Airstrike in northwestern Syria kills over 50 rebel fighters

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A fighter with the Turkey-backed Faylaq Al-Sham rebel faction in Syria shoots in the air during the funeral of 10 of the faction’s fighters in the northwestern city of Idlib, on October 26, 2020. (AFP)
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Smoke billows from a reported Russian airstrike near the village of Hafsarjah, in the western countryside of Idlib province in northwestern Syria, on September 11, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 26 October 2020

Airstrike in northwestern Syria kills over 50 rebel fighters

  • The opposition vowed to retaliate for the attack on Faylaq Al-Sham, blaming Russia for the daytime airstrike
  • The camp, at Jebel Al-Dweila not far from the Turkish border, was hosting training sessions for new recruits

BEIRUT: An airstrike on a rebel training camp in northwestern Syria on Monday killed more than 50 Turkish-backed fighters and wounded nearly as many, in one of the heaviest blows to the opposition’s strongest groups, a spokesman and a war monitor said.
The opposition vowed to retaliate for the attack on Faylaq Al-Sham, blaming Russia for the daytime airstrike. There was no immediate comment from Russia or Turkey, which although they support opposite sides in Syria’s conflict, have worked together to maintain a cease-fire in the rebel enclave.
Youssef Hammoud, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition, said the airstrike in the northwestern part of Idlib province, the last rebel enclave in Syria, targeted a military training camp for Faylaq Al-Sham. Faylaq Al-Sham is the largest Turkey-backed armed group and one of the most disciplined and best trained.
Turkey has long supported Syrian rebel forces in Syria and has used many of those fighters to bolster its military campaigns in Libya and Azerbaijan.
The camp, at Jebel Al-Dweila not far from the Turkish border, was hosting training sessions for new recruits, according to a war monitor and another opposition spokesman. Leaders of the camp were among those killed, according to Hammoud.
Journalists or activists in the area were not allowed near the camp and the extent of the damage was not immediately known,
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, gave a higher toll, at 78 fighters dead and nearly 90 wounded. Rescue efforts were still underway, the Observatory said. It said it also suspected the airstrike was carried out by Russia, which is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s civil war.
A hospital near the explosion was overwhelmed with the casualties and was forced to send wounded and dead to other facilities. A doctor in Idlib city said the city’s central hospital, more than 24 kilometers ( 15 miles) from the camp, received two bodies and 11 wounded. All the casualties were fighters, the doctor said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss the attack on an armed group. One media activist, Rashid Al-Bakr, was among those killed, according to the Macro Media Center, an online news platform.
One Facebook group called on Idlib residents to check with hospitals in the city if they are missing relatives, a clear indication many remained unidentified.
Syrian rebel groups vowed to retaliate.
“We, the factions of the National Front for Liberation, will respond to these violations,” said Naji Al-Mustafa, another spokesman for the Turkish-backed fighters, threatening to target government and Russian positions. He called the strike a “crime” by Russia.
Turkey and Russia brokered a truce in Idlib earlier this year to halt a government offensive that displaced hundreds of thousands in the already overcrowded enclave. Around a dozen Turkish observation points were deployed inside Idlib to monitor the truce, which remained shaky.
In recent days, there was a resumption of strikes.
On Friday, airstrikes also targeted a local market for rudimentary fuel burners and diesel in the opposition-controlled region of Jarablus, in northern Aleppo. At least seven people were killed, according to the Observatory.
Last week, Turkish troops evacuated one of their largest military bases in the area, which was surrounded by Syrian government troops for months. Syrian opposition fighters said it was part of Turkey’s redeployment of its forces in the shrinking enclave.


Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

Updated 26 November 2020

Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

  • Erdogan defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts
  • Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq: analyst

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied the country has a “Kurdish issue,” even as he doubled down on his anti-Kurdish stance and accused a politician of being a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Erdogan was addressing members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Nov. 25 when he made the remarks.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched an insurgency against the state in 1984, and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and US. Erdogan accuses the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of links to the PKK, which it denies.

Erdogan told AKP members that Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s former co-chair who challenged him in the 2015 presidential elections, was a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Demirtas has been behind bars since Nov. 4, 2016, despite court orders calling for his release and faces hundreds of years in prison over charges related to the outlawed PKK.

The president defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast region since local elections in March 2019.

He also said the AKP would design and implement democratization reforms with its nationalistic coalition partner, which is known for its anti-Kurdish credentials.  

His words are likely to disrupt the peace efforts that Turkey has been making with its Kurdish community for years, although they have been baby steps. They could also hint at a tougher policy shift against Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

According to Oxford University Middle East analyst Samuel Ramani, Erdogan’s comments should be read as a reaction to Tuesday’s resignation of top presidential aide Bulent Arinc, who urged for Demirtas to be released and insisted that the Kurds were repressed within Turkey.

“This gained widespread coverage in the Kurdish media, including in Iraqi Kurdistan's outlet Rudaw which has international viewership,” he told Arab News. “Erdogan wanted to stop speculation on this issue.”

Ramani said that Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

“It is also an oblique warning to US President-elect Joe Biden not to try to interfere in Turkish politics by raising the treatment of Kurds within Turkey.”

But Erdogan’s comments would matter little in the long run, he added.

“Much more will depend on whether Turkey mounts another Operation Peace Spring-style offensive in northern Syria, which is a growing possibility. If that occurs during the Trump to Biden transition period, the incoming Biden administration could be more critical of Turkey and convert its rhetoric on solidarity with the Kurds into action.”

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been a key partner for the US in its fight against Daesh. During a campaign speech in Oct. 2019, Biden criticized the US decision to withdraw from Syria as a “complete failure” that would leave Syrian Kurds open to aggression from Turkey.

“It’s more insidious than the betrayal of our brave Kurdish partners, it’s more dangerous than taking the boot off the neck of ISIS,” Biden said at the time.

UK-based analyst Bill Park said that Erdogan was increasingly influenced by his coalition partners, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

“He might also believe that both the PKK and the HDP have been so weakened that he doesn't have to take them into consideration,” he told Arab News. “The Western world will not respond dramatically to this announcement but they are tired of Erdogan. There is little hope that Turkey's relations with the US or the EU can be much improved. The Syrian Kurdish PYD militia are seeking an accommodation with Damascus, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan, is indifferent to the fate of Turkey's Kurds and has problems of its own.”

The HDP, meanwhile, is skeptical about Erdogan’s reform pledges and sees them as “politicking.”

“This reform narrative is not sincere,” said HDP lawmaker Meral Danis Bestas, according to a Reuters news agency report. “This is a party which has been in power for 18 years and which has until now totally trampled on the law. It has one aim: To win back the support which has been lost.”

Turkey’s next election is scheduled for 2023, unless there is a snap election in a year.