Syria regime forces surround Turkish army post

Syrian army soldiers in Idlib province. The Syrian regime has upped the stakes with Turkey in its months-long Russian-backed offensive in the region. (Reuters)
Updated 23 August 2019

Syria regime forces surround Turkish army post

  • The town of Morek, where the Turkish troops have been cut off, lies in Hama province, part of the region centered on neighboring Idlib province that has been under government assault
  • Extremists and allied rebels withdrew ahead of the army’s entry into the strategic town of Khan Sheikhun on Wednesday and government forces took control without resistance

BEIRUT: Syrian government forces surrounded a Turkish observation post in the northwest Friday after overrunning nearby areas, sparking anger from Ankara which vowed not to leave its outpost.
Speaking at a news conference in the Lebanese capital, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said “our observation point there is not cut-off and nobody can isolate our forces and our soldiers.”
“We are there, not because we can’t leave but because we don’t want to leave,” he said, adding that the issue was being discussed with Damascus allies Russia and Iran.
The Syrian regime has upped the stakes with Turkey in its months-long Russian-backed offensive against the extremist-ruled Idlib region.
Moscow said on Friday that it has agreed with Ankara to “activate mutual efforts” to ease the situation in Syria’s last major opposition bastion.
The town of Morek, where the Turkish troops have been cut off, lies in the north of Hama province, part of the region centered on neighboring Idlib province that has been under government assault since late April.
Government forces took control of Morek and nearby towns including Kafr Zita on Friday, Syrian state news agency SANA said.
Extremists and allied rebels withdrew from the area ahead of the army’s entry into the strategic town of Khan Sheikhun on Wednesday and government forces took control without resistance, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Regime forces have surrounded the Turkish observation post in Morek after capturing other towns and villages in this pocket,” said the Britain-based monitor.
The Morek observation post, established under a deal with Moscow, is one of 12 the Turkish army set up along the front line between Syrian government forces on one side — and the extremists and Ankara’s rebel allies on the other side — last year.
On Tuesday Cavusoglu vowed that the Turkish army “will do whatever is necessary” to defend these positions.
The Turkish presidency has also said that it will not abandon any of its observation posts in Syria.
The Turkish troops’ mission was to oversee the establishment of a buffer zone agreed by Ankara and Moscow in September.
But the extremists failed to pull back from the zone as agreed and in April, government and Russian forces resumed intense bombardment of the region.
The Kremlin on Friday said that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to “activate mutual efforts” to ease the situation in the Idlib region.
“They discussed the issues of Russian-Turkish cooperation in the context of stabilization of the de-escalation zone,” a statement said.
Erdogan is to host his Russian and Iranian counterparts for a summit in Ankara next month to discuss the latest developments.
The Turkish presidency on Friday said regime attacks in Idlib have led to a “grave humanitarian crisis.”
“These attacks damage the efforts to regulate the Syrian conflict,” it said.
The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper on Friday said the latest regime gains in Idlib will force amendments to the buffer zone deal.
Since January, the Idlib region has been ruled by the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham alliance, which is led by extremists from Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Other rebel groups allied with Turkey were forced to cede overall control.
On August 8, Syrian government forces launched a ground offensive with Russian support against the southern part of the rebel-held region, eyeing control of the main highway from Damascus through Idlib province to second city Aleppo.
Khan Sheikhun and Maarat Al-Numan both lie along the highway.
The Syrian army on Friday said that its military “push is ongoing,” after it captured Morek and neighboring areas.
“Armed terrorist groups have lost the ability to stop our army’s heroes” it said.
Damascus said Thursday it will open a corridor for civilians to leave the area.
But most civilians had already fled before the pocket was cut off, according to the Observatory.
Since the end of April, more than 400,000 people have fled their homes, particularly in the south of Idlib and north Hama, the United Nations says.
Around 900 civilians have been killed, according to the Observatory.
Following a string of victories against extremists and other rebel groups, Assad’s government now controls around 60 percent of Syrian territory.
The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people since it started with the brutal suppression of anti-government protests in 2011.


Syria pistachio farmers return to orchards after years of war

Updated 5 min 32 sec ago

Syria pistachio farmers return to orchards after years of war

  • Many farmers hope this season would mark the revival of what was once a leading industry

MAAN: Pruning scissors in hand, Syrian pistachio farmer Fadi Al-Mahmoud inspected his orchard, hoping for his first harvest after years of war, as nearby army de-miners swept the ground for buried explosives.
“I will be fine as long as my orchard is fine,” said the 40-year-old, who returned to his village of Maan in the north of battle-scarred Hama province only months ago, after years of displacement.
The region, long a center of Syria’s famed pistachio production, was controlled for years by extremists and rebels, but it fell to President Bashar Assad’s government forces early this year.
After the violence subsided, many farmers like Mahmoud returned, hoping this season would mark the revival of what was once a leading industry, its produce beloved across the Middle East.
“The pistachio tree is the lung that allows the villages of the Hama countryside to breathe,” Mahmoud told AFP during a break from pruning the trees with shears and a small saw.
Parting the green leaves, he examined the pistachios, looking for the purple hue on their greenish cream-colored outer casing that indicates they are ready to be picked.
Syria was once a top exporter of the green nut that is widely used in sweets and sprinkled on ice cream across the Middle East.
The country produced up to 80,000 tons a year before the start of the conflict in 2011, mostly for export to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and Europe.
In 2013, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Syria was still the world’s fourth largest pistachio producer after Iran, the United States and Turkey.
But years of bitter fighting blocked access to Syria’s best pistachio regions in Hama, Aleppo and Idlib provinces, leading production to plunge by more than half during the war, according to the agriculture ministry.
Of more than 70,000 hectares (170,000 acres) of farm land alloted for pistachio growing in the northwest, a quarter has been damaged by war, said Hassan Ibrahim, director of the ministry’s pistachio department.
Mahmoud said that on his farm, “some tree branches had withered, and there were trenches and land mines scattered all around.”
“I hope I can start to make up for the losses during the war,” he said.
He explained that pistachio orchards “require a lot of care.”
“They must be plowed four times a year and sprayed with pesticides twice annually or more.”
Although the battles have died down, danger still lurks in the soil in the form of anti-personnel mines and other unexploded ordnance left behind by rebels and jihadists.
The authorities “have sent teams to sweep the area,” Ibrahim told AFP.
Outside the village, where the skeleton of a charred vehicle sits in an arid field, Syrian army de-miners swept the rust-brown earth with metal detectors for remnants of war.
A loud blast echoed across the land as they detonated a land mine.
Another local pistachio farmer, Ibrahim Ibrahim, recalled harvests before the war.
“We used to pluck tons from our trees every year and distribute them in local markets or export them,” said the 55-year-old.
The nuts “make up our main source of income.”
“This is the first year that farmers re-enter their lands without fear,” he said.
“I hope... this year we will see production rise to pre-war levels.”