Middle East countries heighten efforts to control coronavirus as more cases emerge

The virus has infected over 240,000 people globally. (File/AFP)
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Updated 21 March 2020

Middle East countries heighten efforts to control coronavirus as more cases emerge

  • Saudi Arabia has suspended domestic flights, trains, buses and taxis for two weeks in the Kingdom

DUBAI: Countries in the Middle East have been implementing new measures to fight the spread of COVID-19, which has already infected over 240,000 people globally and has killed nearly 10,000.

Friday, March 20 (All times in GMT)

20:15 - The United Arab Emirates health ministry announced on Friday its first two deaths from coronavirus, UAE official news agency WAM said.
The two deaths are for cases that suffered from previous health conditions, the agency said.

20:10 -  Israel reported its first fatality from the coronavirus on Friday, an 88-year-old man who also suffered from previous illnesses.
The Health Ministry said in a statement the man had been brought to the hospital about a week ago in serious condition.
Israel has so far reported 705 cases of coronavirus, the large majority with mild symptoms. About 10 patients are in serious condition and 15 have recovered completely.

20:03 - Egypt on Friday registered 29 new coronavirus cases, the health ministry said in a statement, bringing the total to 285.
The ministry said there was one new fatality, bringing the total number of deaths to eight.

19:38 -  The United Arab Emirates suspended entry of citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states until the approval of a pre-examination mechanism, starting at midnight today, Emirates News Agency (WAM) said on Friday quoting the foreign ministry. 

18:45 -  French health authorities reported 78 new deaths from coronavirus, taking the total to 450 or an increase of 21 percent, the toll rising less sharply then the two days before as extra measures to enforce the national lockdown were locally announced. The number of cases had risen to 12,612, up from 10,995 on Thursday.

17:25 - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told cafes, pubs and restaurants across the country to close on Friday night and to stay shut indefinitely to help slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
"We are telling cafes, bars and restaurants to close tonight as soon as they reasonably can and not to open tomorrow," Johnson told reporters in Downing Street. "Though to be clear, they can continue to provide takeout services.
"Some people may of course be tempted to go out tonight, and I say to those people, 'please don't,'" Johnson said.
He said the government had to enforce the closure of cafes, pubs, restaurants as well as gyms and leisure centres to slow the spread of the virus.
"We're also telling nightclubs, theatres, cinemas, gyms and leisure centres to close on the same timescale," Johnson said. "The sad thing is today, for now, at least physically, we need to keep people apart."

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (L) and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) attend a news conference addressing the government's response to the coronavirus outbreak. (File/AFP)

Britain's government will pay businesses hit by the coronavirus outbreak not to lay off workers, as part of what finance minister Rishi Sunak said would be an unprecedented economic intervention.
"Today I can announce that for the first time in our history the government is going to step in and pay people's wages," Sunak said at a news conference, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered the closure of pubs and eat-in restaurants.
Sunak said the government would give grants to cover 80% of a worker's salary if businesses kept them on staff.

19:05 - Saudi Arabia announces 70 new cases of coronavirus, 58 of which are related to attending social events.

16:15 -  Canada will no longer accept irregular migrants trying to cross the shared border with the United States and will instead return them to US authorities, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday.
The move marks a significant change in tactics from the Liberal government, which earlier this week had said those traversing the frontier would be put into quarantine.
"This is a temporary measure which we'll put in place for as long as the coronavirus crisis lasts. These are exceptional measures to protect citizens," Trudeau told a news conference.

16:00 - US President Donald Trump said on Friday he had put the Defense Production Act into action after saying earlier this week he would invoke the measure but essentially put it on hold until needed.
The measure is meant to allow the US government to speed production of masks, respirators, ventilators and other needed equipment to fight the coronavirus outbreak.
Trump said he put the measure into action on Thursday evening.

The United States and Mexico have agreed to restrict non-essential travel across their border beginning on Saturday because of the coronavirus outbreak, the US announced Friday.
US President Donald Trump said the move, similar to one already announced with northern neighbor Canada, was necessary to prevent the "spread the infection to our border agents, migrants, and to the public at large."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at a White House briefing that trade between the United States and Mexico would continue.

US President Donald Trump addresses his administration's daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington, US, March 20, 2020. (Reuters)

15:46 - A further 39 people have died in England after testing positive for the coronavirus, bringing the total number of confirmed deaths in the country to 167, the National Health Service said on Friday.
The patients who died were aged between 50 and 99 and had underlying health conditions.

14:30 - The number of journeys on London's underground train network has fallen by around 70% and on buses by roughly 40% as the authorities advised against all but essential travel due to the coronavirus outbreak.
"The financial impact of the reduction in our services and other business interruption caused by the response to COVID-19 virus is part of the collective national and global fight to control the spread of COVID-19," Transport for London (TfL) said.

14:00 - Tunisian President Kais Saied on Friday ordered a general lockdown, restricting public movement to counter the spread of the coronavirus.
Speaking in a televised broadcast, Saied said he was asking the majority of people to stay at home and stopping movement between Tunisian cities. 

13:50 - Saudi Arabia announced new emergency stimulus measures on Friday that took its support for the economy to more than $32 billion as it battles the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and lower oil prices.

The Saudi central bank said last week it had prepared a SR 50-billion ($13.32 billion) package to help banks and small and medium-sized enterprises cope with the economic impact of the coronavirus.

Under the package announced by Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan on Friday, SR 70 billion will be set aside to help businesses, with measures such as exemptions and postponements of some government fees and taxes.

Business owners will be allowed to postpone value-added tax (VAT), excise tax, and income tax payments for a period of three months, the minister said in a statement.

Expat fees, which the government charges for hiring expatriates and obtaining visas for their dependents, will also be cancelled for a three-month period.

13:45 - The United States said Friday it was suspending all routine visa services around the world due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
US embassies and consulates will still consider emergency visas if they have adequate staff, the State Department said.
"In response to significant worldwide challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of State is temporarily suspending routine visa services at all US embassies and consulates," a travel advisory said.

13:30 - Jordan will impose a countrywide lockdown from Saturday to combat the coronavirus, barring people from moving except for emergencies, the government said.
The measures will apply from 0700 local time (0500 GMT) on Saturday until further notice, said Amjad Al Adailah, government spokesman.
King Abdullah has enacted an emergency decree giving the government sweeping powers to enforce an army-imposed curfew and other measures that infringe on civil and political liberties.

11:43 – Saudi Arabia announced a 120 billion Saudi riyals worth of initiatives to implement urgent measures to mitigate the impact of coronavirus on the Kingdom’s economic activities, including the private sector.

11:40 – Vietnam’s health ministry said it will quarantine all foreign arrivals from March 21.

11:27 – Switzerland has confirmed the numebr of coronavirus cases in the country at 4,840.

11:16 – Georgia has completely suspended air traffic with other countries, a government spokesman said.

11:00 – Singapore has reported 40 new coronavirus cases, taking tally to 385, a health ministry official said.

10:51 – Up 10,000 people have now died worldwide from the coronavirus pandemic, French news agency AFP reported.

10:41 – Iran’s death toll from the new coronavirus outbreak rose by 149 to 1,433 on Friday, a health ministry official tweeted, adding that that total number of confirmed infections had increased by 1,237 to 19,644.

10:15Belgium has passed 2,000 coronavirus cases, an official said.

10:15 – The UAE has renewed entry procedures for Gulf Cooperation Council citizens starting Saturday March 21.

10:14 – Iran health ministry official said 1,433 have died so far from new coronavirus, and the number of infected cases has risen to 19,644.

10:11 – Austria said it was extending its coronavirus restrictions until April 13.

09:36 – Malaysia has recorded 130 new coronavirus cases, bringing total to 1,030.

09:35 – South Africa has confirmed new cases of covid-19 on Friday, bringing toll from 52 to 202.

09:24 – Cape Verde has confirmed its first case of coronavirus on Friday.

09:12 – German coronavirus fatalities increased by 11 to 31 overnight and the number of confirmed cases rose to 13,957, according to the Robert Koch Institute.

08:32 The government of Hong Kong has confirned 48 new cases of coronavirus on Friday, a record day high for the country.

08:32 – Kuwait has recorded 11 new cases of coronavirus on Friday.

08:27 – The Philippines has recorded 13 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, raising total to 230. One additional death has been reported, bringing death toll to 18.

Workers wearing protective suits disinfect a street as a preventive measure against coronavirus in Manila, Philippines. (AFP)

07:57 UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said if people do not follow the advice then the country may need to impose further tougher measures.

07:45 – French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the government will take additional measures to limit people’s movements if necessary.

07:15 – Qatar has removed exit visa requirements for an additional segment of its foreign labor force, including some of those working in the oil and gas industry, according to official tweets posted on Friday.

06:21 Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree on Friday postponing all events related to science, culture and art, as it seeks to contain a surge in coronavirus cases.

06:25Oman has raided street vendors in Muscat for violating health precautions on Friday.

04:32 – Thailand has reported 50 new cases of coronavirus on Friday, bringing the total to 322.

03:30 – Saudi Arabia has suspended domestic flights, trains, buses and taxis for two weeks in the Kingdom on Friday, as it heightens its efforts against the new coronavirus. 

Thursday, March 19 (All times in GMT)

20:36 – Egypt has reported one death and 46 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of infected cases to 256 including 28 recovered patients and seven deaths.

Meanwhile, the government has suspended activities in cinemas and theaters as part of the country’s efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus in the country, local press reported on Thursday.

20:13Export of medicines, pharmaceutical and medical devices will be halted, the Saudi Customs announced on Friday in a circular sent to its land, sea and air customs ports as part of the Kingdom’s efforts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus COVID-19, state news agency SPA reported.

19:59 – The UAE’s National Corporation for Tourism & Hotels, NCTH, announced the exemption of tenants of retail shops and restaurants at its hotels from paying rents for three months, as part of the country’s efforts to fight against the new coronavirus COVID-19.

18:47 – Oman’s Ministry of Health has confirmed nine new coronavirus cases in the country, bringing the total number of infected cases to 48.

“Eight citizens and one expat have been infected with the virus,” the ministry said.

18:37 – The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has established a helpline for residents who are affected by the two-week suspension of re-entry to the country.

Holders of valid residence permits overseas and their family members and first-degree relatives in the UAE can call the helpline 0097124965228 for enquiries and assistance for humanitarian and emergency cases to ensure their safe return to the UAE, the ministry said in a report by state-run WAM.

17:57 – Kuwait’s health ministry reported three new recovered cases, bringing the total number of recoveries in the country to 18.

14:45 – The UAE has helped evacuate 80 people from Iran including 74 South Koreans and six Iranian family members on Thursday, a step the country has taken in response to a request by the South Korean government due to the coronavirus outbreak in the Islamic Republic

14:05 – Abu Dhabi’s tourism department has suspended sea cruises, desert camps, safaris and floating restaurants on Thursday evening, as a preventive measure against COVID-19.

10:23 – The International Air and Transport Association (IATA) has appealed to governments in the Middle East and Africa to support the aviation industry, as it takes major blows from the coronavirus outbreak

13:25 – Jordan imposes nationwide curfew starting noon March 21st.

Iran condemns Israeli attack on Yemen’s Hodeidah port

Updated 2 sec ago

Iran condemns Israeli attack on Yemen’s Hodeidah port

  • Kanani added that Israel and its supporters, including the United States, were “directly responsible for the dangerous and unpredictable consequences of the continued crimes in Gaza, as well as the attacks on Yemen”

TEHRAN: Iran has condemned Israel’s deadly retaliatory strike on the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah in Yemen that the rebels say killed six people and wounded dozens more.
Late on Saturday, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani “strongly condemned” the attack saying it was “an expression of the aggressive behavior of the child-killing Israeli regime“
Israeli warplanes on Saturday struck the vital port of Hodeidah in response to a deadly drone attack by the Iran-backed Houthis on Tel Aviv, which killed one civilian.
The Houthi rebels have since threatened a “huge” retaliation against Israel.
Kanani added that Israel and its supporters, including the United States, were “directly responsible for the dangerous and unpredictable consequences of the continued crimes in Gaza, as well as the attacks on Yemen.”
Regional tensions have soared since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October, drawing in Iran-backed militant groups in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels, along with the Hezbollah group in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza are part of a Tehran-aligned “axis of resistance” against Israel and its allies.
The Islamic republic has reiterated support for the groups but insisted they were independent in their decision-making and actions.


Insect infestation ravages North African prickly pear

Updated 59 sec ago

Insect infestation ravages North African prickly pear

  • Tunisian authorities estimate that about 150,000 families make a living from cultivating Opuntia

CHEBIKA, Tunisia: Amor Nouira, a farmer in Tunisia’s Chebika village, has lost hope of saving his prickly pear cacti, ravaged by the cochineal insect spreading across North Africa.
The 50-year-old has seen his half-hectare of cactus crops wither as the invasive insect wreaked havoc on about a third of the country’s cacti after an outbreak in 2021.
“At first, I wanted to experiment with prickly pear production and gradually develop investments while looking for customers outside the country, especially for its natural oil,” said Nouira.

A member of the Dar Si Hmad Foundation inspects prickly pear cacti affected by cochineals in the Sidi Ifni region along central Morocco's Atlantic coast on June 29, 2024. (AFP)

“But... as the cacti became damaged, I abandoned the idea of investing and stopped thinking about it altogether.”
Prickly pear is consumed as food and used to make oils, cosmetics and body-care products.
In Chebika, as in other rural areas in central Tunisia, many farmers’ fields of prickly pear — also known as Opuntia — have been spoiled by the cochineal, which swept through North Africa 10 years ago, beginning in Morocco.

A trident lady beetle (Hyperaspis trifurcata) eats cochineal insects on a prickly pear cactus leaf in the Sidi Ifni region along central Morocco's Atlantic coast on June 29, 2024. (AFP)

The insect, like the prickly pear, is native to the Americas and feeds on the plant’s nutrients and fluids, often killing it.
The infestations have resulted in significant economic losses for thousands of farmers reliant on prickly pear, as authorities struggle to combat the epidemic in a country where its fruit is widely consumed as a summertime snack.

Tunisian authorities estimate that about 150,000 families make a living from cultivating Opuntia.

A member of the Dar Si Hmad Foundation sprays prickly pear cacti affected by cochineals in the Sidi Ifni region along central Morocco's Atlantic coast on June 30, 2024. (AFP)

The North African country is the world’s second-largest producer of its fruit, after Mexico, with about 600,000 hectares of crops and a yield of about 550,000 tons per year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Only production allocated for export — about a third of overall crops — has remained in good condition, said Rabeh Hajjlaoui, head of the department of plant health at Tunisia’s agriculture ministry.
“We’re making every effort to save these plants, which are an important source of income to some locals,” he explained, as one liter of extracted Opuntia oil can be sold for as much as $4,200.
Farmers also plant prickly pear cacti for their resistance to drought and desertification, and sometimes use them to demarcate and fence property in Tunisia and neighboring Libya.
In Morocco, where the first cases of cochineal were found in 2014, Opuntia is cultivated over a total of 160,000 hectares.
In 2016, the Moroccan government issued an “emergency plan” to combat cochineal infestation by experimenting with various chemicals, burying infected cacti and conducting research on developing variants resilient to the insect.
Despite the plan, by August 2022, about 75 percent of Opuntia crops in Morocco had been infested, according to Mohamed Sbaghi, a professor at Rabat’s National Institute of Agricultural Research (INRA) and the emergency plan coordinator.
In neighboring Algeria, authorities recorded an outbreak in 2021 in Tlemcen, a city near the border with Morocco.
Prickly pear cultivation in the country covers around 60,000 hectares, and the fruit is so cherished that a festival dedicated to it is held every year in the eastern Kabylia region.

Neither the plant nor cochineal is native to North Africa, but the region’s dry climate helped them spread, said Tunisian entomologist Brahim Chermiti.
“Climate change, with increasing drought and high temperatures, facilitates their reproduction,” he told AFP.
The region has experienced severe drought in recent years, with declining rainfall and intense heat.
Chermiti believes it’s a matter of “public safety” to combat cochineal infestation, requiring “strict border crossing monitoring and public awareness.”
The researcher fears total contagion, as “sooner or later, it will spread, with the help of many factors such as the wind and livestock.”
Hajjlaoui, from Tunisia’s agriculture ministry, said the issue could even cause social unrest if it spreads to farms in marginalized areas, such as Tunisia’s Kasserine governorate, where Opuntia is nearly the only source of livelihood for many.
He said the “slowness of administrative procedure” during the first major outbreaks in Tunisia impeded efforts to stem the spread of cochineal.
At first, Morocco and Tunisia burned and uprooted infected crops, but authorities now aim for “natural resistance” to the insect, said Hajjlaoui.
Last summer, Morocco’s INRA said it identified eight cochineal-resistant Opuntia varieties that could potentially be cultivated.
The other solution, added the expert, is spreading the Hyperaspis trifurcata ladybird — also native to the Americas — among the cacti, which preys on cochineal.
In Morocco, farmers began raising the ladybird “so that it is always ready” in case of outbreaks, said Aissa Derhem, head of the environmental association Dar Si Hmad.
Last month, Tunisia received 100 ladybirds along with an emergency budget of $500,000 to battle cochineal, allocated by the FAO.


Five things to know about Turkiye’s interests in Africa

Updated 37 min 33 sec ago

Five things to know about Turkiye’s interests in Africa

  • Turkiye has accumulated considerable soft power in the region, notably through education, the media and its shared religion with Africa’s many Muslim countries
  • Turkiye has signed defense agreements with a number of states spanning the breadth of the continent, including Somalia, Libya, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Ghana

ISTANBUL: Turkiye is pushing for diplomatic and economic influence on the world stage — not least in Africa, where it announced plans this week to search for oil and gas off Somalia.
Over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s two decades in power, Ankara has consolidated its foothold on the continent, quadrupling its number of embassies there.
Here are five of Turkiye’s diplomatic and economic interests and strategies in Africa:

At a time when many African countries are turning away from their former colonial rulers, Turkiye has looked to fill the void left behind.
“Erdogan presents himself as an alternative to the West,” said Selin Gucum, author of a study on Turkish interests in Africa for Paris’s Observatory of Contemporary Turkiye.
Gucum told AFP that Ankara often emphasizes the “sincerity” of its presence on the continent compared to that of Europeans, who bear the legacy of colonialism.
And Erdogan can be less squeamish about what partners he chooses, according to a report on Turkiye’s defense accords with African countries by Teresa Nogueira Pinto, an analyst at Geopolitical Intelligence Services.
“Unlike the West, Turkiye does not make this assistance conditional on governance or human rights commitments,” Pinto wrote.

Turkiye has signed defense agreements with a number of states spanning the breadth of the continent, including Somalia, Libya, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Ghana.
Those agreements have opened up contracts for Turkiye’s defense manufacturers, notably for its reputedly reliable and inexpensive drones.
Popularly used in the fight against terrorism, Turkish drones have been recently delivered to Chad, Togo, and the junta-led Sahel trio of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

Turkiye is also expanding its interests in Africa’s energy sector.
In September or October it plans to launch an oil and gas exploration mission off the coast of Somalia, similar to the one it is carrying out in Libyan waters.
Ankara is also said to be coveting Niger’s abundant uranium deposits which it needs to operate its future Russian-built Akkuyu nuclear power station — although Ankara’s diplomats deny this.
Nonetheless, Erdogan has bolstered ties with Niger’s ruling generals since their 2023 coup d’etat. Niamey received Turkiye’s intelligence chief and foreign, energy and defense ministers on Wednesday.

Ankara is generally seen as a “reliable partner,” said Didier Billion, Turkiye specialist at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs — “particularly in the construction and infrastructure sectors.”
When Turkish companies build big-ticket projects like hospitals, airports, or mosques, “deadlines and budgets are met, he added.
That reputation means more demand: in 2023, Turkish contractors were involved in $85.5 billion worth of projects, according to the trade ministry.
Turkish Airlines also crisscrosses the continent, flying to 62 destinations in Africa.
In 2012, it became the first airline to return to Mogadishu, whose airport was rebuilt with Turkish funding and assistance.

Turkiye has accumulated considerable soft power in the region, notably through education, the media and its shared religion with Africa’s many Muslim countries.
The religious Turkish Maarif Foundation has expanded to a network of 140 schools and institutions catering for 17,000 pupils, while 60,000 Africans are students in Turkiye.
Ankara’s powerful Directorate of Religious Affairs has stepped up its humanitarian activities and support for mosques and religious education across the region.
Billing itself as the first Turkish television channel on the continent, NRT boasts on its website that it serves 49 African countries, spreading the Turkish language.
Public broadcaster TRT also has programs in French, English, Swahili and Hausa and is developing training courses for future journalists.
Turkiye’s religious conservatism likewise resonates with many African countries, at a time when anti-LGBTQ laws are being adopted on the continent.
“When Erdogan denounces ‘LGBTQ people who undermine family values’, for many Africans, that’s music to their ears,” Billion said.


Will Turkiye and Syria succeed in turning the page on decade-long enmity?

Updated 9 min 13 sec ago

Will Turkiye and Syria succeed in turning the page on decade-long enmity?

  • Relations have remained frosty since Ankara and Damascus severed diplomatic ties in 2011 following the eruption of Syria’s civil war
  • President Erdogan’s recent announcement he could invite Assad to Turkiye “at any moment” has elicited mixed reactions from Syrians

ATHENS/QAMISHLI, Syria: Since 2022, senior Syrian and Turkish officials have periodically met in Moscow for talks mediated by Russia. But those meetings have failed to result in a thaw in their icy relations.

It is a different matter now, however, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announcing his desire to restore formal ties with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Assad.

He said earlier this month that he could invite Assad to Turkiye “at any moment,” to which the Syrian leader responded that any meeting would depend on the “content.”

Ankara and Damascus severed diplomatic ties in 2011 following the eruption of Syria’s civil war. Relations have remained hostile ever since, particularly as Turkiye continues to support armed groups resisting the Assad regime.

Since the civil war erupted in 2011, Turkiye has supported armed Syrian factions in their fight against the regime of President Bashar Assad. (AFP)

What, then, is the motivation for changing course now? And what are the likely consequences of Turkish-Syrian normalization of ties?

Syrian writer and political researcher Shoresh Darwish believes President Erdogan is pursuing normalization for two reasons. “The first is preparation for the possibility of the arrival of a new American administration led by Donald Trump, which means the possibility of a return to the policy of (a US) withdrawal from Syria,” he told Arab News.

“Erdogan will therefore need to cooperate with Assad and Russia.”

This photo released by the Syrian Arab News Agency shows President Bashar Assad (R) meeting with then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Aleppo. (SANA/AFP)

The second reason, Darwish says, is Erdogan’s desire to get closer to Syrian regime ally Russia after Turkiye’s drift toward the US following the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Indeed, as a NATO member state, the conflict has complicated Turkiye’s normally balanced approach to its ties with Washington and Moscow.

“Ankara’s cooperation with Moscow is difficult in terms of the Ukrainian issue,” said Darwish. “As a result of the significant Western interference in this issue, their cooperation in Syria represents a meeting point through which Erdogan wants to highlight his friendship with Putin and Moscow’s interests in the Middle East.”

Those in Syria’s opposition-held northwest, which is backed by Turkiye, see an Ankara-Damascus rapprochement as a betrayal.

During one of several protests in Idlib since the beginning of July, demonstrators held signs in Arabic that read: “If you want to get closer to Assad, congratulations, the curse of history is upon you.”

Protesters in opposition-held Idlib and the Aleppo countryside wave flags of the Syrian revolution and hold signs that read: ‘If you want to get closer to Assad, congratulations, the curse of history is upon you.’ (AN photo by Ali Ali)

Abdulkarim Omar, a political activist from Idlib, told Arab News: “Western Syria, Idlib, the Aleppo countryside, and all areas belonging to the opposition completely reject this behavior because it is only in the interest of the Syrian regime.

“The Syrian people came out 13 years ago and rose up in their revolution demanding freedom, dignity, and the building of a civil, democratic state for all Syrians. This can only be achieved by overthrowing the tyrannical Syrian regime represented by Bashar Assad. They still cling to this principle and these slogans and cannot abandon them.”

Those living in areas controlled by the Kurdish-led and US-backed Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, or AANES, which holds much of Syria’s territory east of the Euphrates River, are also wary of the consequences of normalization.

“There are fears among the population that reconciliation may be a prelude to punishing the Syrian Kurds for their political choices,” said Omar.

Incursions into Syria from 2016 to 2019 saw Turkiye take control of several cities, many of which were previously under the control of the AANES.

Map of Syria showing zones of control by the different partipants in late 2020. Some cities then under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces had been seized by Turkish forces. (AFP/File)

Turkiye’s justification for its 2018 and 2019 incursions and continued presence on Syrian territory was its aim to establish a “safe zone” between itself and the armed forces of the AANES — the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Turkiye views the SDF as a Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a group that has been in conflict with the Turkish state since the 1980s.

“Naturally, the Syrian Kurds know that they will be part of any deal that Erdogan wants to conclude with Assad,” said Darwish. “This issue unnerves the Syrian Kurds, who see Turkiye as ready to do anything to harm them and their experience in self-administration.”

Darwish says the Syrian Kurds would accept reconciliation on three conditions. First they would want to see Turkiye remove its troops from Afrin and Ras Al-Ain. Second, an end to Turkish strikes against AANES areas. And third, a guarantee from the Assad regime “that the Syrian Kurds will enjoy their national, cultural, and administrative rights.”

In this photo taken on January 27, 2018, a Turkish military convoy drives through the Oncupinar border crossing as troops enter Syria during a military campaign in the Kurdish-held Syrian enclave of Afrin. (AFP/File)

But just how likely is a rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus? Not very, according to conflict analyst and UNHRC delegate Thoreau Redcrow. “I find the prospects of an Erdogan and Assad detente very unlikely,” he told Arab News.

“Historically, Turkiye’s ideas of ‘normalization’ with Syria amount to a policy of one-way influence for Ankara’s benefit. In this arrangement, Turkiye continues to occupy Hatay (Liwa Iskenderun), which they seized from Syria in 1938, and make military incursion demands on their sovereignty, like with the Adana Agreement in 1998, but give nothing in return.”

Assad has made it clear in public statements that a meeting between him and Erdogan would only occur on the condition of a Turkish withdrawal from Syrian territory. Redcrow believes Turkiye has no intention of leaving.

“I cannot see Damascus being interested in being manipulated for a photo-op,” he said. “The Syrian government is far more prideful than some of the other regional actors who are happy to be one of Turkiye’s ‘neo-Ottoman vilayets.’”

Erdogan may be attempting to capitalize on the trend toward normalization among Arab countries, which began in earnest with Syria’s reinstatement into the Arab league last year. European states and the US, however, remain divided.

Syrian women soldiers parade at an opposition-controlled territory in northern Syria. (AN photo by ali Ali)

“Whereas Germany, France, Italy, and the UK in particular are more focused on how Turkiye can control the gateway into Europe and act as a ‘continental bouncer’ for refugees from the Middle East and Western Asia, the US is more focused on denying Russia and Iran full access to all of Syria again for strategic reasons, like Mediterranean Sea access and the ‘Shiite land bridge’ from Tehran to Beirut,” said Redcrow.

“The current status quo is far more beneficial to Washington than any reconciliation would be, as it would also endanger the northeast portions of Syria, where the US military is embedded with their most reliable military partners against Daesh in the SDF. So, Turkiye would not be given any kind of green light to place American interests at risk.”

The US House of Representatives in February passed the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act of 2023, which prohibits any normalization with Assad. In a post on the social media platform X on July 12, the bill’s author, Rep. Joe Wilson, voiced his disappointment with Erdogan’s calls for normalization, likening it to “normalizing with death itself.”

Though there may be little chance of reconciliation succeeding at this point, the approximately 3.18 million Syrian refugees living in Turkiye view even rumors of normalization with fear and dread.

“People are very afraid,” Amal Hayat, a Syrian mother of five living in southeastern Turkiye, told Arab News. “Since the rumors (of reconciliation) started, many people don’t even leave their homes. Even if they are beaten by their bosses at work, they are afraid to say anything for fear of being deported.”

A Syrian woman is seen at a refugee camp near the Syria-Turkish border. (AN photo by Ali Ali)

Turkish authorities deported more than 57,000 Syrians in 2023, according to Human Rights Watch.

“A forced return would affect us a lot,” said Hayat. “For example, if a woman returns to Syria with her family, her husband may be arrested by the regime. Or if a man gets deported back to Syria and his wife and children stay in Turkiye, how will they manage? It’s difficult. Here, our kids can study. They have stability and safety.”

The fear of deportation has been compounded by waves of violence against Syrian refugees which swept Turkiye’s south in recent weeks. On June 30, residents of central Turkiye’s Kayseri province attacked Syrians and their property.

Anti-Syrian sentiment in Turkiye is partially due to economic issues, where Turks see underpaid or even unpaid Syrians as a threat to their prospects of employment.

“The Turks are very happy for us to return home,” said Hayat. “For them, it’s not soon enough. We are all living under a heightened level of stress. We are just praying that (Assad and Erdogan) don’t reconcile.”


Turkiye calls Israeli claims Erdogan arming Hamas ‘lies’

Updated 21 July 2024

Turkiye calls Israeli claims Erdogan arming Hamas ‘lies’

  • “Israel’s dirty propaganda and psychological pressure aimed at our country and our president will remain ineffective,” ministry says

ISTANBUL: Turkiye on Sunday slammed Israeli claims Ankara was arming and funding Palestinian militant group Hamas as “lies,” accusing Israel of trying to direct attention away from the war in Gaza.
The angry rebuttal came after Israel’s Foreign Minister Katz accused President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of “supplying arms and money to Hamas to kill Israelis.”
In a post on X in Turkish, Katz claimed that the Israeli security services had dismantled “terrorist cells” that were “under directions from Hamas headquarters in Turkiye.”
In response, Turkiye’s Foreign Ministry said that Israel’s top diplomat was “trying to conceal the crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinians behind a series of lies, slander and disrespect.”
“But Israel’s dirty propaganda and psychological pressure aimed at our country and our president will remain ineffective,” the ministry’s statement added.
Israel’s offensive against Hamas has killed at least 38,983 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Ankara has been a fervent critic of Israel’s conduct of the war, which was sparked by a bloody Hamas assault on October 7, with Erdogan repeatedly trading barbs with Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu.
Dubbing him the “butcher of Gaza,” Erdogan has accused Netanyahu of seeking to “spread the war” across the wider Middle East, a point repeated in the foreign ministry’s statement.
It accused “the members of Netanyahu’s government” of “wanting to provoke a regional war to stay in power,” calling for them to be tried in international courts.
“Turkiye will continue to defend the right of the Palestinian people to live in justice and peace,” the foreign ministry added.