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

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.


Algeria to re-open land border with Tunisia: president

Updated 05 July 2022

Algeria to re-open land border with Tunisia: president

  • "We have taken the joint decision to reopen the land border from July 15," said President Abdelmadjid Tebboune
  • He was speaking at Algiers airport alongside his Tunisian counterpart President Kais Saied

ALGIERS: Algeria said Tuesday it would reopen its land border with Tunisia later this month, more than two years after it was shut at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have taken the joint decision to reopen the land border from July 15,” said President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
He was speaking at Algiers airport alongside his Tunisian counterpart President Kais Saied, who was leaving the country after attending a huge parade marking 60 years since Algeria’s independence from France.
Passengers had been blocked from crossing the border since March 2020 to stop the Covid-19 illness spreading, although cargo traffic had continued.
Being cut off from a neighbor of some 44 million people has dealt a serious blow to Tunisia’s tourism industry.
More than three million Algerians usually visit the country every year, according to local media.
Air and sea links between the two countries were restored in June 2021.


Egypt FM attending freedom of religion conference in London

Updated 05 July 2022

Egypt FM attending freedom of religion conference in London

  • Societies that allow their people to choose what they believe are better, stronger and ultimately more successful

CAIRO: Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry is attending the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief in London.

The event, which is being held on July 5-6, is hosting 500 religious, government and civil society leaders from 60 countries to call for more action to protect freedom of religion or belief around the world.

In the opening speech of the conference, the UK’s Prince Charles said in a recorded message: “Freedom of conscience, of thought and of belief is central to any truly flourishing society. It allows people to contribute to their communities without fear of exclusion, to exchange ideas without fear of prejudice, and to build relationships without fear of rejection. A society where difference is respected, where it is accepted that all need not think alike, will benefit from the talents of all of its members.”

Speaking at the conference at the Queen Elizabeth II Center in London, UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss said: “The freedom to believe, to pray and commit acts of worship, or indeed not to believe is a fundamental human freedom and has been one since the dawn of time. Societies that allow their people to choose what they believe are better, stronger and ultimately more successful. This fundamental right is covered in the very first clause of Magna Carta and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is one of the Four Freedoms Franklin D. Roosevelt said were ‘essential everywhere in the world.’”

Yesterday, the Egyptian minister, at the start of his London visit, met UK Minister of State for North Africa, South and Central Asia, the Commonwealth and the UN Lord Tariq Ahmed. The two discussed the conference, Egypt’s preparations for hosting and chairing COP27 in November, and the importance of continuing coordination between Egypt and the UK.


Iran adds demands in nuclear talks, enrichment levels ‘alarming’: US envoy

Updated 05 July 2022

Iran adds demands in nuclear talks, enrichment levels ‘alarming’: US envoy

  • Indirect talks between Tehran and Washington aimed at breaking an impasse over how to salvage Iran’s 2015 nuclear pact ended in Doha, Qatar, last week

JEDDAH: Iran has made alarming progress on enriching uranium and is hampering talks on a revived nuclear deal by making a series of unrelated demands, US special envoy Robert Malley said on Tuesday.

Negotiations in Vienna aimed at salvaging the collapsed 2015 agreement have been stalled since March, and talks in Qatar last week to break the impasse ended in failure.

Tehran had “added demands that I think anyone looking at this would view as having nothing to do with the nuclear deal, things that they’ve wanted in the past,” Malley said.

BACKGROUND

French President Emmanuel Macron said he would make every effort to make Tehran return to the negotiating table.

“The discussion that really needs to take place right now is not so much between us and Iran, although we’re prepared to have that. It’s between Iran and itself. They need to come to a conclusion about whether they are now prepared to come back into compliance with the deal.”

Iran ramped up enrichment of uranium after the US pulled out of the deal in 2018, and Malley said it was now much closer to having enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb.

“We are of course alarmed, as are our partners, about the progress they’ve made in the enrichment field,” he said.

Opinion

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The window to revive the deal was closing, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned on Tuesday. “If we want to conclude an agreement, decisions are needed now. This is still possible, but the political space … may narrow soon,” he said.

On a visit to Paris, new Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Iran was “violating the agreement and continues to develop its nuclear program.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said he would make every effort to make Tehran see reason and return to the negotiating table.


Greek PM criticizes ‘constant aggressive behavior’ of Turkey

Updated 05 July 2022

Greek PM criticizes ‘constant aggressive behavior’ of Turkey

  • Greece has voiced strong support for Ukraine in its war against the Russian invasion
  • Mitsotakis noted he was referring to “the constant aggressive behavior of Turkey,” with which relations have shown increasing strain over the past two years

ATHENS: Greece’s prime minister said Tuesday that Russia’s war in Ukraine is a “turning point” in the course of Europe, stressing that any type of outcome that could embolden aggression by other nations on the continent must be avoided.
Greece, which has long-standing disputes with far larger neighbor Turkey that brought them to the brink of war three times in the last half-century, has voiced strong support for Ukraine in its war against the Russian invasion.
“The battle of Ukraine is not just another event on the international scene. It is a turning point in the course of Europe,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
“We owe it today to Ukraine to avert any type of fait accompli which could be imitated tomorrow by new potential trouble-makers,” he said.
Mitsotakis noted he was referring to “the constant aggressive behavior of Turkey,” with which relations have shown increasing strain over the past two years. Although both NATO members, the two countries have decades-old disputes over a series of issues, including territorial claims in the Aegean Sea and energy exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
Recent quarrels have focused on Greek islands off Turkey’s coast, with Ankara accusing Athens of maintaining a military presence there in violation of treaties. Greece counters it is acting according to international law and is defending its islands in the face of Turkish hostility.
“One thing is certain, we do not need new revisionism and the revival of imperial fantasies,” Mitsotakis said. “And another thing is also certain, Greece will not tolerate any questioning of its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The Greek prime minister said his country was “keeping our doors shut to threats, keeping our windows open to peaceful contacts. Disputes between nations are resolved based on international law, not through bullying.”
Last Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Greece of violating its airspace — something which Greece frequently accuses Turkey of doing to its own airspace, and denies violating Turkey’s.
“We don’t have an issue like ‘let’s go to war with Greece, let’s make war.’ But Greece is not standing by their promises,” Erdogan said after Friday prayers, accusing Greece of having violated Turkish airspace 147 times.
“Of course, if you’re going to violate our airspace like this, then what falls on us? My air force will give you the necessary visuals. That’s what our air force is doing,” Erdogan said, adding that “our armed forces are doing their duty and if these airspace violations continue after this, we will continue to do our duty in the same way.”
The Turkish president said the leaders of many NATO countries had tried to reconcile him and Mitsotakis. Erdogan said that “we are not thinking that right now,” but would see what happens in the future and evaluate it then.


Belgian held in Iran for ‘espionage’

Updated 05 July 2022

Belgian held in Iran for ‘espionage’

  • Man was seized in Iran on February 24 and has been in ‘illegal’ detention since

BRUSSELS: Iran has been holding a Belgian man for the past four months under “espionage” charges, Belgium’s justice minister said Tuesday, as his country weighed a controversial prisoner swap treaty with Tehran.
The man was seized in Iran on February 24 and has been in “illegal” detention since, the minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, told Belgian MPs without identifying him.
Belgium last year imprisoned an Iranian diplomat for 20 years after his conviction under “terrorist” charges for plotting a bomb attack outside Paris in 2018.
While Quickenborne did not give the detained Belgian’s identity, Iran International, a Saudi-financed media outlet based in London, reported that a 41-year-old Belgian former aid worker is detained in Iran.
The outlet said the Belgian’s arrest appeared to be another instance of Iran “imprisoning foreigners as hostages to exchange them with certain Iranians jailed in Western countries.”
Among those Iran is holding is a Swedish academic who also holds Iranian citizenship, Ahmadreza Djalali, who taught at a Brussels university. Iran also applied “espionage” charges to Djalali and has sentenced him to death.
Quickenborne said officials from Belgium’s embassy in Tehran had twice visited the jailed Belgian to give all possible assistance, and that his family had earlier Tuesday made public his detention.
“I cannot say more, at the express request of the family,” the minister said.
Belgium’s parliament on Thursday is to vote on whether to ratify a bilateral treaty with Iran that would open the way for prisoners in each country to be repatriated.
Quickenborne on Tuesday said as he presented the proposed treaty to MPs for debate that “if the bill is not fully approved, the threat to our Belgian interests and certain Belgian citizens will increase.”
Some US lawmakers, however, are pressing Belgium to ditch the proposed treaty, which was signed in March.
One, Randy Weber, a Republican representative in Texas, tweeted he was “shocked to find out that the Belgian gov has cut a deal with the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism and plans to send Iranian terrorists back to Iran to plot more terroristic acts.”
The imprisoned Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted by a Belgian court in February 2021 of attempted “terrorist” murder and “participating in the activities of a terrorist group.”
He was found guilty of supplying explosives for a bomb attack on June 30, 2018 event outside Paris held by the dissident National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI) group.
Information supplied by several European intelligence services allowed Belgium to thwart the attack by intercepting the car carrying the bomb.
A two-year investigation into the plot determined that Assadi was an Iranian agent operating under diplomatic cover.
Assadi was arrested in Germany, where his claim to diplomatic immunity was denied because he was attached to Iran’s embassy in Austria, and extradited to Belgium for trial.
He opted not to appeal against his sentence. Tehran has protested his conviction.
Lawyers for the NCRI, whose core is made up of a militant organization known as the MEK, said the proposed Belgium-Iran treaty was designed to allow Assadi to go back to Iran.
The controversy in Belgium over the treaty comes as European powers are trying to bring Iran and the United States back into compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal.
That pact was badly weakened when former president Donald Trump pulled America out in 2018.
Iran has since leapt ahead with its uranium enrichment to a level putting it close to the point where it could produce nuclear weapons.

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