Escalation continues in Idlib despite cease-fire claims

Syrian government forces earlier bombarded Khan Sheikhun in the southern countryside of the militant-held Idlib province. (AFP file photo)
Updated 15 June 2019
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Escalation continues in Idlib despite cease-fire claims

  • Intensive shelling continues targeting civilian zones in southern Idlib and the northern Hama countrysides

ANKARA: The dynamics in Syria’s latest opposition stronghold quietly shifted on Wednesday night with Russian news agencies claiming that Turkey and Russia had struck a cease-fire deal in Idlib between Syrian regime forces and opposition fighters.

However, contrary to the cease-fire claims, intensive shelling reportedly continued afterward targeting civilian zones in southern Idlib and the northern Hama countrysides. Turkey’s tenth observation post in the enclave was also attacked from the Syrian regime-held territory of Al-Shariah, wounding Turkish soldiers and damaging facilities.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry denied the cease-fire and announced that it would retaliate if regime attacks continue. The counterattacks by Syrian fighters against pro-Assad forces continued on Thursday.

Experts underline that such declarations of a cease-fire are only to provide room for maneuvering by Russia and Turkey to negotiate the dynamics on the ground in the light of their regional interests.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced since the Russian-led military offensive in northwestern Syria, which has become the scene of a serious military escalation between Assad regime forces and the fighters.

Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, DC, thinks this is not the first or last time a fragile Russian-Turkish cease-fire announced in Idlib has already been violated.

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The Turkish Foreign Ministry denied the cease-fire and announced that it would retaliate if regime attacks continue. The counter-attacks by Syrian fighters against pro-Assad forces continued on Thursday.

“The two sides have irreconcilable interests in Idlib, however they chose neither to fight if off nor to strike a deal since both scenarios have a detrimental impact on their bilateral relations,” he told Arab News. 

Moscow backs the Syrian regime, while Ankara gives its support to some opposition groups in the region.

For Macaron, the only way out of the Idlib quagmire is either the shortcut of an unwarranted military solution or the long-term arduous path of conflict resolution.

Some experts see the latest developments in Idlib from the prism of the current dynamics in relations between Moscow and Ankara, especially regarding the Russian air defense S-400 system and its approaching delivery within two months. Russian reports about the cease-fire in Idlib came hours after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey has already bought S-400s, challenging the US threat of sanctions over the purchase.

“Idlib and the S-400 delivery have become increasingly intertwined and caught up in the US-Russian tensions and Turkey’s attempt to play both sides,” Macaron said.

“Erdogan is approaching a critical moment next month where he might have to choose between coming under significant US pressure if he officially receives the S-400s and dealing with a Russian offensive in Idlib if the S-400 deal does not go through,” he said.

Erdogan would also be put under domestic pressure ahead of the June 23 Istanbul vote if any escalation in Idlib triggered massive refugee flows to Turkey, considering the deep anti-Syrian sentiments among Turkish society.

Dr. Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst on Russia-Turkey relations, thinks that the latest cease-fire in Idlib cannot be realized.

“Following the “anonymous attack” in Idlib against Turkey’s tenth observation point, Ankara blamed the Syrian regime forces, whereas the Russian Ministry of Defense pointed out the militant groups and disclosed Turkey’s request for Moscow’s assistance to counter the attack,” Has told Arab News.

“The Turkish side denied Russian claims, and both statements still have quite contradictory details if compared with each other,” he said.

According to Has, the recent incompatible views of Turkey and Russia in Idlib have two main aspects.

“First, the Sochi deal of September 2018 on Idlib was born as an absolutely ‘dead deal,’ and Ankara now has to face the realities on the ground. Moscow’s pressure intensifies as the last chance for Turkey to eliminate the terrorist groups in the region who fled away,” he said.

Has noted that a 15-20 km demilitarized zone could not be created, and the M4 and M5 highways are still close to Assad regime’s use.

“Cease-fire violations both by the regime and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, or HTS, and other militant groups never stopped, drone attacks against Russian bases keep on going. HTS now almost totally dominates the Idlib province compared to partly controlling it when the Sochi deal was reached,” he said.

Experts also note that the deepening crisis in Turkish-US relations following the S-400 decision and F-35 deadlock plays into the hands of Moscow, especially in Idlib where “horse-trading” is heating up.

New Russian weapons were monitored heading for Syria through the Turkish straits a few days ago — likely a prelude to a bigger offensive in the region.

“Most possibly, we are going to watch not a comprehensive offensive soon, but a ‘slow motion’ advancement of regime forces in Idlib at least until the first US sanctions on Turkey over S-400’s procurement,” Has said.

“It seems that the cease-fire is part of Russia’s ‘strategy game.’ So, unfortunately new ‘friendly fires’ are likely to happen again if Turkey cannot quit this awkward dilemma,” he said.


Tunisia toils to find final resting place for drowned migrants

Updated 22 July 2019
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Tunisia toils to find final resting place for drowned migrants

  • A string of deadly shipwrecks since May have left the North African country overwhelmed with bodies

GABES: A putrid odour lingers outside a morgue in Tunisia’s coastal city of Gabes as dozens of bodies of would-be migrants to Europe pulled out of the sea await burial.
A string of deadly shipwrecks since May have left the North African country overwhelmed with bodies and struggling to find them a final resting place.
More than 80 drowned migrants have been retrieved from Tunisian waters — most of them victims of a deadly July 1 shipwreck that left only three survivors.
Fished out of the sea between the port city of Zarzis and the tourist island of Djerba in the south, their bodies were brought to Gabes hospital — the only facility in the region capable of taking DNA samples.
Under pressure from civil society groups, Tunisian authorities have stepped up efforts to systematically collect the DNA of each unidentified drowned migrant, hospital director Hechmi Lakhrech told AFP.
The samples could well be the only hope of informing the victims’ families of their fate, he added.
In the basement morgue, staff use surgical masks or simple scarves to fend off the stench of bodies stacked one top of the other on the floor.
Since July 6, the numbers have “overwhelmed” the morgue’s 30-body capacity, said Lakhrech.
With just two forensic doctors and two assistants, not to mention a lack of equipment, the facility is struggling to keep them properly stored, he added.
After forensic tests, the bodies are kept at the morgue until a burial site is found, which in Tunisia is complicated, according to Gabes governor Mongi Thameur.
Many municipalities have refused to allow the drowned migrants to be buried in their cemeteries.
“Some fear the bodies carry cholera, and others refuse to bury people in Muslim cemeteries if their religion is unknown,” he told AFP.
It comes down to “a problem of mentality and also of humanity in some cases,” he said, adding that many people needed to be “sensitised.”
At the Bouchama cemetery, the only one in Gabes to have so far accepted migrant bodies, 16 graves dug off to the side lie empty.
“My parents are resting here, I don’t want non-Muslims to be buried by their side,” said one local resident.
In front of the hospital, the stifling midday heat beats down as 14 white bags are carefully loaded onto the back of a garbage truck.
Once loaded, it will make the two-hour journey to Zarzis, where an improvised cemetery flooded with the bodies of migrants for several years is now full, and a new one has just been opened.
Each grave is marked with a simple plaque bearing the victim’s DNA file number and burial date.
“On July 12, we collected 45 bodies in one day!” said Zarzis deputy mayor Faouzi Khenissi, calling it a “phenomenal problem.”
The city has taken in the bodies “because we have this culture, we can’t just leave the remains unburied,” he said.
Zarzis is a hotspot for illegal departures to Europe and Khenissi says some of the city’s own youth have also been victims of the wrecks.
Municipal workers and officials take shifts volunteering after work to conduct the burials.
After three hours of prep under the blazing sun, 14 bodies are buried alongside the 47 others already laid to rest at the new site, just outside a shelter for rescued migrants.
Mongi Slim of the country’s Red Crescent called for “international mobilization” to address the issue which “does not concern Tunisia alone.”
“The country is already struggling to take care of rescued migrants, but even more so for those who’ve died.”