Will Trump rescind the Iran Nuclear Deal?

Trump has repeatedly threatened to rescind the agreement, which he called “the worst deal ever”.

    European countries that helped broker the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal are calling on the US to reaffirm its support. They say the deal is essential for international security. It must be signed off every 90 days, and US President Donald Trump has until Friday to decide if he will re-impose sanctions.

    Trump has repeatedly threatened to rescind the agreement, which he called “the worst deal ever”.

    Al Jazeera’s Nadim Baba reports from Brussels.

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    Turkish Cypriots on course for coalition government

    PM declares victory for ruling UBP, but fails to achieve outright majority in parliament, unofficial results show.

      The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is poised for another coalition government, after none of the parties managed an outright majority in the snap parliamentary elections, according to unofficial results.

      The conservative National Unity Party (UBP), led by Prime Minister Huseyin Ozgurgun, came in first place – with 36 percent of the votes – ahead of the centre-left, pro-unification Republican Turkish Party (CTP) at 21 percent, local media reported on Monday, based on an unofficial count. 

      The UBP, which has been in power for 27 years, since the establishment of the TRNC, will need to form a coalition government again in the 50-member parliament. 

      “The UBP has emerged as the biggest party by a wide margin,” Ozgurgun said while declaring victory on Monday. “We are preparing for new days with the power the people have given to the UBP.”

      The newly-formed right-wing People’s Voice Party (HP) managed 17 percent of the votes in its first election, followed by previous ruling coalition partner, Democratic Party (DP). 

      Meanwhile, the left-wing Communal Democracy Party (CDP) of President Mustafa Akinci is projected to win only three seats. 

      Official results for Sunday’s vote are expected to be announced late on Monday. 

      More than 190,000 people were registered to vote. Ballots were cast at more than 700 polling stations across the country.

      The Mediterranean island of Cyprus is split between Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south.

      The TRNC, which has a functioning parliament and state institutions, unilaterally declared independence in 1983, breaking away from the Republic of Cyprus, and is only recognised by Turkey.

      Cyprus had been practically divided since 1974, when Turkey militarily intervened on the island in response to a brief Greek-inspired coup.

      The UBP, which was the largest partner of the previous right-wing coalition with the DP, has traditionally advocated for keeping good relations with Turkey.

      The party wants to maintain the Mediterranean island’s status quo, rather than settling the long-standing dispute to reunify Greek and Turkish Cypriot parts. 

      Along with the right-wing DP, which was founded by ex-UBP members, the UBP gave hundreds of TRNC citizenships to Turkey nationals weeks before the poll, in a move seen as a bid to increase its voter share.

      Since the establishment of the de facto TRNC, the north has been described as the “occupied part of Cyprus” by the United Nations Security Council.

      Repeated diplomatic efforts to end the partition have failed, as did the latest round of talks in Switzerland in July to reunify the island, despite efforts by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.


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      Gulf crisis: Qatari pilots train to police skies

      A recent dispute with its Emirati neighbours over airspace has highlighted the extent to which the blockade of Qatar has encouraged the peninsular nation to beef up its military spending and training.

        Qatari military pilots say they’re ready to fly without the support of their Gulf neighbours.

        The United Arab Emirates military was recently told not to escalate airspace tensions with Qatar and fly on alternative routes.

        But the Gulf crisis has encouraged Qatar to look for other partners, both for support and for military technology.

         

        Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid reports from the Al Zaeem Air College.

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        Mike Pence starts Middle East tour amid Jerusalem anger

        US vice president arrives in Egypt with shortened schedule after Palestinian president and others promise to snub visit.

          US Vice President Mike Pence has arrived in Egypt for the first leg of a Middle East tour marred by continuing anger over the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last month.

          Pence, who landed in Cairo on Saturday, is the most senior US politician to visit the region since US President Donald Trump announced on December 6 that Washington would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

          The US vice president met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo’s presidential palace, where the pair discussed bilateral ties between the two countries.

          They also spoke about ways to eliminate what Sisi called the “disease and cancer” of terrorism.

          After Egypt, Pence is due to visit Jordan and Israel, where he is expected to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and address the Knesset.

          His trip was initially scheduled to take place in December but was delayed apparently so that Pence could oversee a US congressional vote on tax reform, in which he could potentially have had to cast a deciding vote.

          Jordan’s King Abdullah is also due to meet Pence, but other senior Arab figures have made clear they do not wish to meet him.

          Trump’s decision sparked anger across Palestine and the wider Arab and Muslim world and earned the US angry rebuke from the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who vowed not to receive Pence in the Palestinian territories. 

          Mahdi Abdel Hadi, a Palestinian political analyst, said the Palestinians were sending the Trump administration a “clear message”.

          “You cannot meet people when they insult you and humiliate you, when they ignore you and side with your enemy,” said Abdel Hadi.

          “[Palestinians] have to pass a clear message that we are angry, this cannot continue and it would be hypocrisy if we meet you.”

          Muslim and Coptic Christian leaders in Egypt, have similarly vowed not to meet the US vice president.

          In December, a statement by the Coptic Orthodox church on behalf of Pope Tawadros II, said Trump’s decision ignored the “feelings of millions of Arab people”.

          The imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque also said at the time that he would not meet Pence.

          “How can I sit with those who granted what they do not own to those who do not deserve it?” said Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb.

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          Thousands flee as Syria forces press further into Idlib

          Push by government troops causes thousands of civilians to head towards Turkish border in freezing winter conditions.

            Syrian government troops and allied forces are advancing in an offensive to gain ground in northwestern Idlib province, the country’s largest remaining rebel-held territory.

            The push has forced thousands of civilians to flee towards the border with Turkey in freezing winter conditions, according to humanitarian groups.

            The operation’s main target appears to be the rebel-held airbase of Abu Zuhour on the southeastern edge of Idlib, a province largely dominated by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliated group.

            On Sunday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, reported that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had “gained control over the town of Sinjar”, less than 20km from the airbase.

            The pro-government forces also want to secure the Damascus-Aleppo road that cuts through Idlib, which was captured by rebels in 2015.

            Supported by Iran-backed militias and Russian air power, Assad’s troops have since late October recaptured rebel-held territory in Idlib and also seized dozens of villages in the northern parts of the nearby Hama province.

            ‘Big need’

            Idlib is supposed to be one of the so-called de-escalation zones set up in Syria last year with the backing of Russia, Iran and Turkey.

            The plan was aimed at halting fighting and offering safety to civilians in those four areas: Idlib province, East Ghouta, northern Homs province and the country’s south.

            However, the Syrian government and its allies have not abided by the deal and continue to target all areas included in the deal, apart from the south. 

            As fighting continues, human rights groups have expressed concern that a full-blown government offensive in Idlib could cause large-scale destruction and further displacement.

            Abdusselam El Sherif, a spokesman for IHH, a Turkish humanitarian group, said the push has already had a significant effect on civilians.

            Speaking to Al Jazeera from the Turkish province of Kilis near the Syrian border, El Sherif said that 23,775 families – more than 100,000 people – had fled southern Idlib and eastern Hama this week due to heavy bombardment.

            “The majority of them have reached the Syrian-Turkish border,” he said.

            “They are distributed in many camps,” where there is “a big need” for food items and clothing, added El Sherif.

            According to the UN, Idlib is home to an estimated 2.6 million Syrians, including many internally displaced people who have already fled fighting elsewhere in the country.

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            Q&A: Tunisia's protest leaders vow to keep up pressure

            Al Jazeera speaks with an organiser of the protest movement leading rallies against the country’s austerity measures.

              Tunis, Tunisia – Large protests broke out across Tunisia this month over a government decision to impose strict economic and tax reforms that increased the price of basic goods.

              The anti-austerity protests come as Tunisians mark the seventh anniversary of the fall of longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced from power after a popular revolution in 2011.

              Rallies have been held in Tunis, the capital, and elsewhere across the country, led by the civil movement “Fech Nestannew” (What are we waiting for?). Nearly 800 protesters have been arrested, according to United Nations figures, including 200 people between the ages of 15 and 20.

              A 2016 deal between Tunisia and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is a large reason behind the austerity measures, critics say. The four-year, $2.8bn IMF loan is tied to a promise by the Tunisian government to carry out economic and social reforms.

              The government’s 2018 budgetary law, which came into effect this month, has been the focus of protesters’ anger, as it brought price hikes to basic goods, such as food and gas, and the value-added tax.

              Al Jazeera spoke to Tunis-based protest organiser Warda Atig, 25, about how the Fech Nestannew movement came about, its demands, and whether the Tunisian government may revise its economic policies.

              Al Jazeera: What is the idea behind Fech Nestannew?

              Warda Atig: Fech Nestannew is a movement created by Tunisian youth after the government’s finance act of 2018 came into effect. Following this act, the prices went up and the state stopped recruiting for public sector jobs.

              That’s why we decided to create this movement, in order to push the government to cancel this financial measure.

              Al Jazeera: How did your protests begin and when?

              Atig: When we first heard about this law, in November and December of last year, several youth factions from the different progressive political parties organised discussions [about] what the law was and what the impact of the law would be on society.

              We were waiting for the government to make the law official and we chose the date of our first action to be January 3. The date is very symbolic because, on January 3, 1984, there was the Intifada al-Khubez (bread uprising) in Tunisia [over an increase in the price of bread].

              On January 3, we made a declaration in front of the municipal theatre [on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis] and we distributed pamphlets with our demands. We were about 50 activists.

              Al Jazeera: What are those demands?

              Atig: We want the government to end the increase in prices, cancel the moratorium on recruiting in the public sector, provide security and healthcare, end privatisation and put forward a national strategy to counter corruption.

              These demands [are in response to] decisions taken by the government … [and] they are within the context of the finance act of 2018. So we are asking [the government] to cancel this act.

              If they don’t cancel it, they will privatise national companies, they will not fight corruption, they will continue to increase prices. We are explaining to people that we have to say no to this act.

              Al Jazeera: Protests have taken place across Tunisia. How did these different regions get involved in your movement and do you have a coordinated strategy?

              Atig: First, we created a group on Facebook. Then, there were many reactions from people in other regions. People started to ask themselves, “What are we waiting for?”

              People from student unions and other young people who were very active regionally also got involved.

              It started here (Tunis) with different groups, including student unions and groups of unemployed graduates. Everyone here helped spread this campaign … and what happened in Tunis happened in all the other regions.

              This isn’t only [a movement] for Tunis; it’s for all of Tunisia.

              Al Jazeera: The government has accused protesters of looting and engaging in acts of violence. How do you respond to people who have criticised your protests as violent?

              Atig: First of all, our campaign has no relation to violence or breaking things.

              In Kasserine, the police caught someone while he was giving money to protesters and urging them to break things … This type of thing is known to happen, even during Ben Ali’s time, when people from the ruling party encourage people to commit acts of violence in order to discredit social movements.

              The government’s response to our movement has been to arrest us. They broke into our houses in the middle of the night. There are Facebook pages belonging to the ruling parties that distorted our reputations. Even the governmental media tried to give a bad image to our campaign.

              Al Jazeera: This movement appears in large part to be led by educated, urban youth. How do you bridge a possible gap between the organisers and the general Tunisian public most affected by the state’s austerity measures?

              Atig: The criticism only comes from people who belong to the ruling parties. They say these people of Fech Nestannew belong to the [block of leftist opposition parties called the] Popular Front.

              They say, [we] want to take over the authority [and we] want to be in power so that’s why [we] are taking advantage of the people.

              But our relationship with regular people is very good. We chose Fech Nestannew, a phrase in the local Tunisian dialect [of Arabic], so it would be easy for everyone to understand.

              Al Jazeera: Why do you believe the 2018 finance act is harmful to Tunisians?

              Atig: The government itself confessed that the tenets of this act would make people suffer … unemployed people, the poor and workers.

              Poor people pay taxes and value-added tax, while they increase the salaries of ministers and members of parliament. Many people who were corrupt during the Ben Ali era were granted pardons in the context of a reconciliation act.

              The poor are footing the bill.

              Al Jazeera: These anti-austerity protests are coinciding with the anniversary of the 2011 revolution that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Was this done on purpose and if so, do you hope to use the timing to galvanise support?

              Atig: January is very famous [for protests] in Tunisia. In 2011, and even last year, there was a movement in January. In addition to that, the finance act came into effect in January. January 3 is also the anniversary of the [1984] bread protests.

              All these circumstances contributed to our movement coinciding with the anniversary of the revolution.

              Al Jazeera: What happens if the government agrees to cancel the finance law? Will this movement continue?

              Atig: If they cancel this finance act, OK, the campaign will dissolve. But if they cancel the act and present the same procedures only under a different name, we will continue.

              Al Jazeera: Are you hopeful they will cancel it?

              Atig: No. [Laughs]

              Al Jazeera: Why not?

              Atig: We are doing this in order to make people aware that the ruling people right now are here to enforce the dictates of the IMF. At least we are continuing the revolutionary process.

              As long as Tunisia continues these deals with the IMF, we will continue our struggle. We believe that the IMF and the interests of people are contradictory.

              Al Jazeera: The Tunisian prime minister recently told people that 2018 will be the last difficult year and after this, things will get better. How do you respond to that?

              Atig: We can’t wait any longer.

              That’s why we called [our movement], “What are we waiting for?”

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              Syria: IDPs face outbreaks in inhumane conditions

              Internally displaced persons in Syria are suffering through the winter in harsh conditions and the threat of disease outbreaks.

                Many internally displaced persons (IDPs) are seeking shelter in the central province of Homs, but they are suffering inhumane conditions.

                A lack of basic services and contaminated drinking water has given rise to waterborne diseases.

                Doctors say Hepatitis cases in makeshift camps are increasing and fear it will escalate.

                Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid has more.

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                Why are tensions rising in the Red Sea region?

                Egypt sends troops to Eritrea as Sudan and Turkey ink a deal to rebuild a Red Sea island and construct a naval dock.

                  Tensions in the Red Sea region have been brewing for months but came to the fore when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Sudan last month.

                  The visit, hailed as historic, was the first by a Turkish head of state since 1956 when Sudan gained independence.

                  Sudan’s official state news agency said the two countries agreed to set up a strategic planning group to discuss international affairs, and that they intended to conclude a military deal.

                  Among more than a dozen agreements signed by Erdogan and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was a deal to temporarily lease the Red Sea island of Suakin to Turkey.

                  Ankara and Khartoum said Turkey would rebuild the ruined, sparsely populated Ottoman island to increase tourism and create a transit point for pilgrims crossing the Red Sea to Islam’s holiest city of Mecca.

                  Suakin belongs to Sudan

                  Egyptian and Saudi media have harshly criticised the agreement, and alleged Turkey would build a military base on Suakin.

                  Turkey and Egypt, an ally of Saudi Arabia, have had frosty relations for some time. Ankara strongly condemned Egypt’s military coup in 2013, which overthrew the first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

                  Saudi newspaper al-Okaz ran a headline that read: “Khartoum hands over Suakin to Ankara … Sudan in Turkish hands.”

                  “Turkey’s greed on the African continent seems to have no limits,” the report noted, referring to Turkey’s recent move to set up its biggest overseas military base in Somalia.

                  Serdar Cam, head of the Turkish International Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), said Turkey has been introducing projects to establish basic infrastructures African countries need in every sector.

                  “The aim of all these efforts is to prove that [African] countries are indeed able to embark on sustainable and beneficial development processes when tangible projects are created that consider real needs regardless of the actual magnitude of the funding,” Cam said.

                  “Therefore, it is also Turkey’s aim to show the entire world that no country can be eternally damned to poverty, and to help Africa get rid of its image as the dark continent.”

                  The Sudanese embassy in Saudi Arabia responded by saying that “Suakin belongs to Sudan, no one else”, and promising that the deal with Ankara would not harm the security of Arab countries.

                  The ripples, however, were immediately felt across the African continent.

                  Military reinforcements

                  In what may have been a response to fears that Turkey was expanding its influence in the region, Egypt sent hundreds of its troops to a UAE base in Eritrea, on the border with Sudan.

                  Khartoum responded by recalling its ambassador to Cairo, hours after the head of the Sudanese Border Technical Committee, Abdullah al-Sadiq, accused Egypt of trying to “drag Sudan into a direct [military] confrontation”.

                  Days later, Sudan shut its border with Eritrea and deployed thousands of troops there.

                  The Suakin island deal with Turkey has merely heightened an already tense political situation in the region. For months, Sudan and Egypt have exchanged accusations, with Cairo claiming that Khartoum had been supporting Muslim Brotherhood members and Khartoum alleging Cairo was supporting Sudanese dissidents.

                  Ethiopian Dam project

                  Also straining relations between the African nations is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project, the largest hydroelectric dam project in Africa.

                  Unhappy with Khartoum, Egypt last week reportedly proposed to Ethiopia to exclude Sudan from contentious negotiations over the future of the dam.

                  Egypt has been at odds with its neighbours over the $4.8bn megaproject, with Cairo fearing that its position downstream may affect its access to water from the Nile River basin, which will feed the dam.

                  The Egyptian proposal, sent by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, suggested that talks proceed with Ethiopia alone, according to the Addis Fortune newspaper. Egypt was quick to deny the claims.

                  On Monday, Hailemariam received Sudanese army chief Emad al-Din M Adawi and discussed how to further strengthen their “strategic partnership”.

                  Adawi said the two neighbours would continue in their collaborative efforts to contain problems in the region.

                  Eritrean-Ethiopian tensions

                  The deployment of Egyptian troops to Eritrea has sent longtime foe Ethiopia into a frenzy. Aware of the poor relations between Egypt and Ethiopia over Nile water use, Eritrea eagerly welcomed the Egyptian troops.

                  Ethiopia, which has the third-largest army on the continent, responded by sending more troops to the border with its regional rival, Eritrea. Asmara and Addis Ababa have had two bloody wars over border disputes.

                  Ethiopia is also uneasy that the United Arab Emirates, which has cosy relations with Cairo, has been stepping up its presence in the region. It recently acquired military and naval bases in countries that have borders with Ethiopia, Somalia to the east and Eritrea to the north, as well as Yemen. This has led Ethiopia to steam ahead with construction of the dam, saying that more than 60 percent has already been completed.

                  “Construction has never stopped and will never stop until the project is completed. We are not concerned with what Egypt thinks. Ethiopia is committed to benefit from its water resources without causing harm to anyone,” Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s minister for irrigation, water and electricity, said in November.

                  As Egypt, Turkey and the UAE make efforts to expand their influence and secure allies in the region, it is unclear whether relations between African states will continue to sour. Further twists and turns could be ahead as African heads of state prepare to meet in Addis Ababa later this month for the African Union summit.

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                  Palestinian teen first to be killed by Israel in 2018

                  Musab Tamimi, 17, shot dead by Israeli forces in a village north of Ramallah, Palestinian health ministry says.

                    Israeli forces have shot dead a Palestinian teen on the northern outskirts of the occupied West Bank town of Ramallah, according to Palestinian officials.

                    The Palestinian health ministry identified the 17-year-old boy as Musab Firas al-Tamimi from the village of Deir Nitham, where Wednesday’s shooting took place. 

                    “He died shortly after the occupation forces fired a bullet into his neck,” Maria Aqraa, a spokesman for the ministry, told Al Jazeera.

                    “He was transferred to a hospital in Ramallah and he passed away minutes later,” she added.

                    Aqraa said Musab was shot during a confrontation with the Israeli army. 

                    According to the Times of Israel news website, the Israeli army said Musab had “appeared to be holding a gun”, but that it was “not immediately confirmed that al-Tamimi had been armed at the time of the shooting”. 

                    An army spokesperson reportedly told the website that the circumstances of Musab’s killing were being investigated.

                    ‘The world is just silently watching’ 

                    Musab was a member of the Tamimi family, who live in the adjacent village of Nabi Saleh, where a prominent teen activist was arrested on December 19.

                    Ahed Tamimi was filmed slapping a soldier was standing outside her home, after Israeli forces had shot her 15-year-old cousin in the face with a rubber bullet. 

                    The family has been persecuted for years by the Israeli army which has detained and killed several of them during weekly unarmed village protests against the theft of their lands for the nearby illegal Jewish-only settlement, Halamish. 

                    Musab’s father, Firas, said the Israeli army has been provoking the residents of both villages for months now.

                    He told Al Jazeera that Israeli soldiers raided Deir Nitham at about 8am local time (06:00 GMT) on Wednesday after which boys from the village went out to confront them.

                    “The occupation army has been raiding both Deir Nitham and Nabi Saleh day in and day out. They come in, irritate the residents, raid our homes at night and throw sound bombs in the street. This has been our reality every day,” said Firas. 

                    “We cannot just keep quiet and keep watching. No one is listening to us – no one feels the pain that we’re going through. The world is just silently watching.” 

                    Since December 6, when US President Donald Trump declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, 16 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army largely during protests against Washington’s decision.

                    Musab’s killing, which is unrelated to the protests against Trump’s move, makes him the first Palestinian to be shot dead by Israeli forces in 2018.

                    Follow Zena Tahhan on Twitter: @zenatahhan 

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                    De Mistura: Syria talks in Vienna at 'critical moment'

                    De Mistura says talks starting on Wednesday come at ‘very critical moment, as violence in Syria’s north escalates.

                      Vienna, Austria – A new round of Syria talks is starting on Wednesday in Vienna in what officials said may be the “last hope” for a resolution to the seven year-long conflict.

                      Delegations representing both the Syrian government and the opposition are expected to attend the negotiations in the Austrian capital at the behest of the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

                      The UN envoy defined this as a very critical moment for the languishing peace process.

                      “I am optimistic because it is the only way to be at such moments,” de Mistura told journalists on Wednesday. “It is a very, very critical moment.”

                      Speaking in Paris, France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian said the UN-led process is the only and last resort for the international community to find a way out of the Syrian crisis.

                      “There is no prospect of a political solution today except, and it’s the last hope, the meeting that opens in Vienna,” he said.

                      Preconditions

                      The latest round of Syria talks held in Geneva in December failed amid a tit-for-tat between Syrian government and opposition’s delegates over statements about the future role of President Bashar al-Assad in a transitional government.

                      With the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group defeated and the Russians announcing a partial withdrawal of troops, mediators felt the December round offered the right opportunity to push forward the political process.

                      But the Syrian government refused to hold even indirect talks saying the opposition’s demands for a removal of Assad constituted a precondition that infringed the basic principles of the talks.

                      This time in Vienna, the opposition moderated its tone, but not the substance of its requests.

                      “We are here to discuss all the details to achieve a real political transition, a new constitution and elections based on the Security Council resolution 2254,” Nasr Hariri, the chief negotiator of the Syria Negotiating Commission, told journalists in Vienna on Wednesday.

                      Hariri said he was sceptical that the Syrian government would show a real commitment to the Geneva peace track.

                      “We’ll test the regime’s real intentions to have negotiations this time … however we are afraid that the government and its sponsors still believe there is only a military solution and not a political one, as the situation on the ground shows.”

                      Backed by the Russians, the Syrian government is still on the offensive and its military operations against the rebels have recently gained new momentum.

                      The recent offensive on the governorate of Idlib and Hama province that started two weeks ago has proved the government and its sponsors’ relentlessness in their attempt to clear the Syrian territory from ISIL and other opposition forces.

                      Idlib, which had become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Syrian families during the conflict, is now witnessing daily bombardments. About 200,000 people, most of whom had escaped the conflict in other parts of Syria, have fled the area in recent weeks.

                      In the meantime Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held area on the outskirts of Damascus, remains besieged by Syrian forces since 2013. About 400,000 people are trapped inside the enclave where the siege has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, as denounced by the United Nations humanitarian agencies.

                      Damascus and Moscow have ignored repeated appeals by the international community and the United Nations to let the injured and sick out of the enclave through humanitarian corridors, in particular some 300 people, mainly children, in dire need of medical assistance.

                      Over the past two years Damascus has regained large swaths of territory from both ISIL and rebels of the Free Syrian Army. Gains on the ground have strengthened the government’s negotiating position and have effectively overhauled the opposition’s initial prospects for an overthrow of the Syrian government.

                      Turkey’s offensive

                      In the meantime, the situation in the Kurdish-held areas is also deteriorating.

                      Turkey is conducting a military offensive against Kurdish fighters in the Syrian enclave of Afrin with Moscow’s agreement. Relations between the two countries have improved as of late and Russians have allowed the Turkish air force to use Afrin’s airspace, which is controlled by the Syrian government.

                      Afrin has come under the control of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers terrorist organisations affiliated to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

                      Backed by the United States, the Kurdish fighters have been key players in the fight against ISIL and have taken control of large areas of territory in northern Syria, a situation that has deeply worried Ankara.

                      Turkey has threatened to extend operations further east to Manbij where US forces are embedded with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main US ally in the war against ISIL.

                      Ankara’s operation stemmed from the announcement of plans by the United States for the creation of a Kurdish border force with about 30,000 military personnel in the area controlled by the SDF.

                      Some analysts believe Moscow’s aim is to increase tensions between Washington and Ankara.

                      “Russia does not publicly support such a military operation, but it opened the gate to Turkey because it basically starts a proxy war between Turkey and the US [through YPG],” Sergei Markov, a political analyst he told Al Jazeera.

                      President Donald Trump warned Turkey against expanding its military offensive telling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that such action could lead to a direct conflict between the two NATO countries.

                      Asked to comment on the developments in Afrin, Hariri said the Syrian opposition, whose members are strongly supported by Turkey and mainly reside there, “has a problem” with the Kurdish PYD.

                      “Regardless of the international positions, we must admit we have a problem with the PYD and its activities on the ground,” said Hariri.

                      “They practice violations [on the ground] and they are linked to terrorist organisations. However civilians should not be a target under any circumstances,” Hariri added.

                      Sochi talks

                      Hariri said the opposition is still considering whether to attend the upcoming Syrian National Congress in Sochi, which Russia has convened at the end of January.

                      He said the talks in Vienna will be essential to understanding whether the government is committed to any negotiations at all and whether Sochi will be worth attending.

                      “We spoke to the Russians and, if we take them at face value, they said they are still committed to support the Geneva Talks,” said Hariri.

                      “However we still haven’t received clear information about the content of Sochi. Our decision will depend on what will happen here in Vienna,” he added.

                      An earlier statement by the United Nations said this round of talks would focus mainly on constitutional reforms, one of the four so-called “baskets” for discussions laid out by the special envoy, which also include a transitional government, parliamentary and presidential elections and the fight against terrorism.

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