Assad forces threaten Turkish observation posts in Idlib

Turkish military vehicles pass through Maaret al-Numan in Syria's northern province of Idlib on August 22, 2019, heading back to Turkey after a reported two-day mission into Syria. (AFP / Omar Haj Kadour)
Updated 23 August 2019

Assad forces threaten Turkish observation posts in Idlib

  • Turkey unilkely to withdraw from positions before next month’s three-way summit, says analyst

ANKARA: Syrian regime forces opened fire on a Turkish observation post No. 8 eight — in Sirman, Maarat Al-Numan in southeastern Idilb — on Thursday morning. Observation post No. 9, in the town of Morek, is reportedly surrounded as well.

The observation post in Sirman is of strategic importance due to its location in the north of Khan Sheikhoun —  an area which regime forces, supported by Iranian-backed foreign militia and Russian forces, have targeted in recent days.

Khan Sheikhoun is the fourth-largest town in Idlib and has been under the control of opposition forces for five years. It is situated on the M5 highway, which connects Aleppo to Damascus and is an important supply route for the rebels.

Although all Turkey’s observation posts in Syria are manned, experts have warned of a looming security threat as Syrian regime forces have intensified their military operations in the area despite the presence of the posts.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are expected to discuss Idlib at next month’s meeting in Ankara.

Two Turkish soldiers have been killed by mortar strikes on observation posts in recent months, with 12 military staff wounded. On Monday, an airstrike on a Turkish military convoy killed three civilians who were heading toward observation post number eight.

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s most-recent statement on the matter — saying that Turkey has to honor the Idlib agreement — could be seen as another faultline opening up between the two partners on their Syria policy. Ankara and Moscow agreed last September to create a de-escalation zone in Idlib to prohibit acts of aggression. 

Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, told Arab News that Turkey should not retreat from the Morek observation post, adding that there is no obvious escape route from the area.

“Turkey committed in the last few days to hold its observation post. If they retreat from the area, they will break their commitments and it will make them look very bad in front of the international community and even the opposition they support,” he said. “Northern Hama is empty now, in terms of civilians. Turkey is conducting negotiations to control this area.”




Civilians flee a conflict zone in Syria’s northwestern region of Idlib, where regime attacks have killed hundreds since late April. (AFP)

Saban said Turkey “will not withdraw from its observation posts before the next Astana meeting with Russia and Iran in September.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to host Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for a summit in Ankara on Sept. 16.

They will discuss Idlib as well as the establishment of a constitution commission and how the political process should continue, said Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.

Ammar Hamou, a Jordan-based Syrian journalist, said that all indications suggest the regime has no intention of halting its military action, and that its intention is to seize control of the M5 highway.

Hamou said that there is a feeling among Syrians that Turkey is the “silent guarantor,” because it did not react strongly to the regime’s violations on the borders of the de-escalation zone four months ago.

He said he did not expect that Turkey would move its observation posts unless the regime exceeds the limits of the Turkish-Russian agreement. “The silence of Russia on the regime’s excesses in terms of the Astana agreement is not strange.” 

Hamou  told Arab News: “The Turkish-Russian-Iranian agreement (based on) the Astana talks provides for the protection of safe areas like Eastern Ghouta, southern Syria, Homs, and Idlib. Today, three of them are, with Russian support, under the regime’s control.”

Hamou believes that Ankara is extremely dissatisfied by Russia’s silence on the Syrian regime’s violations of the agreement, but that the Turkish government is unwilling to risk the deterioration of its relationship with Moscow.

Under the de-escalation zone deal of last year, Turkey was required to ensure the withdrawal of extremist groups and heavy weaponry from that zone.

With Syrian militants withdrawing from several positions in the region, Ankara is also concerned that the fighting may cause a further influx of displaced people into Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees. 

The Syrian regime has opened a corridor in the village of Soran, on the southern part of the opposition-held area, to allow civilians to escape.


Iraqis aim to rekindle protests with Iran football match

Updated 6 min 15 sec ago

Iraqis aim to rekindle protests with Iran football match

  • Victory over Iran, in the match whose venue has been changed to neighboring Jordan, could light a fire under the weeks-long protest movement.
  • Demonstrators have criticized Iran for backing the very government they want to bring down, accusing Tehran of economic and political overreach in Iraq

BAGHDAD: For Iraqis opposed to the Baghdad government and its sponsor Tehran, there is even more than football at stake when Iraq faces Iran in a World Cup qualifier on Thursday.
Anti-regime rallies at the epicenter of protests in the capital’s Thrill Square have faded in recent days, following a spree of arrests, threatening messages and killings of activists.
Hussein Diaa hopes that victory over Iran, in the match whose venue has been changed to neighboring Jordan, could light a fire under the weeks-long protest movement.
“If our team beats Iran, it will bring more people out onto the streets and lift protesters’ spirits,” said the 24-year-old, kicking a football around in Tahrir.
Behind him stood Al-Jumhuriyah bridge, the main frontline between angry protesters and security forces using tear gas, live rounds and at times machine-gun fire.
“Our players have to give their all so we can hold our heads up high and confront Iran,” said Diaa.
Demonstrators have criticized Iran for backing the very government they want to bring down, accusing Tehran of economic and political overreach in Iraq.
The two countries fought a 1980-1988 war and were rivals under Saddam Hussein, but the predominantly Shiite states have grown close since the dictator was ousted in the 2003 US-led invasion.
The ensuing years saw Iraq swept up in sectarian violence and a war against the Daesh group, and FIFA banned international football matches on its territory.
The match between the two football-mad nations was to have been played in the southern port city of Basra.
But FIFA said it had assessed “the current security situation in Iraq” and informed the local federation that upcoming matches “must be played on neutral ground.”
It accepted Iraq’s proposal to change the venue to Amman.
FIFA’s decision came as a blow to Iraq after global football’s governing body had only earlier this year finally lifted a three-decade ban on it hosting internationals for safety reasons.
For Ahmad Al-Washa, Thursday’s match couldn’t come at a better time.
“Football is the best way to send a message to the whole world. We’re betting on this match,” said the activist.
Washa hoped it could be a way to attract international attention to the protests “so the United Nations can intervene and end the bloodshed.”
Well over 300 people have died since protests erupted on October 1 and 12,000 people have been wounded, but rallies have continued in Baghdad and across the south.
And when the game gets underway, the “Lions of Mesopotamia” will have fans “not just in Amman, but all across Tahrir,” said Washa.
Activists have erected a large screen to watch the match from 5:00 p.m. (1400 GMT), usually the time when crowds start to swell in the square.
They will be expecting solidarity from the large Iraqi diaspora in Jordan.
Some have already posted online to call on fans in the stadium to wear medical masks in solidarity with protesters confronted by tear gas back in Iraq.
Other activists have called for fans to stand up in the 25th minute and chant, “We want a country!” — a key slogan of the protest movement and an ode to the day it was relaunched, October 25.
Sensing the encounter on the field could be heated, the head of Iraq’s football federation has been trying to head off any skirmishes.
“No racist banners against the Iranian team, otherwise FIFA could punish us,” he warned.
In more than a dozen showdowns between the national teams, Iran have won 11 times, with six wins for Iraq and two draws.
On Tahrir, Hussein Jawwad said the match could be a shot at a desperately-wanted win, both for the team and the protests.
“We’ve been targeting our leaders recently but on Thursday night, we’ll be aiming for the Iranian football team in Amman,” said the 25-year-old fan.

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