even the demure jason ditz is driven to an alarmist headline

Turkey Edges Toward Direct War With Syria in Idlib Province
Jason Ditz, Antiwar.com, Feb 19 2020

Erdogan says that a military operation in north-west Syria to expel Syrian forces from Idlib is only “a matter of time,” as Turkey continues to send more troops into the area. Turkey has launched multiple attacks against the SAA in the past month, mostly to try to slow SAA advances against AQ. Erdogan has repeatedly demanded Syria abandon the Idlib Province to the Islamist groups, and now intends to try to directly do this. Erdogan presented this new war as necessary because talks with Russia failed to get them to expel Syria from this Syrian province. Russia, however, is warning Turkey against trying to impose a military solution in north-west Syria. Turkey is trying to present operations in support of AQ’s territorial control as a humanitarian necessity, and Syria’s fighting as endangering civilians.

Turkey edges towards direct conflict with Russian-backed Syria
Tuvan Gumrukcu, Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Reuters, Feb 19 2020

ANKARA/AMMAN – Erdogan said on Wednesday a military operation by his forces to push back a Syrian government offensive against rebels in north-west Syria was now “a matter of time” after talks with Russia failed to halt the assault. Turkish troops have already massed inside the Idlib region and more were heading to the border area, bringing NATO member Turkey and Russian-backed Syria close to the brink of direct confrontation. The Kremlin, which has supported the SAA push with airstrikes, said a clash between Turkish and SAA forces would be a “worst-case scenario” and Russia would work to prevent the situation from worsening. SAA troops supported by Russian warplanes and special forces have been battling since December to eradicate the last rebel bastions in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in what could be one of the final chapters of the nine-year-old civil war. Speaking to MPs from his ruling AK Party on Wednesday, Erdogan said Turkey was determined to make Idlib a secure zone even while talks with Moscow continued. Several rounds of diplomacy had failed to reach an agreement so far, he said. Erdogan, whose country has the second-largest army in NATO, said:

We are entering the last days for the regime to stop its hostility in Idlib. We are making our final warnings. Turkey has made every preparation to carry out its own operational plans. I say that we can come at any point. In other words, the Idlib offensive is only a matter of time.

Erdogan on Saturday appeared to move forward his earlier end-of-February deadline for a Syrian withdrawal from Idlib. Assad has showed no sign of doing so and has predicted the eventual defeat of his foes. They include Turkish-backed rebels and jihadist militants. An opposition military source told Reuters that 15,000 Turkish soldiers were now in north-west Syria after numerous convoys had poured into the territory in recent days. he said, referring to a Turkish border town:

You can’t imagine the scale of Turkish reinforcements, half of Reyhanli is now full of Turkish commandoes ready to enter Syria. They are readying their forces for zero hour, operations are expected to start any time.

Ankara and Moscow signed an agreement in 2018 to establish a de-escalation zone in Idlib allowing both sides to set up observation posts. Since the escalation in the conflict, both sides have accused each other of flouting the agreement. In Moscow on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Syrian forces were upholding previous agreements but also reacting to provocations. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said:

If we talk about an operation against legitimate Syrian authorities and armed forces, it is of course a worst-case scenario.

In the past week the Syrian army has seized dozens of towns around Aleppo and the M5 highway linking Damascus to Aleppo. It was unclear when Ankara and Moscow might resume talks. Syrian military defector general Ahmad Rahhal said the talks in Moscow on Monday “were humiliating to Turkey” and had angered Ankara. He told Reuters:

The Russians have made a mistake. We are heading towards a Turkish military operation in Syria but no one knows exactly when. It may start in waves and gradually build up on several fronts.

Russia Warns Turkey, Blocks UN Bid To End Syria Bloodshed
Fulya Ozerkan, AFP, Feb 19 2020

Russia on Wednesday warned Turkey against intervening in Syria as it blocked a UN bid to end the Damascus regime’s brutal assault on the last rebel enclave. Syrian aid workers called urgently for a ceasefire and international help for nearly a million people fleeing the regime onslaught in the country’s northwestern Idlib province, the biggest wave of displaced civilians in the nine-year conflict. Turkey, supporter of some rebel groups in Idlib, has been pushing for a renewed ceasefire in talks with Russia, which backs the Syrian regime. Ankara is eager to prevent another flood of refugees into its territory adding to the 3.7 million Syrians it already hosts. The Syrian NGO Alliance said displaced people are “escaping in search of safety only to die from extreme weather conditions and lack of available resources.” Razan Saffour, of the Syrian Expatriate Medical Association, told AFP in Istanbul:

We have hundreds and thousands of people who are fleeing, not just from bombardments but from lack of insulation, from the weather, a lack of heating. It feels like doomsday.

The group said a total of $336m was needed for basic food, water and shelter. Education resources were also needed for 280 million displaced school-age children (sic! – RB). Erdogan said talks with Moscow over the past fortnight had so far failed to achieve “the desired result” and warned that Turkey would launch an offensive into Syria unless Damascus pulled its forces back by the end of the month. Erdogan said in a televised speech:

An operation in Idlib is imminent. We are counting down. We are making our final warnings.

He called for Syrian forces to retreat by the end of this month behind Turkey’s military posts in Idlib, which were set up under a 2018 deal with Russia designed to hold off a regime advance. The Kremlin quickly responded to Erdogan’s threat, saying that Turkey should instead act against “terrorist groups” in Idlib. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow:

If we are talking about an operation against the legitimate authorities of the SAR and armed forces of the SAR, this would of course be the worst-case scenario.

With Turkey moving large numbers of reinforcements into Idlib in recent weeks, Defence Minister Hulusi Akar told reporters in Ankara:

It is out of the question for us to withdraw from our observation posts. If there is any sort of attack against them, we will retaliate in kind.

Russia has repeatedly vetoed UNSCRs on the conflict, as it hopes for the triumph of the regime. At the UN, diplomats said they were unable to produce a statement on ending the fighting due to Russian objections. Nicolas de Riviere, the French ambassador to the UN, told reporters:

We tried very hard to have a press statement calling for cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access to Idlib. Basically Russia said no, which is very painful.

The UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, told the UNSC:

No progress has been reported after several rounds of talks between Turkey and Russia held in Ankara and Moscow. To the contrary, public statements from different quarters, Syrian and international, suggest an imminent danger of further escalation.

Earlier this week the UN said the displaced were mainly women and children. It warned that babies were dying of cold because aid camps are full. The Syrian NGOs called for the warring parties to allow safe access for humanitarian groups and for a “complete ceasefire and end to human rights violations.” According to the British-based SOHR, the regime offensive has killed more than 400 civilians since it began in December, adding to the toll of more than 380,000 who have died in the years of unrest. The UN OCHA head on site, Mark Lowcock, said earlier this week:

The violence in north-west Syria is indiscriminate. Health facilities, schools, residential areas, mosques and markets have been hit.

The head of the WHO said Tuesday that out of nearly 550 health facilities in north-west Syria, only about half were operational. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told journalists in Geneva:

We repeat: health facilities and health workers are not a legitimate target.

Media Opposition Sources Run By British Intelligence
Moon of Alabama, Feb 19 2020

Russia has called Turkey’s bluff of a wide ranging attack on Syrian government forces. Erdogan will now have to find a way out of the Idleb trap he set himself in. His excellent Syria adventure is coming to an end. Meanwhile we learn that the British military intelligence ran another large disinformation campaign that brought ‘Syrian voices’ into the ‘western’ press. Erdogan continues with his wild rhetoric over Syria.

The Turkish talks with Russia have not gone well. Russia proposed the following points:

Some ten of Turkey’s observation points are currently surrounded by the SAA. If Turkey starts to escalate they will be in a dire situation. Turkey rejected the Russian proposal:

Erdoğan said on Feb 19 that talks with Russia on the northwestern Syrian region of Idlib were far from meeting Turkey’s demands and warned that a military operation there was a “matter of time.” Erdoğan said: “As with all operations, we say we could suddenly come one night. In other words, an Idlib operation is a matter of time. We are entering the last days for the regime to stop its hostility in Idlib. We are making our final warnings. Turkey has made all preparations to carry out its own operation plans in Idlib.”

The Kremlin spokesman called a Turkish attack the worst case scenario. Peskov said:

If it is an operation against Syria’s legitimate authorities and armed forces, it will definitely be the worst scenario. We are determined to continue to use our working contacts with our Turkish counterparts to prevent the situation in Idlib from escalating further.

Two hours after it published the above, TASS published this:

Two Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic bombers have performed a scheduled flight over the neutral waters of the Black Sea, Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday. During the flight, the crews covered a distance of about 4,500 km and stayed in the air for more than five hours, the statement runs. Fighter jets of Russia’s Southern Military District escorted the bombers during the flight.

The Tu-22M3 can fire long-range cruise missiles. The Turkish military will understand that warning. The Russians are also prodding Erdogan with reports about Pindo weapon deliveries to Kurds in eastern Syria. Rear Adm Oleg Zhuravlev said in a daily briefing:

CENTCOM in the region is intensively saturating the territory east of the Euphrates river with weapons and ammunition. Since the beginning of 2020, 13 military convoys have arrived from Iraq to Syria, which included over 80 armored vehicles and more than 300 trucks loaded with various types of weapons, ammunition and materiel.

Reports now speak of more than a million refugees in Idleb even as the pre-war population of Idleb governorate never exceeded 1.5 million. Many of those already fled during the early war either to government held areas or to Turkey and beyond. Where are the million reported now supposed to have come from? The ‘western’ media is again practicing tear-jerking about these refugees in Idleb. But its reports forget to mention that AQ rules Idleb and that it prevents the people from crossing the line into Syrian government held areas:

In yet another lengthy, expensive, lavishly illustrated story about Idlib, the NYT once again failed to make any mention of the politics of what is happening in that enclave of north-western Syria, namely the fact that well-armed takfiri-jihadis from all around the world have controlled it for the past several years, while Syria’s government forces have been battling to regain control. In that latest article, as in all of the lengthy, one-sided tearjerkers it has published about Idlib over the past year, the NYT has no actual journalists or photographers on the ground reporting the story. It is wholly reliant instead on “stories” and footage it gathers from unverifiable sources inside the enclave, sources who notably never include any mention of the jihadi armed groups that control all aspects of life there.

Today we learn that many of these unverifiable sources have been on the British government payroll since at least 2012:

A number of leaked documents seen by Middle East Eye show how the propaganda initiative began in 2012 and gathered pace the following year, shortly after the UK parliament refused to authorise British military action in Syria. Drawing upon British, American and Canadian funding, UK government contractors set up offices in Istanbul and Amman, where they hired members of the Syrian diaspora, who in turn recruited citizen journalists inside Syria. During 2015, Free Syria, Syrian Identity and Undermine were funded in both British pounds and Canadian dollars, with the equivalent of around £410,000 ($540,000) being spent each month.

These ‘sources’ which were hired and instructed by the UK government are the ones quoted in ‘western’ papers. The whole scheme, like the British-organized White Helmets, was run by military intelligence officers:

Individuals familiar with the project say that around nine companies were invited to bid for the contracts. They included a number of firms established by former British diplomats, intelligence officers and army officers. Although the contracts were awarded by the UK’s foreign office, they were managed by the country’s Ministry of Defence, and sometimes by military intelligence officers. These companies set up offices in Amman, Istanbul and, for a period, at Reyhanli in south-east Turkey. From here they would employ Syrians who would in turn recruit citizen journalists inside Syria, who were under the impression that they were working for the media offices of Syrian opposition groups.

British intelligence also hired journalists to write ‘Syrian rebel’ propaganda stories, and organized and directed the opposition’s spokespersons:

Meanwhile, other leaked documents seen by MEE show that the British government had awarded contracts to communications companies which selected and trained opposition spokespeople, ran press offices that operated 24 hours a day and developed opposition social media accounts. British staff running these offices were told that their Syrian employees were permitted to talk to British journalists, as spokespeople for the Syrian opposition, but only after receiving clearance from officials at the British consulate in Istanbul. One of the responsibilities of the press offices set up covertly by the British government under the terms of these contracts was to “maintain an effective network of correspondents/stringers inside Syria to report on moderate armed opposition activity.” In this way, the British government was able to exert influence from behind the scenes over conversations that the UK media was having with individuals who presented themselves as Syrian opposition representatives.

It weren’t just UK media who cited those persons. The whole ‘civil opposition movement’ was, like the White Helmets, a well-organized and well-paid British government front. But when Turkey increased its role in Syria the British disinformation operation began to shut down:

British government enthusiasm for much of the work appears to have begun to wane as it became increasingly clear that the Assad government and its Russian and Iranian allies were winning the civil war, and funding for contracts began to dry up. Early in 2019, the Free Syrian Police, a British-backed organisation, finally ceased operations following a militant takeover of Idlib province, much to the dismay of civilians and civil society activists. The Turkish government is also said to have become less tolerant of the propaganda initiatives being co-ordinated from its territory. One British contractor is understood to have been expelled after the Turkish authorities discovered she had entered the country on a tourist visa.

That Turkey’s government became less tolerant to the British operation may also explain the death of the British military intelligence officer who ran the White Helmets propaganda group from his apartment in Istanbul.

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