Ankara, Damascus discuss potential normalization after years of broken ties

Special Ankara, Damascus discuss potential normalization after years of broken ties
Widespread protests were staged in northern Syria over a proposal from the Turkish foreign minister for reconciliation between the Syrian regime and the opposition. (AFP)
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Updated 16 August 2022

Ankara, Damascus discuss potential normalization after years of broken ties

Ankara, Damascus discuss potential normalization after years of broken ties
  • Turkey will continue to temporarily provide security in some northwestern territories in Syria if they normalize bilateral relations, analyst tells Arab News

ANKARA: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s revelation that he met his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad last October on the margins of the Non-Aligned Movement summit hinted at the possibility of Ankara and Damascus seeking political rapprochement after 11 years of a rupture in ties. 

Cavusoglu reportedly talked with his counterpart in Serbia’s capital Belgrade about the need to come to terms with the opposition and the Assad regime in Syria for a lasting peace. 

The Turkish foreign minister emphasized that his country supported Syria’s territorial integrity as “the border integrity, territorial integrity and peace of a country next to us directly affect us.”

The pro-government Turkiye newspaper recently claimed that Assad and Erdogan may hold a telephone conservation after Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed this during his recent meeting with Erdogan in Sochi. However, Cavusoglu denied rumors about any talks between the Syrian and Turkish presidents.

Having conducted four cross-border military operations in Syria since the start of civil war in 2011 to clear its border from terror groups, Turkey also has a significant military presence through observation posts in northern parts of the country. 

Since 2017, Turkey, Iran and Russia have come together through Astana meetings to try to bring the warring sides in Syria toward finding a permanent solution to the war. 

It is not a secret that the Turkish and Syrian intelligence services have been communicating. 

However, as Turkey has backed rebel groups fighting the Assad regime, the latest signs of a potential normalization of bilateral ties has angered opposition groups who held mass protests in several areas of northern Aleppo to demonstrate their objections, fearing renewed diplomatic contact with the Assad regime. 

Turkey’s bid for peace with the Assad regime might also have repercussions for the fate of more than 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey who have become a domestic politic issue due to the economic hardship the country is facing. 

Before the outbreak of the civil war, Turkey and Syria had close relationships at the top level, often exemplified by the famous summer holiday of Syrian President Bashar Assad with his family at Turkey’s Aegean resort town of Bodrum where he also met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2008. 

“Given the durability of the Assad regime, Ankara has to have a modus vivendi of sorts; in fact, it exists already at the level of intelligence agency chiefs,“ Rich Outzen, senior fellow at Atlantic Council and Jamestown Foundation, told Arab News.  

“The political risk for President Erdogan of a rapid or warm reconciliation is incredibly high, though, so the understanding is likely to be incremental and limited,” Outzen said.  

According to Outzen, botching re-engagement would mean compromising the viability of the Turkish-protected safe zone, leading to a new waves of refugees, or inviting new massacres by Assad among populations Ankara wants to protect and to remain in place. 

“Yet the lack of a modus vivendi is also not sustainable over the long-term, because inevitably pressure will grow internationally and within Turkey for Turkish forces to have a pathway to withdrawal, even if the pathway is measured in multiple years,” he said. 

For that reason, Outzen thinks that fears of a rash or rapid reconciliation or re-engagement are overstated. 

“Putin, of course, pressures Erdogan to re-engage, but Erdogan will in my view resist any but the minimum measures to maintain his own freedom of maneuver in Syria,” he said. “As this week’s protests in the Safe Zone demonstrate, going too fast in this process can prompt a backlash among Syrians in northern Syria and perhaps ultimately in Turkey.” 

According to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish program at the Washington Institute, while Turkey’s endgame in Syria is an Erdogan-Assad handshake, Ankara and Damascus are moving northwestern Syria into a frozen conflict.  

“I don’t think that an arrangement between Turkey and Syria will result in a complete reset of two countries borders and border affairs because many of the Syrians who live in the zones controlled by Turkish-backed forces have been already effectively cleansed by Assad, in some cases twice,” he told Arab News.

“There is zero chance that they would stay in Assad regime-controlled Syria if both leaders shake hands or make exchanges of territories,” he said. 

Cagaptay thinks that Turkey will recognize Assad’s sovereignty over the area, but will continue to temporarily provide security as well as law and order in some in northwestern territories in Syria, while also keeping millions of Sunni Arabs Assad does not want and has no interest in making full citizens again. 

“Assad may even come back to border stations with the Syrian republic flag and might begin to provide some of the social services,” he told Arab News. 

For Cagaptay, the big favor that Turkey is doing for Assad is keeping Syrians refugees inside the country and in northwest Syria under Turkish control, and not forcing them to return to Syria. 

“That is a huge favor to Assad because he used the war in Syria for ethnic engineering. Before the war, Sunni Arabs constituted over two-thirds of the Syrian population, but now they are under half. In return for that favor, Assad can propose to re-ingest the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG under his control. It is a good deal for Erdogan and Turkey,” he said.  

Turkey considers the YPG a national security threat and the extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. 

For Aydin Sezer, an Ankara-based analyst, the possibility of re-engagement with the Assad regime will be used for domestic consumption ahead of the approaching election term scheduled for June 2023 at a time of deepening economic turmoil in Turkey.

“There is significant external pressure to make this reconciliation happen, while the economic burden of hosting millions of Syrian refugees inside Turkey and the rising cost of deploying military officers to the observation posts in Syria also make this issue financially important for the internal dynamics,” he told Arab News. 

Turkey has about 5,000 troops within the areas it controls in Syria, along with some 8,000 soldiers around rebel-held Idlib province, whose maintenance is costing Ankara billions of dollars and risks confrontations with Assad and foreign powers over territory violation. 

“Although the rapprochement cannot happen overnight, it is significant that the ruling government as well as the opposition parties have begun discussing it,” Sezer said. 

Erdogan recently hinted at a fresh operation into Syria to create a 30 km-deep safe zone from the border to push back Kurdish militants, but any military activity does not look imminent following several warnings from regional powers.


Turkish minister says deadly gun attack was ‘America-based’

Turkish minister says deadly gun attack was ‘America-based’
Updated 25 sec ago

Turkish minister says deadly gun attack was ‘America-based’

Turkish minister says deadly gun attack was ‘America-based’
  • Two suspected Kurdish militants opened fire on security force lodgings in the Mediterranean province of Mersin late on Monday, killing one officer and wounding a second officer and a civilian

ISTANBUL: Turkey’s interior minister on Saturday described a gun attack that killed a police officer in the country’s south as an “America-based” operation.

Two suspected Kurdish militants opened fire on security force lodgings in the Mediterranean province of Mersin late on Monday, killing one officer and wounding a second officer and a civilian. The female attackers, who Turkish authorities said were affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, later killed themselves by detonating suicide bombs.

“This action is an America-based action,” Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu told ruling party officials in the Black Sea province of Giresun, according to the private Demiroren news agency and other outlets.

Soylu also said US authorities had requested the serial numbers of the firearms used in the attack from the Turkish police, without specifying which US agency made the request.

Turkish government officials have previously accused Washington of supporting the PKK by arming and training the group’s Syrian branch, known as the YPG.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the 38-year on-off conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU. The US does not recognize the YPG, which helped combat the Daesh group in Syria, as a terrorist entity.

Soylu last year alleged American involvement in a failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016 that killed more than 250 people.


Israeli forces kill Palestinian teenager in West Bank

Israeli forces kill Palestinian teenager in West Bank
Updated 10 min 48 sec ago

Israeli forces kill Palestinian teenager in West Bank

Israeli forces kill Palestinian teenager in West Bank
  • The shooting happened in Azariyah, a village just outside of Jerusalem, and marked the latest violence in what has become the deadliest year in the West Bank since 2015

JERUSALEM: Israeli forces on Saturday shot and killed a Palestinian teenager in the occupied West Bank after a group of youths smashed a hole through the Israeli separation barrier and began throwing objects at police.

The shooting happened in Azariyah, a village just outside of Jerusalem, and marked the latest violence in what has become the deadliest year in the West Bank since 2015.

Amateur video shared on social media showed a group of masked youths gathered in front of the towering concrete barrier and chanting slogans as they forced their way through a gate.

“Walk forward our popular fans,” they chanted. “A hole in the separation wall, a patrol explodes.”

Israel’s paramilitary border police said forces shot a protester who attempted to throw a firebomb at them as they came to disperse a demonstration.

It said demonstrators threw stones and explosives at them.

The Palestinian Health Ministry identified the dead youth as 18-year-old Fayez Damdoum.

Israel built the barrier some 20 years ago in what it said was a security measure meant to prevent attackers from entering Israel.

But the barrier frequently dips into the West Bank, carving off nearly 10 percent of its territory.

The Palestinians view the structure as an illegal land grab and symbol of Israel’s 55-year military occupation of the territory.

Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war.

Some 700,000 Israeli settlers now live in the two areas, which the Palestinians claim for a future state.

Saturday’s killing came at a time of heightened tensions. Israel has been carrying out stepped-up military activity in the West Bank, mostly in the northern cities of Jenin and Nablus, following a series of deadly Palestinian attacks inside Israel last spring.


Iraq PM condemns Iran attacks on Kurdistan, calls on forces to maintain security

Iraq PM condemns Iran attacks on Kurdistan, calls on forces to maintain security
Updated 01 October 2022

Iraq PM condemns Iran attacks on Kurdistan, calls on forces to maintain security

Iraq PM condemns Iran attacks on Kurdistan, calls on forces to maintain security

LONDON: Iraqi ministers on Saturday condemned an Iranian drone bombing campaign targeting bases of an Iranian-Kurdish opposition group in northern Iraq on Wednesday, which killed at least nine people and wounded 32 others.

The comments came during an extraordinary ministerial council meeting for national security, which was chaired by Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, and attended by the defense and interior ministers, as well as a number of security leaders.

“The attendees affirmed their rejection of the Iranian bombing, which caused great damage, stressing their rejection of attempts to use Iraq as an arena for settling scores,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

“The meeting recommended that the government and the responsible authorities continue to take all necessary measures to stop these behaviors.”

The meeting also recommended that the country addresses “all that contradicts the principle of good neighborliness which Iraq believes in,” pursues relations with its neighbors, and deal with security challenges through diplomatic channels and joint security cooperation.

Al-Kadhimi called on “security committees in the governorates to bear their full responsibility for maintaining security, not to allow chaos to terrify citizens, and cause security disturbances that negatively affect the activities and daily life of the people there.”

The Iraqi leader stressed the need for all political forces to confront their national responsibility, adopt a national dialogue to resolve crises, strengthen the rule of law, address the issue of uncontrolled weapons, and eliminate armed militias that threaten people’s security and civil peace.

He also praised “the peaceful demonstrators who were keen to advance their legitimate demands for a country free of corruption and reform, and to preserve freedom of expression from any extraneous practices that harm its constitutional and human essence.”

Al-Kadhimi was referring to demonstrations in the capital, Baghdad, to mark the anniversary of anti-government unrest that erupted in 2019.


US citizen allowed to leave Iranian prison for a week -lawyer

US citizen allowed to leave Iranian prison for a week -lawyer
Updated 01 October 2022

US citizen allowed to leave Iranian prison for a week -lawyer

US citizen allowed to leave Iranian prison for a week -lawyer
  • UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said Baquer Namazi is being allowed to leave Iran for medical treatment
  • It was unclear if Siamak's furlough might be a step toward his full release

DUBAI: Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman who has been imprisoned in Iran for nearly seven years, has been allowed out of Tehran’s Evin prison on a one-week, renewable furlough, his lawyer Jared Genser told Reuters on Saturday.
United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said in a statement that Siamak’s father, Baquer Namazi, is being allowed to leave Iran for medical treatment.
Baquer Namazi was convicted in Iran of “collaboration with a hostile government” in 2016 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Iranian authorities released him on medical grounds in 2018 and closed his case in 2020, commuting his sentence to time served but effectively barring him from leaving the country.
His son, Siamak, was convicted of the same charge and has been held in Evin prison since 2015. The US government has described the charges against both as baseless.
It was unclear if Siamak’s furlough might be a step toward his full release, nor whether it signals the possible furlough or release of other US citizens detained in Iran.
“I am thrilled for the Namazi family that for the first time in seven years Siamak Namazi is sleeping at home with his family,” Genser, who represents the family, told Reuters, saying Siamak was staying with his parents at their Tehran apartment.
“This is a critical first step but of course we will not rest until the entire family is able to return to the United States and their long nightmare is finally over,” Genser added.


Mother’s ‘Village of Hope’ paves way for disabled rights in Egypt

Mother’s ‘Village of Hope’ paves way for disabled rights in Egypt
Updated 01 October 2022

Mother’s ‘Village of Hope’ paves way for disabled rights in Egypt

Mother’s ‘Village of Hope’ paves way for disabled rights in Egypt
  • The Village of Hope is an association for the development and social rehabilitation of the disabled

CAIRO: An Egyptian mother of a disabled child who established a village in Alexandria Governorate to support her son and people with disabilities is reaping the benefits of her noble project.

Nada Thabet, a member of parliament, who set up Al-Amal, or the “Village of Hope,” told Arab News: “I gave birth to a baby 42 years ago, and after a few months, I noticed that he does not see me and does not move like normal children. When I traveled abroad with him, the doctors told me that he is disabled and will need special training and treatment.”

Thabet tried to help her son integrate into society by homeschooling him, ignoring antiquated, insensitive advice from doctors who advised her to treat the boy like a “pet cat or dog.”

At the time, Thabet struggled to find a school for children with disabilities in 1980s Egypt. “I and several other mothers tried to establish one class in Alexandria at St. Mark’s College School to teach people with disabilities.

“We started with three children, then the number grew with the increasing awareness of mothers and fathers about the necessity to educate the disabled.”

For the Village of Hope, Thabet chose the location in the Burj Al-Arab area, on the outskirts of Alexandria.

“My family owns a large plot of land in that area, but the place was initially a desert, so we greened it with plants and paved a road to reach the site. The main idea behind the village was to create a place to train the disabled in handicrafts. When we started promoting the village, only five children joined us,” she said.

“First, we set up a bakery, then we experimented with agriculture, which turned out to be a great success because children learned from nature, then the number of children increased, and it has been constantly increasing ever since,” Thabet added.

The village also has a carpentry workshop. It organizes seminars for disabled children and their families to increase awareness and help them deal with their children’s disabilities.

“Now, more than 40 children are enrolled in the village, some of whom spend the day and then go home with their families, while others reside in the village and go to their families only for two days because of long distances,” said Thabet.

The Village of Hope is an association for the development and social rehabilitation of the disabled. It also encourages NGOs to support its cause and spread the culture of volunteerism in a way that guarantees the rights of the disabled.

Thabet devoted herself to public and voluntary work in Egypt 15 years ago. “All the children and people suffering from disabilities who joined the association have seen a great improvement that makes us feel that we have succeeded, and contributed to their rehabilitation and integration in Egyptian society. We also help them launch their products in the market," she said.