Ankara, Damascus discuss potential normalization after years of broken ties

Widespread protests were staged in northern Syria over a proposal from the Turkish foreign minister for reconciliation between the Syrian regime and the opposition. (AFP)
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Updated 16 August 2022

Ankara, Damascus discuss potential normalization after years of broken ties

  • Turkey will continue to temporarily provide security in some northwestern territories in Syria if they normalize bilateral relations, analyst tells Arab News

ANKARA: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s revelation that he met his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad last October on the margins of the Non-Aligned Movement summit hinted at the possibility of Ankara and Damascus seeking political rapprochement after 11 years of a rupture in ties. 

Cavusoglu reportedly talked with his counterpart in Serbia’s capital Belgrade about the need to come to terms with the opposition and the Assad regime in Syria for a lasting peace. 

The Turkish foreign minister emphasized that his country supported Syria’s territorial integrity as “the border integrity, territorial integrity and peace of a country next to us directly affect us.”

The pro-government Turkiye newspaper recently claimed that Assad and Erdogan may hold a telephone conservation after Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed this during his recent meeting with Erdogan in Sochi. However, Cavusoglu denied rumors about any talks between the Syrian and Turkish presidents.

Having conducted four cross-border military operations in Syria since the start of civil war in 2011 to clear its border from terror groups, Turkey also has a significant military presence through observation posts in northern parts of the country. 

Since 2017, Turkey, Iran and Russia have come together through Astana meetings to try to bring the warring sides in Syria toward finding a permanent solution to the war. 

It is not a secret that the Turkish and Syrian intelligence services have been communicating. 

However, as Turkey has backed rebel groups fighting the Assad regime, the latest signs of a potential normalization of bilateral ties has angered opposition groups who held mass protests in several areas of northern Aleppo to demonstrate their objections, fearing renewed diplomatic contact with the Assad regime. 

Turkey’s bid for peace with the Assad regime might also have repercussions for the fate of more than 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey who have become a domestic politic issue due to the economic hardship the country is facing. 

Before the outbreak of the civil war, Turkey and Syria had close relationships at the top level, often exemplified by the famous summer holiday of Syrian President Bashar Assad with his family at Turkey’s Aegean resort town of Bodrum where he also met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2008. 

“Given the durability of the Assad regime, Ankara has to have a modus vivendi of sorts; in fact, it exists already at the level of intelligence agency chiefs,“ Rich Outzen, senior fellow at Atlantic Council and Jamestown Foundation, told Arab News.  

“The political risk for President Erdogan of a rapid or warm reconciliation is incredibly high, though, so the understanding is likely to be incremental and limited,” Outzen said.  

According to Outzen, botching re-engagement would mean compromising the viability of the Turkish-protected safe zone, leading to a new waves of refugees, or inviting new massacres by Assad among populations Ankara wants to protect and to remain in place. 

“Yet the lack of a modus vivendi is also not sustainable over the long-term, because inevitably pressure will grow internationally and within Turkey for Turkish forces to have a pathway to withdrawal, even if the pathway is measured in multiple years,” he said. 

For that reason, Outzen thinks that fears of a rash or rapid reconciliation or re-engagement are overstated. 

“Putin, of course, pressures Erdogan to re-engage, but Erdogan will in my view resist any but the minimum measures to maintain his own freedom of maneuver in Syria,” he said. “As this week’s protests in the Safe Zone demonstrate, going too fast in this process can prompt a backlash among Syrians in northern Syria and perhaps ultimately in Turkey.” 

According to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish program at the Washington Institute, while Turkey’s endgame in Syria is an Erdogan-Assad handshake, Ankara and Damascus are moving northwestern Syria into a frozen conflict.  

“I don’t think that an arrangement between Turkey and Syria will result in a complete reset of two countries borders and border affairs because many of the Syrians who live in the zones controlled by Turkish-backed forces have been already effectively cleansed by Assad, in some cases twice,” he told Arab News.

“There is zero chance that they would stay in Assad regime-controlled Syria if both leaders shake hands or make exchanges of territories,” he said. 

Cagaptay thinks that Turkey will recognize Assad’s sovereignty over the area, but will continue to temporarily provide security as well as law and order in some in northwestern territories in Syria, while also keeping millions of Sunni Arabs Assad does not want and has no interest in making full citizens again. 

“Assad may even come back to border stations with the Syrian republic flag and might begin to provide some of the social services,” he told Arab News. 

For Cagaptay, the big favor that Turkey is doing for Assad is keeping Syrians refugees inside the country and in northwest Syria under Turkish control, and not forcing them to return to Syria. 

“That is a huge favor to Assad because he used the war in Syria for ethnic engineering. Before the war, Sunni Arabs constituted over two-thirds of the Syrian population, but now they are under half. In return for that favor, Assad can propose to re-ingest the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG under his control. It is a good deal for Erdogan and Turkey,” he said.  

Turkey considers the YPG a national security threat and the extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. 

For Aydin Sezer, an Ankara-based analyst, the possibility of re-engagement with the Assad regime will be used for domestic consumption ahead of the approaching election term scheduled for June 2023 at a time of deepening economic turmoil in Turkey.

“There is significant external pressure to make this reconciliation happen, while the economic burden of hosting millions of Syrian refugees inside Turkey and the rising cost of deploying military officers to the observation posts in Syria also make this issue financially important for the internal dynamics,” he told Arab News. 

Turkey has about 5,000 troops within the areas it controls in Syria, along with some 8,000 soldiers around rebel-held Idlib province, whose maintenance is costing Ankara billions of dollars and risks confrontations with Assad and foreign powers over territory violation. 

“Although the rapprochement cannot happen overnight, it is significant that the ruling government as well as the opposition parties have begun discussing it,” Sezer said. 

Erdogan recently hinted at a fresh operation into Syria to create a 30 km-deep safe zone from the border to push back Kurdish militants, but any military activity does not look imminent following several warnings from regional powers.


Lebanon schools struggle to open as finance woes bite

Updated 30 September 2022

Lebanon schools struggle to open as finance woes bite

  • Student dropout rate rising with parents unable to pay for basics, UNICEF rep warns

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s public education system is facing collapse a week before the start of the academic year, with teachers unable to pay for transport, and students dropping out because their parents cannot afford essential school items.

After three years of an economic crisis that shows no sign of ending, schools are also struggling to provide basic needs, such as heating and electricity.

An adviser to Abbas Halabi, the minister of education and higher education in the caretaker government, told Arab News that meetings are being held with donor countries, international organizations, the World Bank and ambassadors in an effort to cover the costs of teachers’ transport to school.

Assistance to help students attend school has not yet been discussed, the official said.

Lebanon’s spiralling economy has forced thousands of parents to transfer their children from private schools and universities to public institutions.

Edouard Beigbeder, the UNICEF representative in Lebanon, warned of an increase in the number of students dropping out of school.

Estimates suggest that up to 16 percent of Lebanese children and 49 percent of Syrian refugee students have not been enrolled in primary school, despite education ministry efforts to encourage a return to study.

Parents blame the country’s financial woes for the problem, saying they cannot afford their children’s transport fees, books or stationery.

Halabi warned from New York during an education summit held on the sidelines of the UN’s General Assembly 10 days ago that “if Lebanese students do not receive education, no others will.”

He had previously pleaded with donors to “secure aid that will enable the ministry to launch the school year, which seems impossible in light of the educational bodies refusing to show up at public schools and the Lebanese University.” 

Lebanon is seeking aid of around $100 million for pre-university education, $37 million for the Lebanese University and $20 million for vocational education.

In addition to implementing a host of economic and political reforms, the international community has asked Lebanon to integrate Syrian and Lebanese students in morning and afternoon periods in order to reduce expenses.

Private schools and universities demanded payment of tuition fees partly in Lebanese pounds and partly in dollars.

However, the education ministry opposed the move, claiming it breached laws that stipulates the use of Lebanese currency.

Education institutions ignored the objection, claiming the only alternative would be to close, and established a “parents’ contribution fund” separate from the budget.

Parents who were unable to pay the tuition fees were left with the option of transferring their children from private schools or universities to public institutions.

Huda Suleiman, president of the Human and Future Association for children with special needs, said that she will be unable to open the school in Taanayel in the Bekaa Valley this year because the Ministry of Social Affairs, which “provides us aid, did not pay what it owes us.”

A limit on monthly bank withdrawals means she can pay only two teaching salaries.

“We have physical, motor and occupational specialists whose salaries are high, in addition to fuel costs,” she said.

Suleiman said parents were unable to contribute or even drop their children at school, as some traveled long distances.

Transport costs are beyond the salaries of most parents, many of whom are farmers or members of the military and internal security forces, she added.

The education ministry has yet to solve a dispute with education bodies demanding a salary increase and further financial incentives.

According to a study by the Center for Educational Research and Development, the number of students in Lebanon exceeded 1 million two years ago.

They include 334,536 students or 31 percent in public schools, 565,593 students or 52 percent in private schools, and 140,312 students or 13 percent in private free schools.

There are 36,375 students, or more than 3 percent, at UNRWA schools for Palestinian refugees.

Lebanon is home to 40 universities and institutes, and more than 40 percent of tertiary students attend the Lebanese University, a public institution.

 
 


Iran says it has arrested 9 foreigners over protests

Updated 30 September 2022

Iran says it has arrested 9 foreigners over protests

  • Iran has claimed that the daily protests that have swept the country for the past two weeks were instigated by foreigners
  • Earlier in June, Iran arrested two French citizens for meeting protesting teachers

DUBAI: Iran’s intelligence ministry says it has arrested nine foreigners over recent anti-hijab protests sweeping the country.
In a statement carried by the state-run news agency IRNA, the ministry said Friday that those arrested included citizens of Germany, Poland, Italy, France, the Netherlands and Sweden.
The death in custody of Mahsa Amini, who was detained for allegedly wearing the mandatory Islamic headscarf too loosely, has triggered an outpouring of anger at Iran’s ruling clerics.
Her family says they were told she was beaten to death in custody. Police say the 22-year-old Amini died of a heart attack and deny mistreating her, and Iranian officials say her death is under investigation.
Iran has claimed that the daily protests that have swept the country for the past two weeks were instigated by foreigners. Protesters have denied such claims, portraying their actions as a spontaneous uprising against the country’s strict dress code, including the compulsory hijab for women in public.
Iran has detained individual foreigners in the past, often on claims that they were spies while not providing evidence. Critics have denounced the practice as an attempt by Iran to use detained foreigners as bargaining chips for concessions from the international community.
Earlier in June, Iran arrested two French citizens, Cecile Kohler, 37, and Chuck Paris, 69 over meeting with protesting teachers and taking part in an anti-government rally.
A number of Europeans were detained in Iran in recent months, including a Swedish tourist, two French citizens, a Polish scientist and others.
The arrests come as leaked government documents show that Iran ordered its security forces to “severely confront” antigovernment demonstrations that broke out earlier this month, Amnesty International said Friday.
The London-based rights group said security forces have killed at least 52 people since protests over the Amini’s death began nearly two weeks ago, including by firing live ammunition into crowds and beating protesters with batons.
It says security forces have also beaten and groped female protesters who remove their headscarves to protest the treatment of women by Iran’s theocracy.
The state-run IRNA news agency meanwhile reported renewed violence in the city of Zahedan, near the borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan. It said gunmen opened fire and hurled firebombs at a police station, setting off a battle with police.
It said police and passersby were wounded, without elaborating, and did not say whether the violence was related to the antigovernment protests. The region has seen previous attacks on security forces claimed by militant and separatist groups.
Videos circulating on social media showed gunfire and a police vehicle on fire. Others showed crowds chanting against the government. Video from elsewhere in Iran showed protests in Ahvaz, in the southwest, and Ardabil in the northwest.
Amnesty said it obtained a leaked copy of an official document saying that the General Headquarters of the Armed Forces ordered commanders on Sept. 21 to “severely confront troublemakers and anti-revolutionaries.” The rights group says the use of lethal force escalated later that evening, with at least 34 people killed that night alone.
It said another leaked document shows that, two days later, the commander in Mazandran province ordered security forces to “confront mercilessly, going as far as causing deaths, any unrest by rioters and anti-Revolutionaries,” referring to those opposed to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, which brought the clerics to power.
“The Iranian authorities knowingly decided to harm or kill people who took to the streets to express their anger at decades of repression and injustice,” said Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
“Amid an epidemic of systemic impunity that has long prevailed in Iran, dozens of men, women and children have been unlawfully killed in the latest round of bloodshed.”
Amnesty did not say how it acquired the documents. There was no immediate comment from Iranian authorities.
Iranian state TV has reported that at least 41 protesters and police have been killed since the demonstrations began Sept. 17. An Associated Press count of official statements by authorities tallied at least 14 dead, with more than 1,500 demonstrators arrested.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday that at least 28 reporters have been arrested.
Iranian authorities have severely restricted Internet access and blocked access to Instagram and WhatsApp, popular social media applications that are also used by the protesters to organize and share information.
That makes it difficult to gauge the extent of the protests, particularly outside the capital, Tehran. Iranian media have only sporadically covered the demonstrations.
Iranians have long used virtual private networks and proxies to get around the government’s Internet restrictions. Shervin Hajjipour, an amateur singer in Iran, recently posted a song on Instagram based on tweets about Amini that received more than 40 million views in less than 48 hours before it was taken down.
Non-governmental Iran Human rights Organization said that Hajjipour has reportedly been arrested.


Iran cleric calls for crackdown on protesters

Updated 30 September 2022

Iran cleric calls for crackdown on protesters

  • Cleric Mohammad Javad Hajj Ali Akbari: The Iranian people demand the harshest punishment for these barbaric rioters

DUBAI: An influential Iranian cleric called for tough action on Friday against protesters enraged by the death of a young woman in police custody who have called for the downfall of the country’s leaders.
“Our security is our distinctive privilege. The Iranian people demand the harshest punishment for these barbaric rioters,” said Mohammad Javad Hajj Ali Akbari, a leader of prayers that are held on Fridays in Tehran before a large gathering.
“The people want the death of Mahsa Amini to be cleared up... so that enemies cannot take advantage of this incident.”
Amini, a 22-year-old from the Iranian Kurdish town of Saqez, was arrested this month in Tehran for “unsuitable attire” by the morality police who enforce the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code for women.
Her death has caused the first big show of opposition on Iran’s streets since authorities crushed protests against a rise in gasoline prices in 2019. The demonstrations have quickly evolved into a popular revolt against the clerical establishment.
Amnesty International said on Friday the government crackdown on demonstrations has so far led to the death of at least 52 people, with hundreds injured.
Amnesty said in a statement it had obtained a copy of an official document that records that the General Headquarters of Armed Forces issued an order to commanders in all provinces to “severely confront” protesters described as “troublemakers and anti-revolutionaries”.
Despite the growing death toll and crackdown by authorities, videos posted on Twitter showed demonstrators calling for the fall of the clerical establishment.
Activist Twitter account 1500tasvir, which has more than 150,000 followers, posted videos which it said showed protests in cities including Ahvaz in the southwest, Mashhad in the northeast and Zahedan in the southeast, where people were said to be attacking a police station.
Reuters could not verify the footage.
Meanwhile, Iran rejected criticism of its missile and drone attack on Wednesday on the Iraqi Kurdistan region where Iranian armed dissident Kurdish groups are based. The United States called it “an unjustified violation of Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
“Iran has repeatedly asked the Iraqi central government officials and regional authorities to prevent the activities of separatist and terrorist groups that are active against the Islamic Republic,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani told state media.

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Yemen truce deadline approaches as wait for peace drags on

Updated 30 September 2022

Yemen truce deadline approaches as wait for peace drags on

  • Yemen’s war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the The Coalition has left hundreds of thousands dead
  • Talks to strike a lasting peace deal and a definitive end to the war remain at a standstill

SANAA: As a cease-fire deadline in war-ravaged Yemen draws near, civilians hope the truce will be extended — fearing any fresh fighting would wipe out the small gains they have made.
In the rebel-held capital Sanaa, agriculture graduate Loujain Al-Ouazir has been working to raise goats and chicken poultry for three years on a farm on top of one the ancient city’s iconic mud brick tower houses.
Ouazir only managed to make the farm successful in recent months amid the truce, which allowed goods to move more freely and cut the price of supplies.
“Thanks to the truce, the prices of animal feed and fuel have come down,” Ouazir said. “It’s easier to bring in feed and goats from other regions.”
Yemen’s war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the The Coalition has left hundreds of thousands dead and created what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
A UN-brokered cease-fire, which took effect in April and has twice been renewed, has reduced casualties by 60 percent and quadrupled fuel imports into the rebel-held Hodeida port, more than 40 humanitarian groups said on Thursday.
The truce has largely held, although the rival sides have traded blame over violations.
Ouazir said the relative peace — especially an end to air strikes in Sanaa — has created a safer environment for her business of selling milk and eggs.
“I hope the truce will continue until the war stops completely,” she said, adding that she dreamt of expanding her farm “on the ground, and not on the roof of the house.”
The truce is due to expire on Sunday, with the UN working to ensure each side agrees to extend once again.
Under the truce, commercial flights have resumed from the rebel-held capital Sanaa to Jordan and Egypt, while oil tankers have been able to dock in Hodeida, also under Houthi control.
The series of temporary truces have brought some respite to a people exhausted by eight years of war, where about 23.4 million of Yemen’s population of 30 million rely on humanitarian aid.
But there has been little fundamental progress toward peace.
A seige remains in place on Taiz, a large city in the southwest controlled by the government but surrounded by Houthi forces.
Despite the cease-fire, the main roads around the mountainous city remain shut.
In the center of Taiz, old pickups are packed tight with passengers who want to go to the nearby town of Al-Hawban, taking bumpy back roads through the mountain.
Before the war, it was a simple journey of 15 minutes.
“Now I need four or five hours,” Taiz resident Bassem Al-Sabri said.
Diego Zorrilla, UN deputy humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said the truce had improved the situation “in many respects” but “life remains difficult” for the vast majority.
“From a humanitarian point of view, the renewal of the truce on October 2 is a moral imperative,” Zorrilla said.
“Only a resolution of the conflict can allow the economy to recover, lift people out of poverty and reduce humanitarian needs,” he added.
Talks to strike a lasting peace deal and a definitive end to the war remain at a standstill.
In May, the UN envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, said the truce “presented a window of opportunity to break with the violence and suffering of the past.”
But in view of the stalled peace talks, a key aim of the truce, it has therefore “fundamentally changed nothing” and is proving to be “a failure in certain respects,” said Thomas Juneau, from the University of Ottawa.
“On the Houthi side, there is no serious will to negotiate and therefore to make compromises with the government,” said Juneau.
On the government side, differences between multiple anti-rebel factions have widened.
“We have seen the lines of fracture which were very deep widen, tensions worsen and, in many cases, become violent,” he said.
For Juneau, there is an “absurdity in renewing a truce which does not work,” and which therefore only “delays the return” of violence.
But, he added, “I don’t see any other alternative.”


Russian strikes in Syria decreased since Ukraine war: monitor

Updated 30 September 2022

Russian strikes in Syria decreased since Ukraine war: monitor

  • A total of 241 people have been killed by Russian strikes in Syria during the past year
  • Moscow has been among the top political, economic and military backers of the government in Damascus since 2011

BEIRUT: Russian strikes in Syria have decreased since it invaded Ukraine, resulting in fewer deaths, a war monitor said Friday, seven years into Moscow’s intervention in the Middle Eastern country.
A total of 241 people have been killed by Russian strikes in Syria during the past year, mostly fighters from the Daesh group but also including 28 civilians, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
That marked the lowest annual death toll since Russia launched its strikes in Syria in support of the government of President Bashar Assad on September 30, 2015.
“Russia’s role has generally declined in Syria since the start of the war on Ukraine” in late February, said the Britain-based monitor, which relies on a network of sources on the ground in Syria.
This led to a “significant decline in its strikes on the Syrian desert” where Russia has been targeting IS jihadists, the Observatory said.
Moscow has been among the top political, economic and military backers of the government in Damascus since the start of the conflict in Syria in March 2011.
Its military intervention was crucial in turning the tide for Assad and lending him the upper hand in the conflict after his forces had lost large swathes of territory to rebel and jihadist groups.
The Observatory has put the death toll from the Russian strikes throughout seven years at more than 21,000 — including 8,697 civilians, a quarter of whom were children.
Almost half a million people have been killed, with millions more displaced and large swathes of the country devastated during the conflict.