Truce Holds in Syria's Idlib as Turkey Bolsters its Military Posts

The sun setting over the opposition-held northwestern city of Idlib, Syria, June 29, 2021. (AFP)
The sun setting over the opposition-held northwestern city of Idlib, Syria, June 29, 2021. (AFP)
TT

Truce Holds in Syria's Idlib as Turkey Bolsters its Military Posts

The sun setting over the opposition-held northwestern city of Idlib, Syria, June 29, 2021. (AFP)
The sun setting over the opposition-held northwestern city of Idlib, Syria, June 29, 2021. (AFP)

Saturday marked two years since the signing of the truce agreement between Turkey and Russia over Syria's northwestern Idlib province and some regions of the Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces.

The agreement allowed Turkey to bolster its military positions along over 78 posts. It has also deployed hundreds of heavy armored vehicles and thousands of troops.

In spite of the agreement, the past two years have witnessed violations of the truce in opposition-held regions by the regime and the Russian air force. Hundreds of innocent civilians were killed in the attacks and thousands of other fled to the Jabal al-Zawiya area in southern Idlib.

On March 5, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to a ceasefire in Idlib to contain the fighting between the opposition and regime forces after the latter had carried out a wide-scale operation, backed by Russia, against Idlib.

The fighting at the time led to the displacement of nearly a million people from Idlib and the death of dozens. Turkey was forced to bring in more troops to contain the situation.

The de-escalation regions, as they are known, have witnessed relative calm in recent weeks. Russian jets rarely fly over the areas. The calm is welcome after two years of air strikes and attacks by the regime and its allied militias against the opposition. The attacks targeted vital facilities, including water pumping stations, medical centers and displacement camps.

Over 270 people, including 120 women and children, were killed in the unrest. Four massacres were reported in the Maarat Masrin and Ariha regions and the villages of Mashoun, Balshoun and Balyoun in Jabal al-Zawiya.

Idlib has in recent weeks witnessed military operations by the US-led international coalition fighting ISIS. Drone attacks targeted members of various extremist factions, including the Hurras al-Din group. Another notable attack led to the killing of ISIS leader Abdullah Qardash in Atmeh in northern Idlib in early February.

Amid the calm, the economy has slowly started to pick up. Administrations in Idlib have started to operate using the Turkish lira instead of the plummeting Syrian pound, demonstrating the extent of Ankara's influence.

The Syrian-Turkish border in Idlib has become the province's window to the world. Turkish commercial goods and food, new and used European and Asian cars and oil derivatives are all brought in from across the border into Idlib.

The local salvation government has recently approved several development and economic projects, including the establishment of a major industrial zone in Sarmada. Main highways have been widened between cities and operations at several vital facilities have resumed, providing new job opportunities for Syrians.



For Palestinian Athletes, the Olympics is About More than Sports

Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)
Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)
TT

For Palestinian Athletes, the Olympics is About More than Sports

Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)
Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)

Most of the athletes representing the Palestinian territories at the Paris Olympics were born elsewhere — Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Germany, Chile and the United States — yet they care deeply about the politics of their parents’ and grandparents’ homeland.

They are eager to compete but say their presence at the Games isn’t only, or even primarily, about sports. With Israel and Hamas locked in a brutal war that has killed tens of thousands in Gaza, these eight athletes — two of whom hail from the West Bank — carry heavier burdens.

Yazan Al Bawwab, a 24-year-old swimmer who was born in Saudi Arabia and lives in Dubai, said he doesn't expect recognition for his performance in the pool. He uses swimming, he said, as a "tool for Palestine.”

“Unfortunately, nobody has ever asked me about my races. Nobody cares,” said al Bawwab, whose parents come from Jerusalem and Lod, a city that today is in central Israel. “I’m going to be plain and honest: France does not recognize Palestine as a country. But I’m over there, raising my flag. That’s my role.”

Omar Ismail, who was born in Dubai to parents who come from the West Bank town of Jenin, has loftier athletic ambitions. Shortly after earning his spot on the team at a taekwondo qualification tournament in China, the 18-year-old said he aims to win a gold medal in Paris.

But even if he does not earn a medal, Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself, The AP reported.

“I represent the identity of the people in Palestine, their steadfastness,” Ismail said. “I’d like to inspire the children of Palestine, show them that each of them can achieve their goals, give them hope.”

Even under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to maintain a vibrant Olympics training program in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Nine months of war between Israel and Hamas has made that challenge next to impossible.

Much of the country’s sporting infrastructure, clubs and institutions have been demolished, said Nader Jayousi, the technical director at the Palestine Olympic Committee.

“Do you know how many approved pools there are in Palestine? Zero,” said al Bawaab, who noted that the Palestinian economy is too small and fragile to consistently support the development of elite athletes. “There is no sports in Palestine. We are a country right now that does not have enough food or shelter, and we are trying to figure out how to stay alive. We are not a sports country yet.”

The Palestinian diaspora has always played an important role at the Olympics and other international competitions, Jayousi said.

Jayousi said it’s not the first time that most of the athletes representing the POC come from abroad. He said the Palestinian diaspora is always represented at any big international sporting competition and Olympics.

More than 38,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war between Israel and Hamas began, according to local health officials. Among those who died were about 300 athletes, referees, coaches and others working in Gaza's sports sector, according to Jayousi.

Perhaps the most prominent Palestinian athlete to die in the war was long-distance runner Majed Abu Maraheel, who in 1996 in Atlanta became the first Palestinian to compete in the Olympics. He died of kidney failure earlier this year after he was unable to be treated in Gaza and could not be evacuated to Egypt, Palestinian officials said.

Only one Palestinian athlete, Ismail, qualified for the Paris Games in his own right. The seven others gained their spots under a wild-card system delivered as part of the universality quota places.. Backed by the International Olympic Committee, it allows athletes who represent poorer nations with less-established sports programs to compete, even though they did not meet the sporting criteria.

“We had very high hopes that we would go to Paris 2024 with qualified athletes,” Jayousi, the team's technical director, said. “We lost lots of these chances because of the complete stoppage of every single activity in the country.”

Palestinian athletes will compete in boxing, judo, swimming, shooting, track and field and taekwondo.

There is a chance Palestinian athletes could compete against Israelis in Paris. The Israel Olympic Committee said it is sending 88 athletes to Paris, and that they would compete against athletes from anywhere.

Jayousi declined to say whether clear guidelines have been issued to Palestinian athletes about whether they would be expected — as a form of protest against the war in Gaza — to drop out of competition rather than face Israelis.

“Let's see what the draws will put our athletes against," he said. “We know what we want to do, but we don't have to say everything that we want to do.”

One Olympic hopeful who did not make the cut was Gaza-born weightlifter Mohammed Hamada, a flag bearer at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. When the war began, Hamada moved to Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah and trained there for 25 days. But because of the shortage of food, Hamada — who competed in the 102 kilograms (225 pounds) weight class — gradually lost about 18 kilograms (40 pounds).

Hamada eventually secured a visa to leave Gaza and moved to Qatar to continue his training. But, Jayousi said, he just couldn't get his body back to Olympic-level condition.

Jayousi said winning medals is not the top priority for the athletes who made it to Paris. (No Palestinian athlete has ever won an Olympic medal).

“We are going here to show our Palestinianism,” he said. “We are focused on fighting until the last second, which we have been doing as a nation for the last 80 years.”

Al Bawaab said he wants to empower the next generation of Palestinian athletes, in part by providing them with greater financial resources. He founded the Palestinian Olympians Association to help athletes prepare for sports and life beyond, including by providing them with mental-health support.

"We don’t have that sports culture yet,” al Bawaab said. “When I’m done swimming, we’ll hopefully get that rolling in the country. But you have to be safe first.”