Dangers, Opportunities for Turkey in Idlib Deal, Analysts Say

Ankara is signaling its readiness to use force against radical groups in the Syrian Idlib enclave as part of a deal struck with Moscow, which has been pressuring the Turkish government to comply with terms of an accord made between the Russian and Turkish presidents.

Earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, agreed to create a demilitarized zone (DMZ) in the rebel-controlled Idlib enclave.

The deal, heralded as a diplomatic triumph by Ankara, averted a Syrian regime offensive backed by Russian forces against the last rebel bastion. With 3 million people trapped in the region, aid groups have been warning of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Ankara now faces the formidable task of removing radical Islamist groups, along with the heavy weapons of rebel forces, from a 15- to 20-kilometer zone by October 15.

“It is one thing to speak in the chambers of the palaces to hold press conferences and so forth. It’s another thing to fight on the ground,” former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen said. “Especially because of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham elements, which are a 30,000-strong jihadi force in west Idlib, and especially near the Turkish border and within Idlib town itself, what will they decide? Will they agree on this solution? This is the question.”  

While addressing reporters Friday, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin indicated a readiness to use force against radical groups if they don’t agree to leave the DMZ.

“Persuasion, pacification, other measures, whatever is necessary,” Kalin said. Last month, Ankara designated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, (formally called al-Nusra), as a terrorist organization.

Tall order

Analysts say Ankara will be careful to avoid a military confrontation and will look to its influence on the rebel opposition.

“The leverage Turkey has is that Turkey is still supporting the Free Syrian Army and many other groups. From the very beginning, they have looked to Turkey for support in fighting [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad,” according to international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University.

“But the radical groups linked to Daesh [Islamic State], al-Qaida, al-Nusra,” Bagci continued, “whether Turkey will be effective with those groups, I have some doubts. But Russia is expecting Turkey to get full success to convince all of them to leave, which is very, very difficult, I would say.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stepped up the pressure on Ankara. “Nusra Front terrorists should leave this demilitarized zone by mid-October; all heavy weaponry should be withdrawn from there,” Lavrov told a press conference Friday.

Critics of the Idlib deal insist Moscow has trapped Ankara into committing itself to remove or eradicate radical groups from the DMZ, which carries the risk of Turkey being sucked into a conflict with the jihadis.

However, the Idlib deal gives Ankara an opportunity to strengthen its hand in Syria.

“Turkey will definitely increase the number of military personnel in [Idlib] and its influence [in Syria],” said Bagci. “It [Turkey’s military presence] will become a part of the negotiations process in the future with Russia. Definitely, Turkey is using the opportunity, since it’s available, to get more military personnel there and keep them there longer.”

Under a previous agreement between Moscow and Tehran, Ankara established 12 military observation posts across Idlib. The outposts were part of a deal to create a de-escalation zone for Syrian rebel forces and their families. The threat of a Syrian regime offensive against the region prompted the Turkish military to bolster its presence around the outposts.

‘Twin objectives’

Analysts suggest a further consolidation of Turkey’s military presence in Idlib, along with Turkish forces’ current control of a large swath of northern Syria, will strengthen Ankara’s efforts to secure its Syrian goals.

“Turkey wants to create a situation in Syria so that these neighboring regions to Turkey that are controlled by pro-Turkish elements continue [to be controlled by them] so that there is no security threat to Turkey,” said Sinan Ulgen head of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, or Edam.

“Secondly, as a result of a political settlement,” he continued, “enough of [a] security guarantee would be provided so that some of the Syrian refugees [in Turkey] can go back to their homes. They are the twin objectives of the Turkish government regarding Syria.”

Turkey claims it is hosting more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. The Idlib deal between Ankara and Moscow at least for now has removed the threat of another significant exodus of refugees into Turkey.

With Lavrov warning the deal is only an “intermediate step,” critics caution the Idlib deal may offer only a reprieve from a Syrian regime offensive against the rebel enclave. As Ankara seems prepared to use the coming weeks to step up its military presence in Idlib, that will bring a heightened risk of confrontation with jihadi groups.

Analysts say such a marked armed presence, however, also likely will enhance Erdogan’s bargaining position the next time he sits down with Putin to discuss the future of Idlib.

Chilean Archbishop Seeks Dismissal of Sex Abuse Cover-up Charges

Attorneys for Chile’s most senior cleric said on Friday they will ask a judge to drop charges he covered up sexual abuse amid a scandal that has rocked the Chilean Roman Catholic Church and prompted a major civil investigation.

The ongoing church sex abuse scandal in the Andean nation has prompted Pope Francis to open an investigation that has led to the resignations of several bishops and priests.

Lawyers for Ricardo Ezzati, the archbishop of Santiago, have requested more time to prepare their case after Ezzati was originally due to be questioned by a civil prosecutor last month.

Ezzati’s defense team, which includes lawyer Hugo Rivera, has determined that the archbishop’s case does not qualify as a “cover-up,” Rivera told reporters on Friday.

“After a long review of the background … we are totally and absolutely convinced that this case does not meet the requirements established by law,” Rivera said.

The lawyers said they are due to discuss a settlement to dismiss the charges with prosecutors before a judge in the central Chilean city of Rancagua on Oct. 5.

The sex abuse crisis has gripped Chile’s Catholic Church since 2011, when Chilean priest Fernando Karadima was found guilty by the Vatican of abusing children in the 1970s and 1980s. The allegations prompted a probe that has led to the ousting of bishops and other priests.

All of Chile’s 34 bishops offered to resign en masse in May after attending a meeting with the pope over allegations of a cover-up.

Earlier on Friday, Francis accepted the resignations of two more Chilean bishops, bringing the total to seven. With the latest resignations, the pope has removed the leadership of about 20 percent of the Latin American country’s dioceses.

Anti-Doping Agency Is Compromised, Group Contends

A leading anti-doping group hinted at changing the structure of the World Anti-Doping Agency, saying the decision to reinstate Russia’s drug-fighting operation was a sign that WADA leaders were saddled with “conflicting priorities.”

The Institute of National Anti-Doping Organizations (INADO) said in a statement Friday that members of the WADA executive committee had pressures surrounding the decision that went beyond doping.

The committee voted 9-2 on Thursday to end RUSADA’s suspension after weakening the standards originally agreed upon for reinstatement.

The committee is headed by Craig Reedie, whose status as a member of the International Olympic Committee has long been viewed by people in the anti-doping community as a conflict of interest.

The other spots on the committee are divided among sports and government leaders.

Linda Helleland, the minister of children and equality in Norway, was among those voting “no,” and after the vote said, “Today, we failed the clean athletes of the world.”

The institute said WADA “surrendered to pressure from the IOC and the Russian government to substantially weaken the terms” for reinstatement.

“This is not good governance, nor does it reflect a good governance model,” the statement said. “WADA must be an effective and resolute global anti-doping regulator and governor — exclusively.”

The comments from a body that represents 67 anti-doping agencies around the world largely echoed what U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart said in the hours following the decision, when he called for revamping WADA. 

“It starts by removing the inherent conflict of interest that comes about from the IOC fox guarding the WADA henhouse,” Tygart said.

Recommendation on Russians rejected

Before the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, WADA had recommended that the IOC not allow Russian athletes to participate in the wake of the McLaren Report, which documented a state-sponsored doping scheme designed to help win medals at the Winter Games in Russia. 

The IOC ignored that recommendation and allowed in Russian athletes.

After that decision, Reedie issued a statement saying: “The McLaren Report exposed, beyond a reasonable doubt, a state-run doping program in Russia that seriously undermines the principles of clean sport embodied within the World Anti-Doping Code.”

It was a rare rebuke of the IOC by one of its own members, and one that Reedie hasn’t repeated.

Among the conditions WADA originally set for RUSADA’s reinstatement was that Russia accept the findings of the McLaren Report. That was changed to a requirement that Russia accept the IOC’s Schmid Report, which put less emphasis on the Russian government’s role in the cheating.

The other change allows Russia until Dec. 31 to turn over lab samples and data, instead of demanding possession before reinstatement.

While others have suggested WADA caved to pressure from the IOC, Reedie has portrayed WADA’s moves as nothing more than a pragmatic and realistic approach to bringing RUSADA back into the fold.

INADO took exception to that thinking.

“As the global regulator, WADA should have been objectively enforcing the agreed sanctions and requirements, not compromising them,” the group said. 

Mexico’s Sinaloa Declares Emergency as 3 Die in Flooding

Federal officials in Mexico declared a state of emergency for 11 municipalities in the northwestern state of Sinaloa due to flooding from a tropical depression’s heavy rains that killed at least three people, authorities reported Friday.

Images in local and social media showed streets turned into raging rivers, swamping cars. El Universal newspaper posted video of an SUV being carried away by the current in Guamuchil as passengers scrambled to get onto its roof.

Soldiers went around in trucks to pick up residents and take them to safety, and the Sinaloa state government said more than 2,000 people had evacuated and 13 shelters were set up.

In a statement early Friday, state Attorney General Juan Jose Rios Estavillo reported that one person drowned and two were killed by electrocution. Three women were missing in Culiacan, the state capital, after presumably being swept away.

State Education Secretary Jose Enrique Villa Rivera said preliminary reports were that 100 schools were damaged by floodwaters, mainly their perimeter walls.

The tropical depression arrived in the area early Thursday and dumped as much as 14 inches (359 millimeters) of rain in just 24 hours, overflowing storm drains.

The Eustaquio Buelna dam in Guamuchil was said to have reached 144 percent of capacity, prompting authorities to release water downstream to avoid structural damage.

The stadium of the Dorados de Sinaloa soccer club, which recently signed Argentine legend Diego Maradona as coach, also flooded.

The state of emergency was declared by the federal Interior Department late Thursday.

Mass Tourism Threatens Croatia’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Town

Marc van Bloemen has lived in the old town of Dubrovnik, a Croatian citadel widely praised as the jewel of the Adriatic, for decades, since he was a child. He says it used to be a privilege. Now it’s a nightmare.

Crowds of tourists clog the entrances to the ancient walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as huge cruise ships unload thousands more daily. People bump into each other on the famous limestone-paved Stradun, the pedestrian street lined with medieval churches and palaces, as fans of the popular TV series “Game of Thrones” search for the locations where it was filmed.

Dubrovnik is a prime example of the effects of mass tourism, a global phenomenon in which the increase in people traveling means standout sites — particularly small ones — get overwhelmed by crowds. As the numbers of visitors keeps rising, local authorities are looking for ways to keep the throngs from killing off the town’s charm.

“It’s beyond belief, it’s like living in the middle of Disneyland,” said van Bloemen from his house overlooking the bustling Old Harbor in the shadows of the stone city walls.

On a typical day there are about eight cruise ships visiting this town of 2,500 people, each dumping some 2,000 tourists into the streets. He recalls one day when 13 ships anchored here.

“We feel sorry for ourselves, but also for them [the tourists] because they can’t feel the town anymore because they are knocking into other tourists,” he said. “It’s chaos, the whole thing is chaos.”

The problem is hurting Dubrovnik’s reputation. UNESCO warned last year that the city’s world heritage title was at risk because of the surge in tourist numbers.

The popular Discoverer travel blog recently wrote that a visit to the historic town “is a highlight of any Croatian vacation, but the crowds that pack its narrow streets and passageways don’t make for a quality visitor experience.”

It said that the extra attention the city gets from being a filming location for “Game of Thrones” combines with the cruise ship arrivals to create “a problem of epic proportions.”

It advises travelers to visit other quaint old towns nearby: “Instead of trying to be one of the lucky ones who gets a ticket to Dubrovnik’s sites, try the delightful town of Ohrid in nearby Macedonia.”

In 2017, local authorities announced a “Respect the City” plan that limits the number of tourists from cruise ships to a maximum of 4,000 at any one time during the day. The plan still has to be implemented, however.

“We are aware of the crowds,” said Romana Vlasic, the head of the town’s tourist board.

But while on the one hand she pledged to curb the number of visitors, Vlasic noted with some satisfaction that this season in Dubrovnik “is really good with a slight increase in numbers.” The success of the Croatian national soccer team at this summer’s World Cup, where it reached the final, helped bring  new tourists.

Vlasic said that over 800,000 tourists visited Dubrovnik since the start of the year, a 6 percent increase from the same period last year. Overnight stays were up 4 percent to 3 million.

The cruise ships pay the city harbor docking fees, but the local businesses get very little money from the visitors, who have all-inclusive packages on board the ship and spend very little on local restaurants or shops.

Krunoslav Djuricic, who plays his electric guitar at Pile, one of the two main entrances of Dubrovnik’s walled city, sees the crowds pass by him all day and believes that “mass tourism might not be what we really need.”

The tourists disembarking from the cruise ships have only a few hours to visit the city, meaning they often rush around to see the sites and take selfies to post to social media.

“We have crowds of people who are simply running,” Djuricic said. “Where are these people running to?”

Maduro Says He’ll Ask UN for $500 Million to Repatriate Venezuela’s Migrants

President Nicolas Maduro says he’s going to ask the United Nations for $500 million to help repatriate hundreds of thousands of impoverished Venezuelans who have fled their country’s economic meltdown.

Maduro has yet to decide whether or not he will attend the UN General Assembly in New York next week, saying on Tuesday he first needed to evaluate the security procedures in place.

He has not attended the General Assembly since 2015.

In addressing a message to the UN’s new special representative for Venezuelan migrants, Maduro took what appeared to be a deliberately provocative tone — and it was unclear whether he intended to follow through with the request for money.

“I invite you, come to Venezuela, I’m going to ask you to give me $500 million to bring me … all the migrants outside Venezuela who want to return, and they all want to return!” he said in the message to UN representative Eduardo Stein, a former Guatemalan vice president.

Maduro said he would use the money to fly Venezuelans back home.

The UN says 2.3 million Venezuelans are living outside the country, with 1.6 million having fled since 2015.

Venezuela’s economic woes began in 2014 with the crash in the price of oil, a commodity on which the country is almost entirely dependent.

“We’ll need a fleet of planes to bring them, I’m not going to bring them back on foot,” said Maduro, alluding to the fact many migrants fleeing the country have done so on foot or hitch-hiking, with their few worldly belongings bundled up in their arms.

Venezuela is in a fourth year of recession with inflation predicted to reach one million percent this year.

Citizens face shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicines, while public services including water, electricity and transport are often paralyzed.

Maduro has already launched a “Return to Venezuela” campaign, putting on airplanes and buses to bring home migrants that have left the country.

The government claims it has repatriated 3,000 people while it also downplays the numbers to have left.

Meanwhile, Maduro described Stein as “a type of inspector, prosecutor, policeman for Venezuelan migration,” during a meeting with his finance cabinet on Thursday.

Turning his attentions to a potential appearance in New York, Maduro said: “They have me in their sights to kill me,” without elaborating on whom that might be.

Major Powers, Except US, Try to Keep Iran Nuclear Deal Alive

Nations that struck the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, except for the United States, meet on Monday in what many diplomats fear may prove a quixotic effort to keep the agreement alive after U.S. sanctions targeting Iranian oil exports resume in November.

Ministers from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and Iran will gather in New York at 8 p.m. EDT on Monday (0000 GMT Tuesday) to grapple with U.S. President Donald Trump’s May 8 decision to withdraw from the deal and restore the full force of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Their delicate, and perhaps unrealistic, task is to build a case for Tehran to respect the deal’s limits on its nuclear program even though Washington has pulled out, depriving Iran of many of the economic benefits it was promised.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “needs arguments to defend the deal in the face of the radicals. He needs us to give him ammunition,” said a senior European diplomat, referring to Iranian hard-liners who oppose the agreement.

“We are trying to give him ammunition, but what we can do, to be honest, is limited,” the diplomat added.

The crux of the deal, negotiated over almost two years by the Obama administration, was that Iran would restrain its nuclear program in return for the relaxation of sanctions that had crippled its economy. Trump considered it flawed because it did not include curbs on ballistic missiles or regional activity.

The United States began reimposing economic sanctions this summer and the most draconian measures, which seek to force Iran’s major customers to stop buying its oil, resume Nov. 5.

Their impending return has contributed to a slide in Iran’s currency. The rial has lost about two-thirds of its value this year, hitting a record low against the U.S. dollar this month.

The European Union has implemented a law to shield European companies from U.S. sanctions. Still, there are limits to what it can do to counter the oil sanctions, under which Washington can cut off from the U.S. financial system any bank that facilitates an oil transaction with Iran.

‘Hurt them more than us’

Many European companies are withdrawing or have withdrawn from Iran because of U.S. sanctions that could cut them off from the American market if they stay.

Iran believes the United States acted in bad faith by withdrawing from the deal even as Tehran has adhered to its terms and has rejected U.S. overtures to meet.

The most recent confidential report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based U.N. watchdog, found Iran had stayed within the main limitations imposed under the deal, whose formal name is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

In recent weeks, Iranian officials have begun arguing that if the Europeans cannot preserve trade with Iran, perhaps Tehran should reduce, but not eliminate, its compliance with the accord.

On Saturday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was quoted as telling Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine that Iran could “reduce its implementation” and possibly increase uranium enrichment activities if the deal was jeopardized by “the actions of the Americans and the passivity of the Europeans.”

European diplomats wish to avoid this. Hoping to keep Iran’s nuclear program in check, they have told Tehran that if it stops carrying out the deal to the letter, they will have no choice but to restore their own sanctions.

“They keep telling us the situation is horrible, they are going to leave the accord or just keep partially implementing the deal. It’s the same old music, but for now they continue to implement the JCPOA,” said a second senior European diplomat.

“We [are] warning them that if they were to pull out it would hurt them more than us,” he added.

 

 

Refugee, Migrant Children Face Dire Conditions on Greek Islands

More than 7,000 refugee and migrant children are living under horrible, unsanitary conditions on the Greek islands, the U.N. children’s fund reports. It says more than 850 children, on average, make the dangerous sea journey to Greece every month only to end up in facilities that are congested and lacking all basic necessities.

UNICEF’s country coordinator in Greece, Lucio Melandri, says he was appalled by what he saw on a recent visit to centers on the islands of Lesbos and Samos, where he met refugee children from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

“The vast majority of the children are deeply traumatized,” Melandri said. “Many have lived through war and they have had to flee their homes. They have survived, but now find themselves living in horrible conditions with no end in sight. For many children, they simply cannot cope.” 

Melandri says housing on the islands is unacceptable, noting that the Moria Center on Lesbos hosts nearly 9,000 people in a facility meant for 3,000. In addition, he says the center on Samos was built for 650 people, but houses 4,000. He says staff is overwhelmed and services in the centers could collapse in the coming winter months.

All refugees and migrants living in the centers, especially children, must be transferred to the mainland without further delay, according to UNICEF. It says these vulnerable people must be given adequate accommodation, protection, health care and other basic services.

Lawyer: Ukraine President Suing BBC for Libel

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko is suing British broadcaster BBC for libel over an article that said Kyiv paid $400,000 to secure a meeting with US leader Donald Trump last year.

Poroshenko issued the libel claim, seen by AFP, over an article published in May this year that said Kyiv paid Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen a “secret payment of at least $400,000” to “fix talks” between Poroshenko and Trump in the White House in June 2017.

The claim, filed through a British law firm, says the news story damaged Poroshenko’s “political and business” reputation and caused him “substantial distress and embarrassment”.

It added that the allegation of “serious corruption” was especially damaging because of Poroshenko’s “promotion of a number of anti-corruption measures in Ukraine”.

A spokesman for the BBC told AFP that it “cannot comment on this ongoing case”.

The article, which was also used in a televised report, was based on “sources in Kyiv close to those involved”.

It said a “high ranking Ukrainian intelligence officer” told the BBC the payment was made as Kyiv’s embassy in Washington “could get Poroshenko little more than a brief photo-op with Trump”.

Poroshenko met with Trump in the White House in June 2017.

There was speculation ahead of the meeting that Trump would refuse to meet the Ukrainian leader.

Washington did not announce the sit-down in advance — as is customary — and when it was described, the White House called it a “drop-in” with the US president.

For three years, ties between Washington and Kyiv have been dominated by efforts to contain a destabilising Russia-backed rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

The crisis has left 10,000 dead and heightened tensions between the West and the Kremlin.

Kyiv has been concerned by Trump often appearing reluctant to put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to solve the crisis.

Ukrainians are scheduled to go to polls to elect a president next March.

Poroshenko, who took office in 2014, is widely expected to run but has not yet made an official announcement.

Corruption was among the top reasons that prompted Ukrainians to take to the streets and oust a Kremlin-backed regime in early 2014.

But Ukrainian and Western observers have repeatedly questioned pro-Western Poroshenko’s resolve to reform the country’s kleptocratic system.

US ‘Very Close’ to Proceeding With Mexico-Only Trade Deal

The United States is getting “very, very close” to having to move forward on its trade deal with Mexico without Canada, White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said on Friday.

There is just over a week to go before an Oct. 1 deadline to publish the text of a deal to update the North American Free Trade Agreement and the United States and Canada have still not agreed on terms, Hassett told Fox News Channel.

“We’re still talking to Canada, and we’re getting very very close to the deadline where we’re going to have to move ahead with Mexico all by themselves,” said Hassett, who chairs the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

“I’m a little surprised that the Canadians haven’t signed up yet,” Hassett added. “I worry that politics in Canada is trumping common sense because there’s a very good deal that was designed by Mexico and the U.S. to appeal to Canada. And they’re not signing up and it’s got everybody over here a little bit puzzled.”