Anti-Daesh Syria force boosted as extremist holdout shrinks

Women and children walk with their belongings as they are directed by members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after leaving Daesh's last holdout of Baghouz, in the eastern Syrian Deir Ezzor province on March 1, 2019. (AFP/Delil Souleiman)
Updated 15 March 2019

Anti-Daesh Syria force boosted as extremist holdout shrinks

  • A total of about 60,000 people have streamed out of Daesh-held territory since December
  • The exodus has sparked a humanitarian crisis in Kurdish-held camps for the displaced

SOUSA, Syria: US-backed forces consolidated their positions around Daesh’s last redoubt in eastern Syria Friday as the country’s devastating conflict entered its ninth year with more than 370,000 dead.
All that remains of a once sprawling proto-state that the Daesh extremists declared in 2014 is a battered riverside camp in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and warplanes of a US-led coalition backing them, have rained fire on the enclave since Sunday, blitzing thousands of Daesh members into surrender.
The Kurdish-led force said “1,300 terrorists and their families” gave themselves up on Thursday alone as its fighters slowed their advance to allow them to exit the enclave.
AFP correspondents on the ground said Thursday night was relatively calm apart from limited air strikes, as the SDF said its fighters were consolidating their positions after extremist counter-attacks and foiled suicide bombings.
The force was “consolidating and rotating its troops,” an SDF spokesman told AFP.
“There are still women and children who want to surrender, so we are obliged to slow down operations,” Jiaker Amed said in the neighboring village of Sousa.
“Operations risk being slowed again today to allow more departures of jihadists and their families,” Amed said, but he was unable to give an estimate for the number of people left inside Baghouz.
“Those left are strongly attached to the (extremists’) ideology,” he said. “There are a lot of suicide bombers but there are also families and children.”
Since the months-old SDF offensive resumed on March 10, 3,000 IS suspected members have surrendered, according to the SDF.
A total of about 60,000 people have streamed out of Daesh-held territory since December, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says, a tenth of them suspected extremists.
The exodus has sparked a humanitarian crisis in Kurdish-held camps for the displaced, where women and children have arrived exhausted after weeks of siege.
These include the wives and children of alleged foreign extremists, hundreds of whom are being held by the Kurdish forces.
The International Rescue Committee says 120 people — mainly young children — have died on their way to the camp or after arrival.
Eight years of war in Syria have left more than 370,000 people dead including 112,000 civilians, the Syrian Observatory said, raising its last toll of over 360,000 issued in September.
The Britain-based monitoring group, which has a network of sources across Syria, said that more than 21,000 children and 13,000 women were among the dead.
The conflict flared after unprecedented anti-government protests in the southern city of Daraa on March 15, 2011.
Demonstrations spread across Syria and were brutally suppressed by the regime, triggering a multi-front armed conflict that has drawn in foreign powers and militant groups.
Over 125,000 Syrian government soldiers and pro-regime fighters figure in the latest death toll, the Observatory said.
It said other fighters, including rebels and Kurds, accounted for 67,000 of those killed.
Almost 66,000 were extremists, mainly from Daesh and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), dominated by Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria.
The devastating conflict has displaced or sent into exile around 13 million Syrians, and cost almost $400 billion in damages, according to the United Nations.
With the support of powerful allies Russia and Iran, President Bashar Assad has won his war for political survival but his country is fractured and cash-strapped.
Having reversed rebel gains with a massive Russian intervention, Assad now controls almost two-thirds of Syria’s territory.
But key areas remain beyond regime control, including a swathe of the oil-rich northeast held by the SDF.
Idlib in northwestern Syria, held by HTS, is protected by a cease-fire deal between Ankara and Moscow which has seen Turkish troops deployed to the area.
Syria’s conflict is estimated to have set its economy back three decades, destroying infrastructure and paralysing the production of electricity and oil.
Assad, however, has regained control of key commercial arteries and started a tentative comeback on the Arab diplomatic scene.
Several countries have called for Syria to be reintegrated into the Arab League, from which it was suspended as the death toll from the uprising mounted in 2011.


Syrian migrants allowed in by Merkel vote to choose her successor

Updated 21 September 2021

Syrian migrants allowed in by Merkel vote to choose her successor

  • Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open the door to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in 2015 was a defining issue of Germany’s last federal election campaign in 2017

BERLIN: Tarek Saad is keen to help other Syrian refugees who have fled the war in their homeland to make a new home in Germany and he sees the federal election on Sept. 26 as an opportunity to do just that.

Saad is campaigning in his adopted state of Schleswig-Holstein on the Baltic coast for the Social Democrats (SPD), a party he joined in 2016, just two years after he arrived in Germany bearing two gunshot wounds he had survived in Syria.

“I thought the things making my life difficult must be tormenting others as well. To overcome them as quickly as possible, one should be in a political party,” said the 28-year-old student of political science.

“Our parents lived under a different political system for long years (in Syria) ... This is an opportunity to develop a new generation (in Germany),” said Saad, who like many refugees will vote for the first time as a German citizen.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open the door to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in 2015 was a defining issue of Germany’s last federal election campaign in 2017.

Not all newly naturalized refugees are as clear as Saad about their voting intentions.

“I am happy to have this opportunity but I am being cautious and maybe I won’t vote,” said Maher Obaid, 29, who lives in the town of Singen near the Swiss border.

Obaid, naturalized in 2019, said a lack of clarity among the parties on foreign policy issues, especially Syria, was behind his hesitation.

The number of Syrians who have acquired German citizenship rose by 74 percent in 2020 to 6,700, federal statistics show. The total number of Syrian refugees is estimated to be much higher, at over 700,000, but getting citizenship requires time and effort.

A 2020 study by the Expert Council on Integration and Migration (SVR) found that only 65 percent of Germans with a migration background voted in 2017, against 86 percent of native-born Germans.

Language fluency and socio-economic situation were two factors determining migrants’ participation, along with the length of their stay, the study found.

“The longer a person stays in Germany ... the more likely they are to feel they understand and can participate in political life,” it said.

Historically, migrants from southern Europe and Turkey who came as guest workers saw the Social Democrats as the party that best represented their interests, a study by the DIW research institute showed.

By contrast, Syrians were more likely to support Merkel’s conservatives who shaped the migration policy from 2013 to 2016 when the majority of them arrived in Germany, the study found.

But with Merkel bowing out of politics after 16 years at the helm, many Syrians are now making different calculations.

“Syrians should be very smart ... What Merkel did was right but what is her successor doing?” asked Abdulaziz Ramadan, head of a migrant integration organization in Leipzig who was naturalized in 2019.

An informal poll among members of a Syrian migrants’ group on Facebook showed most would now vote for the SPD, followed by the Greens, if they were entitled to vote. The option “I don’t care” was the third choice.

Mahmoud Al Kutaifan, a doctor living in the south-western city of Freiburg, is among the few Syrians who were naturalized in time to vote in the 2017 election.

“Out of emotion, I voted then for the party of Mrs. Merkel because she supported refugees,” he said.

While he has not regretted that decision, he, like many other German voters pondering the post-Merkel era, is unsure how to cast his ballot this time round.

“The election date is approaching but I honestly haven’t decided yet.”


EU joins outcry over Houthis’ execution of nine men

Updated 21 September 2021

EU joins outcry over Houthis’ execution of nine men

  • Britain said the executions demonstrated “indifference to human dignity & blatant disregard for fair trial & due process.”
  • The Houthis’ Foreign Ministry dismissed the criticism as “interference in domestic affairs” and accused the United Nations and the West of turning a blind eye to the “coalition’s crimes.”

ADEN: The European Union joined a chorus of international criticism on Monday over the execution of nine men by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen following their conviction for involvement in the killing of the group’s top civilian leader.
Saleh Al-Samad, who held the post of president in the Houthi-controlled administration which runs most of northern Yemen, was killed in April 2018 by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in the port city of Hodeidah on Yemen’s west coast.
A Houthi court found the nine men, including one who was a minor when he was arrested, guilty of spying and sharing sensitive information with the Saudi-led coalition. They were executed on Saturday by firing squad.
Pictures and videos of the executions have been widely shared on social media, which showed military officers shooting the nine men in the back in Sanaa’s central public square.
In a statement condemning the executions, an EU spokesperson said there had also been reports of irregularities in the judicial process and allegations of mistreatment.
“The European Union strongly opposes the death penalty at all times and in all circumstances. It is a cruel and inhumane punishment ...” said the statement.
Earlier, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a similar statement in which he also called for a moratorium on use of the death penalty in Yemen and for a peaceful negotiated settlement of the conflict there.
The US Embassy in Yemen condemned what it called “a sham trial following years of torture and abuse” by the Houthis. Britain said the executions demonstrated “indifference to human dignity & blatant disregard for fair trial & due process.”
The Houthis’ Foreign Ministry dismissed the criticism as “interference in domestic affairs” and accused the United Nations and the West of turning a blind eye to the “coalition’s crimes.”
Samad was the most senior official to be killed by the coalition in the years-long war in which the Houthis are fighting forces loyal to the internationally-recognized government based in the southern port city of Aden.

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Two militant commanders killed in Syria drone strikes

Updated 21 September 2021

Two militant commanders killed in Syria drone strikes

  • The strikes targeted a vehicle on the road leading from Idlib city to Binnish further north

BEIRUT: Drone strikes Monday killed two militant commanders close to Al-Qaeda in the Idlib region of northwest Syria, a war monitor said.
The raids were carried out by the US-led international coalition battling militants in Syria and Iraq, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
But the coalition told AFP it had not carried out any strikes in Idlib province on Monday.
The strikes targeted a vehicle on the road leading from Idlib city to Binnish further north, the observatory said.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that one of the commanders killed was Tunisian while the other was from Yemen or Saudi Arabia, without identifying the group they belonged to.
The Idlib region is dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, but rebels and other militants are also present.
Militant factions have been the target of Syrian, Russian, US and international coalition strikes in the past. Nine militants were killed in October 2019 in Russian airstrikes on Idlib province, while a US strike a month earlier killed at least 40 militant leaders.
Syria’s war has killed around half a million people since starting in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, spiralling into a complex battlefield involving foreign armies and militants.


Palestinian artist depicts the ‘ticking bomb’ of Gaza

Updated 20 September 2021

Palestinian artist depicts the ‘ticking bomb’ of Gaza

  • Abeer Jebril paints ballet dancers because ‘I see her as an icon of beauty and power’

GAZA CITY: Palestinian artist Abeer Jebril’s paintings show ballerinas chained in barbed wire, dancing on rocks, or facing barricades to mirror what she calls the “ticking bomb” reality of women in Gaza.
Jebril, 35, hopes her portraits will bring attention to the social and political problems women face in Gaza, home to two million people and devastated by wars and economic restrictions.
“The reason I chose the ballet dancer is that I see her as an icon of beauty and power,” said Jebril, who is inspired by Degas, the French Impressionist.
“It shows what the woman feels, lives, faces and how she is chained, it shows what she feels in Gaza to the audience.” she said.
One of her paintings depicts a dancer with her feet chained in barbed wire. Another is stepping on rocks while a third woman wraps her body around a grenade. “Men and women are both in chains under the occupation,” Jebril said.
She said her paintings also shed light on how “women suffer from the dominance of men and the inability to have a say on issues that matter.” Men and women, Jebril said, “live in a ticking bomb in Gaza,” not knowing what will happen next.
Jebril said she got ideas for her paintings from moves by international ballet dancers and those of her 11-year-old daughter Maya, who dances ballet.
Her portaits, created using painter’s knives, have been displayed in galleries in some European and Arab countries.
“I felt despair seeing paintings displayed outside Gaza when I couldn’t be there. I so much had hoped to have stood next to them,” she said.


Ships rescue 190 Europe-bound migrants off Libya

Updated 20 September 2021

Ships rescue 190 Europe-bound migrants off Libya

  • The rescues came amid a spike in attempted crossings of the Mediterranean Sea
  • Over 24,000 migrants have been intercepted and returned to Libya by the country’s coast guard so far this year, according to the UN migration agency

ABOARD THE GEO BARENTS: Two vessels rescued around 190 Europe-bound migrants, including women and children, off the coast of Libya, charities operating the vessels said Monday.
The rescues came amid a spike in attempted crossings of the Mediterranean Sea.
More than 24,000 migrants have been intercepted and returned to Libya by the country’s coast guard so far this year, according to the UN migration agency. That’s more than double the number from 2020, when about 11,890 migrants were brought back to shore in the conflict-ridden country.
More than a thousand more are believed to have drowned in just the first half of the year, according to the agency’s figures.
Migrants waved to rescuers from a flimsy rubber dinghy at midday Monday before they were given life vests and transferred onboard the Geo Barents, a rescue vessel operated by the charity Doctors without Borders. They numbered 54 in total, according to Barbara Deck, the organization’s project coordinator.
Among them were two dozen minors, six women and a 6-week-old baby, who was among the first to disembark, crying, after being carefully placed in a large orange life vest. The migrants’ original vessel had been packed, with no shade and barely room for all onboard to sit down.
The migrants were not immediately available for comment. They were rushed for medical inspection by workers for the aid agency known by its French name as Medecins Sans Frontieres. Some appeared exhausted and smiled in relief after their rescue, with a few dancing and singing. Among them were migrants from African countries including Ivory Coast, Cameron, Mali, Somalia and Burkina Faso, according to Deck.
It was unclear why this year has seen so many crossings but mid to late summer is typically a peak time for attempts on the Central Mediterranean route because of good weather. Rescues along this route have become routine during the warmer months. Economic hardship, sometimes exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, is a driver for many of the migrants.
Earlier in the day, the Geo Barents also rescued six men in a small fiberglass boat, three of them from Libya, two from Tunisia and one from Morocco. The men had been trying down the rescue ship, according to MSF staff.
The migrants told rescuers that the dinghy’s engine had stopped working, according to Mattijs Melsen, deputy search and rescue leader with MSF.
“The boat was not designated for such a voyage,” he said.
The Ocean Viking, also working in the same area off Libya, rescued around 130 Europe-bound migrants over the past three days, said Claire Juchat, a communications officer for the SOS Mediterranee charity, which operates the vessel.
The migrants, including 44 children and 12 women, were on four separate boats, Juchat said. There were two migrants with critical health conditions whom the Italian coast guard evacuated along with four family members early Monday, she said.
The remaining migrants will stay onboard the two vessels until their missions are completed, then they will be taken to Europe.
Libya has for years been a hub for African and Middle Eastern migrants fleeing war and poverty in their countries and hoping for a better life in Europe. The oil-rich country plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Traffickers have exploited the chaos and often pack desperate families into ill-equipped small boats that stall and founder along the perilous Central Mediterranean route. Thousands have drowned along the way. Some Libyan militiamen have been implicated in widespread abuses of migrants, including torture and abduction for ransom.