 2019 and Operation Spring Shield in March 2020: “So the hope is that this will happen again.”

On Sept. 24, Erdogan said he expects Russia to change its approach toward Syria as the Syrian regime poses a threat to Turkey along the southern border.

At the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Erdogan addressed the Syrian crisis, saying that “as a country that protected human dignity in the Syrian crisis, we no longer have the potential nor the tolerance to absorb new immigration waves.”

Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the Ankara think tank ORSAM, said Turkey attaches importance of retaining its place in Syrian game. 

“If it completely withdraws from the region, it will stay out of the endgame and will not have a say when a political process in Syria begins,” Orhan told Arab News.

According to Orhan, Turkey is also concerned about the presence of foreign fighters and radical elements in Idlib.

“If there were a regime offensive, they would be likely to flock toward the Turkish border and would pose a security threat not only to Turkey but to the global community,” he said.

Experts say that although it exposes the limits of their cooperation, Turkish-Russian relations will likely survive this latest round of escalation as both sides have too much to lose if their relationship is damaged.

Orhan says the deployment of Turkish troops ahead of Putin-Erdogan meeting is a symbolic move to gain leverage at the negotiation table.

“Although Russia supports the Assad regime, it also takes notice of Turkish presence in the region, as well as of cooperation in the fields of energy and defense industry. It doesn’t want to undermine them, yet tries to use Idlib card as a bargaining chip each time there is a crisis in bilateral ties,” he said.

Russia reportedly conducted about 200 aerial attacks against Idlib in September. Some of the attacks targeted zones close to Turkey’s military posts in the province. Turkey has about 80 military bases and observation posts in Idlib.

“Although Turkish and Syrian intelligence agencies have met in the past, Russia has been pushing Turkey for years to open a diplomatic communication channel with the Syrian regime. But Ankara is not willing to take this step. I expect that Erdogan-Putin meeting will de-escalate the tension in Idlib, but both leaders will test their determination before sitting at the negotiation table,” Orhan said.