Idlib assault ‘may spark humanitarian calamity’

Syrians protest against the regime and its ally Russia in northern Idlib on Friday. (AFP)
Updated 01 September 2018
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Idlib assault ‘may spark humanitarian calamity’

  • A worst-case scenario in Idlib will overwhelm capacities and has the potential to create a humanitarian emergency at a scale not yet seen through this crisis, says UN representative
  • Idlib and slivers of adjacent provinces form the largest remaining block of rebel territory

BEIRUT:Its hospitals are battered, residents heavily dependent on aid and escape routes to neighboring Turkey sealed. If attacked by regime forces, Syria’s opposition-held Idlib is poised for a humanitarian calamity.

The northwestern province, which lies along the border with Turkey, has been held since 2015 by the extremist-led Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham alliance and other rival rebels.

Idlib and slivers of adjacent provinces form the largest remaining block of rebel territory — and the next expected target of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops and their Russian allies.

But a military assault could overwhelm already struggling health facilities, cut off food and medical supplies to desperate civilians, and prompt massive levels of displacement, the UN has warned.

UN chief Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday he was “deeply concerned about the growing risks of a humanitarian catastrophe in the event of a full-scale military operation in Idlib.”

“A worst-case scenario in Idlib will overwhelm capacities and has the potential to create a humanitarian emergency at a scale not yet seen through this crisis,” John Ging, who heads operations and advocacy for the UN’s humanitarian coordination office told the Security Council this week.

Moscow and Ankara are in talks to try to thrash out a solution that would spare the three million people living in rebel territory.

They include tens of thousands of rebels and civilians evacuated to Idlib from other areas recaptured by government troops.

Since Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011, more than 350,000 people have been killed, more than 11 million have fled their homes and medical infrastructure has been systematically targeted.

In the first six months of this year, there were 38 attacks on medical infrastructure in the province, most of them blamed on the government or its Russian ally, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (OCHA).

The World Health Organization warned that less than half of Idlib’s health facilities were still functioning “across areas that may soon witness increased violence.”

“The remaining facilities are neither properly equipped nor prepared for a massive influx of patients,” said Pawel Krzysiek, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Syria. “Any offensive will make an already precarious situation even worse,” he said.

In the event of a chemical attack on the densely populated province, hospitals will likely struggle to cope.

Western powers have warned Syrian troops could use toxic substances against the civilian population as they seek to recapture Idlib.

Earlier this year, the UN began sharing the GPS coordinates of health facilities with Russia and the US in a bid to protect them but four have been struck since.

The UN and humanitarian groups are also deeply worried about the food, medicine and other aid they truck in through the Bab Al-Hawa and Bab Al-Salam crossings to some 2 million people in need in Idlib and adjacent areas.

“Cross-border operations provided a lifeline for civilians in regard to food supplies and other daily life products needed,” said Krzysiek. “If border crossings with Turkey are to shut down, hundreds of thousands of people will be affected.”

Aid operations could also be disrupted if key staff are caught up in the offensive, said OCHA’s spokeswoman in Damascus, Linda Tom.

“The potential displacement of humanitarian staff would further contribute to gaps in the response,” she said.

She said violence could force as many as 800,000 people to flee in one of the Syrian war’s largest displacements yet.  The question, aid groups have warned, is where to. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov of “defending the assault.”

“Sergey Lavrov is defending Syrian and Russian assault on #Idlib,” Pompeo tweeted. 

“The Russians and Assad agreed not to permit this. The US sees this as an escalation of an already dangerous conflict.”

He added: “The 3 million Syrians, who have already been forced out of their homes and are now in #Idlib, will suffer from this aggression. Not good. The world is watching.”

An uptick in violence is likely to push residents to the frontier en masse in the hope that warplanes will not strike there.

“People from Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Homs, Daraa — they used to be brought to Idlib,” said Zedoun Alzoubi, who heads the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations.

Those areas were handed over to regime forces in surrender deals, with many opposition fighters and civilians bussed to Idlib.

“But now people who are in Idlib — where to go?” asked Alzoubi.


Iran executes one over alleged Israel link to attack

An Iranian police vehicle is seen parked in the capital Tehran. (AFP file photo)
Updated 14 sec ago
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Iran executes one over alleged Israel link to attack

  • Tehran has accused Israel of carrying out several covert actions on its soil
  • In August last year Iran claimed to have foiled a “very complex” Mossad-initiated project to “sabotage” its ballistic missile industry

TEHRAN, Iran: Iran’s judiciary has executed a “terrorist” over a drone attack that targeted a defense ministry site in central Iran last year, state media reported on Sunday.
According to state TV, the person “planned to explode the workshop complex of the Ministry of Defense in Isfahan under guidance of the intelligence officer of Mossad,” Israel’s spy agency.
The date of the execution and the identity of the accused person were not immediately clear.
Iran has several known nuclear research sites in the Isfahan region, including a uranium conversion plant. The country’s sanction-hit nuclear program has been the target of sabotage, assassinations of scientists and cyber-attacks.
Tehran has accused Israel of carrying out several covert actions on its soil.
Iran’s intelligence ministry said in February 2023 that it had arrested the “main actors” involved in the drone attack on a defense ministry site in Isfahan, home to the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility.
The previous month, an anti-aircraft system destroyed a drone, and two others exploded during an attack on a defense ministry facility in the province, officials said at the time.
According to the defense ministry, the night-time attack left no casualties and only caused minor damage.
Authorities did not elaborate on activities at the site, but IRNA said the strike had targeted “an ammunition manufacturing plant.”
Iran has been engaged in a shadow war for years with its arch-enemy Israel.
In August last year Iran claimed to have foiled a “very complex” Mossad-initiated project to “sabotage” its ballistic missile industry.
In January, Iran hanged four members of its Kurdish minority on charges of spying for Israel. They were convicted of collaborating with Israel on a plan to sabotage an Iranian defense site in Isfahan.
In April 2021, Tehran announced it had started producing 60 percent enriched uranium at the Natanz site, a day after accusing Israel of an attack there.
Since last October Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip against Hamas militants has sent tensions soaring. Iran has supported Hamas in the war, but denied any direct involvement in its attack, or in military action launched by allied armed groups in countries from Lebanon to Yemen.
 

 


Years removed from war, Iraqis seek new desert escapades

In this aerial view, Iraqi campers set up a tent in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on February 2, 2024. (AFP)
Updated 50 min 26 sec ago
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Years removed from war, Iraqis seek new desert escapades

  • Iraq has been ravaged by successive years of conflict since the 2003 US-led invasion, including most recently the fight against the Daesh group
  • Iraq’s deserts have long attracted hunters, both locals and visitors from neighboring Gulf countries, before the years of conflict drove them away

SAMAWAH, Iraq: Far from the hustle and bustle of major cities, young Iraqis are increasingly taking advantage of a renewed sense of safety to explore the country’s serene desert getaways.
Sheltering amidst the golden dunes, Ghadanfar Abdallah and his friends gather around a flickering campfire in the Samawah desert south of the capital, humming tunes, laughing and eating.
“When we post pictures, people do not believe that there are such places like the dunes in Iraq,” the 35-year-old oil sector worker said.

Visiters manoeuver their car on the sand in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on January 26, 2024. (AFP)

“My friends ask me if the pictures were taken in Dubai. They are shocked when they learn that they were, in fact, in Iraq.”
For years, only the most intrepid of hikers and campers would brave the trips into Iraq’s desert. But with the rise of social media and a period of relative stability, it has become a popular destination for those seeking not only adventure and off-roading but also tranquillity in the vast, barren landscape.
“It is something I loved since I was a little boy. But I only started doing it with friends in the winter of 2018 or 2019,” Abdallah said.

An Iraqi camper reads a book inside his tent in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on February 2, 2024. (AFP)

He crossed 200 kilometers (125 miles) from his southern city of Basra to reach an area untouched by the trappings of urban life — including phone networks.
On a crisp winter weekend, around 20 campers set up their tents amid the serene dunes. The air filled with the aroma of carp grilling over a smoky wood fire, as the hikers prepared to feast on Iraq’s national dish, masgouf.
Later, some played dominoes while others bickered over heated games of backgammon, sipping hot cups of tea and smoking hookahs (water pipe). Their voices resonated with traditional Iraqi songs, their laughter piercing the still desert night.

An Iraqi man rides a camel during a trip to the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on January 27, 2024. (AFP)

Abdallah said such desert expeditions have “become more widespread, and today many stores sell camping gear.
“Some are starting to realize that it is safe, it is an adventure.”
But for many, the lingering sense of danger remains.
Iraq has been ravaged by successive years of conflict since the 2003 US-led invasion, including most recently the fight against the Daesh group.

Iraqi campers gather around a fire in the early morning in the Samawa desert south of Baghdad on February 3, 2024. (AFP)

Though the terrorists were driven out of their major strongholds in late 2017, many retreated into desert hideouts, largely in the country’s west, from where they still sporadically — though with increasing rarity — stage deadly attacks.
“How can someone go to a desert where there is no water or mobile network? If something happens, how would you report it?” Abdallah said.
Iraq’s soaring summer temperatures — often surpassing 50 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit) — mean these arid adventures are limited to wintertime.
A weekend getaway costs between $75 and $100 per person, covering food, transportation and accommodation. A single trip can bring together a group of up to 30 people — typically men in the conservative country where women would not normally take part in such activities.
For Hussein Al-Jazairi, the journey is worth every penny.
“The city is full of dust, noise and daily annoyances,” the 34-year-old influencer said during his first desert camping trip.
“One can come here, where it is quiet, serene, and there is fresh air.”
Jazairi is often glued to his phone, scrolling through his social media accounts. But his recent trip to the Samawah desert proved to be a completely different experience.
“Social media is my work. I receive non-stop notifications. By the end of the day, I have spent a very long time on my phone,” Jazairi said.
“Here, there is no network. It has been two days, and my phone’s battery is still 70 percent. I haven’t used it.”

While Jazairi encourages people to explore the country’s vast sandhills, he warns that “one should not go alone, especially for the first time.”
“We came with experts who know the places around.”
Iraq’s deserts have long attracted hunters, both locals and visitors from neighboring Gulf countries, before the years of conflict drove them away.
Today, campers still need to remain vigilant, as some areas are still riddled with mines, while the borders with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria are intersected by routes used by drug traffickers or terrorists.
“We don’t start any trip without first identifying where we will sleep,” said Murad Al-Bahadli, a camper with over eight years of experience.
“We plan carefully to avoid any security risk,” the 38-year-old added.
Yet the placid desert nights are a far cry from the years of turmoil, and for many their lure is irresistible.
Among those is Ravshan Mokhtarov, an Uzbek who has been living in Basra for six years.
“This area is unique. There is no one, not even a sound,” the young man said, expressing gratitude for “Iraqi hospitality.”
“It is pretty much safe. I don’t feel any danger.”

 


Iran’s president discusses Gaza with Algerian counterpart — Algeria’s presidency

Updated 04 March 2024
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Iran’s president discusses Gaza with Algerian counterpart — Algeria’s presidency

  • Algeria, a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, backs the Palestinian cause and has called several times for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza

DUBAI: Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi on Sunday discussed bilateral relations, energy cooperation, trade and Gaza with Algeria’s leader Abdelmadjid Tebboune in a one-day state visit, according to Algeria’s presidency.
Algeria, a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, backs the Palestinian cause and has called several times for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

 


Netanyahu rival’s visit to US highlights cracks within Israel’s wartime leadership

Updated 03 March 2024
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Netanyahu rival’s visit to US highlights cracks within Israel’s wartime leadership

  • Netanyahu reportedly had a “tough talk” with Benny Gantz and told him the country has “just one prime minister”
  • Gantz is a centrist political rival who joined Netanyahu’s wartime Cabinet following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack
  • A visit to the US, if met with progress on the hostage front, could further boost support for Gantz's political future

TEL AVIV, Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuked a top Cabinet minister arriving in Washington on Sunday for talks with US officials, according to an Israeli official, signaling widening cracks within the country’s leadership nearly five months into its war with Hamas.

The trip by Benny Gantz, a centrist political rival who joined Netanyahu’s wartime Cabinet following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, comes as friction between the US and Netanyahu is rising over how to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and what the postwar plan for the enclave should look like.
An official from Netanyahu’s far-right Likud party said Gantz’s trip was planned without authorization from the Israeli leader. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Netanyahu had a “tough talk” with Gantz and told him the country has “just one prime minister.”
Gantz is scheduled to meet on Monday with US Vice President Kamala Harris and national security adviser Jake Sullivan and on Tuesday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, according to his National Unity Party. A second Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity said Gantz’s visit is intended to strengthen ties with the US, bolster support for Israel’s war and push for the release of Israeli hostages.
In Egypt, talks were underway to broker a ceasefire before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins next week.
Israel did not send a delegation because it is waiting for answers from Hamas on two questions, according to a third Israeli government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Israeli media reported that the government is waiting to learn which hostages are alive and how many Palestinian prisoners Hamas seeks in exchange for each.
All three Israeli officials spoke anonymously because they weren’t authorized to discuss the disputes with the media.
On Saturday, the US airdropped aid into Gaza. The airdrops came after dozens of Palestinians rushing to grab food from an Israel-organized convoy were killed last week, and they circumvented an aid delivery system that has been hobbled by Israeli restrictions, logistical issues and fighting in Gaza. Aid officials say airdrops are far less effective than deliveries made by trucks.
US priorities in the region have increasingly been hampered by Netanyahu’s Cabinet, which is dominated by ultranationalists. Gantz’s more moderate party at times acts as a counterweight.
Netanyahu’s popularity has dropped since the war broke out, according to most opinion polls. Many Israelis hold him responsible for failing to stop the Oct. 7 cross-border raid by Hamas, which killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took roughly 250 people as hostages into Gaza, including women, children and older adults, according to Israeli authorities.
More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, around two-thirds of them women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and fighters. Around 80 percent of the population of 2.3 million have fled their homes, and UN agencies say hundreds of thousands are on the brink of famine.
Israelis critical of Netanyahu say his decision-making has been tainted by political considerations, a charge he denies. The criticism is particularly focused on plans for postwar Gaza. Netanyahu wants Israel to maintain open-ended security control over Gaza, with Palestinians running civilian affairs.
The US wants to see progress on the creation of a Palestinian state, envisioning a revamped Palestinian leadership running Gaza with an eye toward eventual statehood.
That vision is opposed by Netanyahu and the hard-liners in his government. Another top Cabinet official from Gantz’s party has questioned the handling of the war and the strategy for freeing the hostages.
Netanyahu’s government, Israel’s most conservative and religious ever, has also been rattled by a court-ordered deadline for a new bill to broaden military enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Many of them are exempted from military service so they can pursue religious studies. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers have been killed since Oct. 7, and the military is looking to fill its ranks.
Gantz has remained vague about his view of Palestinian statehood. Polls show he would earn enough support to become prime minister if a vote were held today.
A visit to the US, if met with progress on the hostage front, could further boost Gantz’s support.
Israel has essentially endorsed a framework of a proposed Gaza ceasefire and hostage release deal, and it is now up to Hamas to agree to it, a senior US official said Saturday. He spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House to brief reporters.
Israelis, deeply traumatized by Hamas’ attack, have broadly backed the war effort as an act of self-defense, even as global opposition to the fighting has increased.
But a growing number are expressing their dismay with Netanyahu. Some 10,000 people protested late Saturday to call for early elections, according to Israeli media. Such protests have grown in recent weeks, but remain much smaller than last year’s demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul plan.
If the political rifts grow and Gantz quits the government, the floodgates will open to broader protests by a public that was already unhappy with the government when Hamas struck, said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Israeli strikes late Saturday in Rafah and in the Jabaliya refugee camp killed more than 30 people, including women and children, according to local health officials. And on Sunday two Israeli strikes southwest of Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza killed at least five people and destroyed an aid truck, according to witnesses and staff at Al Aqsa hospital.
Amid concerns about the wider regional conflict, White House senior adviser Amos Hochstein was going to Lebanon on Monday to meet officials, according to an administration official who was not authorized to comment. White House officials want Lebanese and Israeli officials to prevent tensions along their border from worsening.
 


US envoy due in Beirut to continue de-escalation talks

US Special Envoy Amos Hochstein meets with Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati in Beirut, Lebanon. (File/Reuters)
Updated 03 March 2024
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US envoy due in Beirut to continue de-escalation talks

  • Lebanon deputy parliament speaker Elias Bou Saab said he believed timing of visit pointed to progress in efforts to secure a Gaza truce “within the next few hours or days”

BEIRUT: US envoy Amos Hochstein will visit Beirut on Monday to continue diplomatic efforts aimed at de-escalating the conflict across the Lebanese-Israeli border and bringing stability, a senior Lebanese official and a White House official said on Sunday.
The Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah and Israel have been locked in hostilities for months in parallel to the Gaza war. It has marked the worst conflict between the heavily armed adversaries since a 2006 war, fueling fears of an even bigger confrontation.
Lebanon deputy parliament speaker Elias Bou Saab, one of the officials due to meet Hochstein, told Reuters he believed the timing of his visit pointed to progress in efforts to secure a Gaza truce “within the next few hours or days.”
“If this happens, I believe that Hochstein’s visit this time will be of great importance to follow up on the truce on our southern borders and to discuss what is needed for stability and ending the possibility of the expansion of the war with Lebanon,” he said.
The White House official did not offer further details about the visit.
Washington has said a ceasefire deal in the Gaza war is close and is aiming to have it be in effect by the start of Ramadan, a week away.
Israel however boycotted talks in Cairo on Sunday after Hamas rejected its demand for a complete list of hostages that are still alive, an Israeli newspaper reported.
Hezbollah has publicly indicated that it would halt its attacks on Israel from Lebanon when the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip stops, but that it was also ready to keep on fighting if Israel continued hostilities.
Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati told Reuters on Thursday that a halt to fighting in the Gaza Strip as early as this week would trigger indirect talks to end hostilities along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.
Bou Saab said Hochstein had “serious ideas that may provide the beginning of a sustainable solution, stability, and banishing the spectre of war that will not be in anyone’s interest.”
Hochstein, who visited Beirut in January, previously brokered a rare diplomatic deal between Lebanon and Israel in 2022 to delineate their maritime border.
Designated a terrorist group by the United States, Hezbollah has not been a direct party to his diplomatic efforts. Instead his ideas have been passed on by Lebanese mediators. The group wields significant influence over the Lebanese state.
The Gaza war began when Hamas stormed Israel on Oct. 7, in an attack that killed 1,200 people and resulted in another 253 being abducted, according to Israeli tallies.
More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip in the Israeli offensive launched in response, according to Gaza health authorities.