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)
Short Url
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 MPs meet to elect new president amid economic crisis

Updated 3 sec ago

Lebanon MPs meet to elect new president amid economic crisis

  • Michel Aoun’s mandate runs out at the end of October
  • No candidate has emerged as a front-runner among the hopefuls
BEIRUT: The Lebanese parliament met Thursday to elect a new president, with no consensus on a successor to outgoing head of state Michel Aoun despite an unpredecedented financial crisis.
Deep divisions among MPs have raised fears Lebanon could be left without a president for months after Aoun’s mandate runs out at the end of October, further undermining creditor confidence.
The incumbent’s own election in 2016 came after a 29-month vacancy at the presidential palace as lawmakers made 45 failed attempts to reach consensus on a candidate.
Under Lebanon’s longstanding confessional power-sharing system, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian.
No candidate has emerged as a front-runner but among the hopefuls are Aoun’s own son-in-law Gebran Bassil, a former foreign minister who is under US sanctions, and veteran politician Sleiman Frangieh.
Ahead of Thursday’s session, it was not even certain enough MPs would turn up to allow a vote to go ahead but in the event quorum was achieved with 104 members of the 128-seat parliament attending, the state NNA news agency reported.
In the first round of voting, a two-thirds majority of 86 votes is required for a candidate to win, an unlikely feat in a divided legislature.
If the election goes to a second round, the required majority falls to 65, but few expect event that margin to be achieved either, fanning fears for the economy.
“If there is a political vacuum, the economic crisis would intensify and there is a clear risk of security incidents,” said analyst Karim Bitar.
The Lebanese pound has lost more than 95 percent of its value on the black market since 2019 in a financial meltdown branded by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times.
The crisis has plunged more than 80 percent of the population into poverty, as food prices have risen by 2,000 percent, the United Nations has said.
The international community has pressed Lebanese lawmakers to elect a new president in “timely” fashion to avoid plunging the country deeper into crisis
Last week, France, Saudi Arabia and the United States issued a joint statement urging MPs to “elect a president who can unite the Lebanese people.”
“As Lebanon’s parliament prepares to elect a new president, we stress the importance of timely elections in compliance with the constitution,” the statement said.

Rockets hit central Baghdad for second day in escalating unrest

Updated 29 September 2022

Rockets hit central Baghdad for second day in escalating unrest

  • A similar attack on Wednesday wounded seven members of the Iraqi security forces in the Green Zone

BAGHDAD: Four rockets fired from eastern Baghdad on Thursday landed around the Iraqi capital’s Green Zone, home to government buildings and foreign missions, police said, as political unrest intensified.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the strikes and no claim of responsibility, two police officers said. A number of Shiite Muslim militant groups have offices and supporters in eastern Baghdad.
A similar attack on Wednesday wounded seven members of the Iraqi security forces in the Green Zone, and appeared to add a new dimension to a contest among power-hungry politicians.
Rocket attacks on the Green Zone have been regular in recent years but they are normally directed at Western targets by Iran-backed militia groups.
Those attacks have been rare in recent months. Wednesday’s attack took place as parliament was holding a vote to confirm its speaker.
The political crisis has left Iraq without a government for nearly a year after elections last October.
The crisis broadly pits the powerful populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, a political, religious and militia leader, against an array of mostly Iran-aligned political and militant groups.
Sadr, the biggest winner of the election, withdrew all his lawmakers from parliament in June and has sworn not to let parliament convene, fearing other parties will form a government without him.
The standoff spiralled into street clashes killing dozens of people in central Baghdad in August. Many Iraqis fear the same could happen again.


Imprisoned Palestinian-French human rights lawyer begins hunger strike

Updated 28 September 2022

Imprisoned Palestinian-French human rights lawyer begins hunger strike

  • Salah Hamouri is protesting against his detention, which is based on evidence he is not allowed to see and has been extended until at least December
  • Israeli authorities transferred Hamouri to a maximum-security prison in July after he wrote a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron asking for help

LONDON: Palestinian-French human rights lawyer Salah Hamouri, who has been imprisoned without charge by Israeli authorities for six months, has gone on hunger strike in protest.

Hamouri was arrested on March 7 at his home in East Jerusalem. No charges have been filed against him but his detention order has been extended until at least early December based on undisclosed evidence, The Guardian reported.

A member of the #JusticeforSalah campaign told the newspaper that negotiations with Israeli authorities on Wednesday for the lawyer’s release were unsuccessful.

Hamouri, along with 29 other detainees in Israeli prisons, reportedly began an indefinite hunger strike on Sunday to protest against administrative detention. This is an Israeli practice, commonly used against Palestinians who are subject to the military justice system rather than civil justice, under which suspects can be detained for renewable six-month terms without charge or any access to the evidence against them, on the grounds that they might break the law in future in released.

Israeli authorities say the practice is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks and protect sensitive intelligence sources. However, human rights campaigners argue that Israeli authorities use it excessively and it violates the right of suspects to due process

Israel is currently holding 743 administrative detainees, the highest number since 2008, according to Israeli human rights group HaMoked.

In July, 37-year-old Hamouri was transferred to a maximum-security prison called Hadarim, where he was placed in a tiny isolation cell. It came after he wrote a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron asking for the help of the French government, according to #JusticeforSalah.

His wife, French national Elsa Lefort, and their two children, who live in France, have been prevented from visiting or even speaking to Hamouri on the telephone since his arrest.

Hamouri has been imprisoned by Israel a number of times, including a seven-year sentence between 2005 and 2011 for his alleged role in an assassination plot against a chief rabbi.

While he maintained his innocence throughout three years of pretrial detention, he eventually accepted a plea bargain to avoid a 14-year jail sentence or deportation to France, which would have probably have resulted in him losing his Israeli-issued right to residency in Jerusalem.

In 2016, Lefort, who was pregnant at the time, was deported after arriving at Tel Aviv’s airport and barred from entering Israel for 10 years.

Hammouri’s Jerusalem residency rights were revoked in October 2021. The reason given was a “breach of allegiance” to the Israeli state, based on undisclosed evidence. This was a legal first, according to the Guardian. The residency case is due to be heard again in February next year.

“Salah has never stopped being vocal about the occupation. He is always speaking at events in France and tours, talking about the conditions of political prisoners and other violations,” a spokesperson for #JusticeforSalah told the Guardian.

“Treating him like this is a way to try and silence him, to break him, and send a message to other human rights defenders.”

In recent years, several Palestinians have gone on long-term hunger strikes to protest against their administrative detention. In most cases, Israel eventually released them after their health deteriorated significantly.

The most recent high-profile Palestinian hunger striker was Khalil Awawdeh, who was at risk of dying and suffered neurological damage as a result of a near-six-month hunger strike. He ended his protest in August after Israel agreed to release him when his current administrative detention order expires.
 


Protest-hit Iran launches strikes that kill 9 in Iraqi Kurdistan

Updated 28 September 2022

Protest-hit Iran launches strikes that kill 9 in Iraqi Kurdistan

  • A barrage of missiles and drones on Wednesday claimed nine lives and wounded 32
  • Iraq’s federal government called in the Iranian ambassador to protest the deadly strikes

ZARGWEZ, Iraq: Iran launched cross-border missile and drone strikes that killed nine people in Iraq’s Kurdistan region Wednesday after accusing Kurdish armed groups based there of stoking a wave of unrest that has rocked the Islamic republic.
The September 16 death of Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, 22, while in the custody of Iran’s morality police has sparked a major wave of protests and a crackdown that has left scores of demonstrators dead over the past 12 nights.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has in recent days accused the Iraq-based Kurdish groups of “attacking and infiltrating Iran from the northwest of the country to sow insecurity and riots and spread unrest.”
After several earlier Iranian cross-border attacks that caused no casualties, a barrage of missiles and drones on Wednesday claimed nine lives and wounded 32, said the regional health minister in Irbil, Saman Al-Barazanji, while visiting the wounded in a hospital in the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.
“There are civilians among the victims,” including one of those killed, a senior official of the Kurdistan region earlier told AFP.
An AFP correspondent reported smoke billowing from locations hit, ambulances racing to the scene and residents fleeing, at Zargwez, about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from Sulaimaniyah.
In Baghdad, Iraq’s federal government called in the Iranian ambassador to protest the deadly strikes, while the UN mission in Iraq deplored the attack, saying “rocket diplomacy is a reckless act with devastating consequences.”
“These attacks need to cease immediately,” the UN mission said on Twitter.
The United States said it “strongly condemns” Iran’s deadly strikes in Iraqi Kurdistan and warned against further attacks.
“We stand with the people and government of Iraq in the face of these brazen attacks on their sovereignty,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
Other Iranian strikes Wednesday destroyed buildings around Zargwez, where several exiled left-wing Iranian Kurdish parties maintain offices.
“The area where we are has been hit by 10 drone strikes,” Atta Nasser, an official from Komala, one exiled Iranian group, told AFP, blaming Iran for the strikes.
“The headquarters of the Kurdistan Freedom Party has been hit by Iranian strikes,” Hussein Yazdan, an official from the party, told AFP, about the site in the Sherawa region, south of Irbil.
Another group, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, said its bases and headquarters in Koysinjaq, east of Irbil, were struck by “missiles and drones.”
“These cowardly attacks are occurring at a time when the terrorist regime of Iran is unable to crack down on ongoing protests inside and silence the Kurdish and Iranian peoples’ civil resistance,” it tweeted.
Amini, 22, died in Tehran on September 16, three days after being arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress code for women that demands they wear hijab headscarves and modest clothes.
Her death sparked Iran’s biggest protests in almost three years and a crackdown that has killed at least 76 people, according to the Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights, or “around 60,” according to Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency.
Protests have rocked especially Kurdish communities in western Iran that share strong connections with Kurdish-inhabited areas of Iraq.
Many Iranian Kurds cross the border into Iraq to find work, due to a biting economic crisis in Iran driven in large part by US sanctions.
Iranian state television had said Sunday about earlier attacks that the “Revolutionary Guards targeted the headquarters of several separatist terrorist groups in northern Iraq with missiles and precision-guided attack drones.”
Two days later the Guards’ General Abbas Nilforoushan, deputy for operations, said “the establishment of a base by the enemies of the Islamic Revolution in this region is not acceptable,” Tasnim news agency reported.
“For some time now, counter-revolutionary elements have been attacking and infiltrating Iran from the northwest of the country to sow insecurity and riots and spread unrest.”
He added that several of “these anti-revolutionary elements were arrested during some riots in the northwest (of Iran), so we had to defend ourselves, react and bomb the surroundings of the border strip.”


Israeli forces kill 4 Palestinians in Jenin raid

Updated 28 September 2022

Israeli forces kill 4 Palestinians in Jenin raid

  • Israeli forces said they shot dead two Palestinians suspected of involvement in recent gun attacks
  • Two more were killed and 44 injured as residents protested against the incursion

RAMALLAH: Four Palestinians were killed and dozens injured, some seriously, during an Israeli military raid early on Wednesday in the Jenin refugee camp in in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli forces said they shot dead two Palestinians suspected of involvement in recent gun attacks. Two more were killed and 44 injured as residents protested against the incursion.

Video footage showed plumes of smoke billowing from a house in the camp, apparently after an explosion. In the streets, men sheltered behind cars as heavy gunfire could be heard.

President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party said one of the men killed in the clashes was Ahmed Alawneh, a 24-year-old intelligence officer.

The party added that the incursion was a “dangerous escalation.” It called for demonstrations to honor the “heroic martyrs” and “unify the battlefields against the Israeli occupation that is trying to single out and isolate Jenin.”

Thousands later participated in the funeral of the four dead amid chants calling for revenge.

Maj. Gen. Akram Rajoub, Jenin’s governor, told Arab News that the Israeli army used excessive force and intended to kill.

He said the two wanted men died in the yard of a house that had been surrounded by Israeli soldiers, despite possessing no weapons and showing no resistance.

Mohammad Shtayyeh, the Palestinian prime minister, called for the men’s killers to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. Mosques announced mourning and a general strike in Jenin and Nablus.

Ninety Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army in the West Bank since the beginning of this year.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said the killings showed that “this occupation, which practices terrorism in all its forms against our Palestinian people,” understands only force.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for the Palestinian presidency, said the “dangerous Israeli escalation” would not give legitimacy, security or stability to Israel.

He added that Israel is an international pariah and that the US, its principle ally, has lost credibility with its continued calls for calm while Palestinian lives, land and holy sites are being destroyed.

“The occupation still insists on crossing all red lines, whether in Jerusalem, Jenin, Nablus or the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories,” he said.

Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman, said the “terrorism of the occupation” would not break Jenin’s determination, and “the fall of the martyrs becomes fuel for the resistance.”

He added that the battle against Israel will continue until it is expelled from all Palestinian land.

Israel accused Hamas of stoking tensions in the West Bank, claiming that an explosive device was detonated when its soldiers tried to arrest the wanted men in Jenin and that both died in an exchange of fire.

Hamas was also accused by Israel of stoking Palestinian resistance at the Al-Aqsa compound in East Jerusalem, which has been stormed by Jewish settlers for three consecutive days.