Assad regime forces gain ground in deadly Idlib push

Syrian boys play with plastic guns on the first day of Eid Al-Adha in Al-Dana in Syria's opposition-controlled Idlib region, near the border with Turkey. (AFP)
Updated 11 August 2019

Assad regime forces gain ground in deadly Idlib push

  • Most recent fighting focused on an area straddling Idlib and Hama provinces

BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces seized a town on the edge of Idlib province on Sunday, a monitor said, their first ground advance since resuming an offensive on the opposition-dominated enclave more than three months ago.

The region of northwestern Syria, which is home to an estimated 3 million civilians, has come under almost daily Syrian and Russian bombardment since late April.

The most recent fighting focused on an area straddling Idlib and Hama provinces, a war monitor said, and claimed dozens of lives on both sides.

“Regime forces seized the town of Al-Habeet, in Idlib’s southern countryside, at dawn,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.

The regime’s latest gains were in the north of Hama province, which lies to the south of Idlib.

The area has escaped the control of Bashar Assad’s regime since 2015 and is the last major bastion of opposition to his regime and its allies.

The capture of Al-Habeet, one of several strategic targets for advancing pro-regime forces, came after another night of deadly fighting, the Observatory said.

According to the Britain-based monitor’s tally, 70 combatants were killed on Saturday alone, 32 of them pro-regime forces. The remaining 38 were from the opposing ranks of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and allied opposition fighters.

Abdel Rahman said another 27 combatants, nine of them regime fighters, were killed in early fighting on Sunday.

He described Al-Habeet as “the first town in southern Idlib to be taken by the regime since the start of the escalation” in April.

The town is seen as a stepping stone toward Khan Sheikhun, one of the main towns in Idlib and the target of some of the eight-year-old conflict’s deadliest air strikes.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced in recent weeks and aid groups have warned that an all-out assault on Idlib could turn the current humanitarian emergency into a catastrophe of proportions previously unseen.

The fighting is a violation of a deal which was reached by the battle’s two main foreign brokers — Russia and Turkey — but was never implemented.

Russia is Damascus’ main backer while Turkey holds sway over some opposition and militant forces along its border. The deal’s terms were never realistic but the agreement sealed in the Russian resort of Sochi in September 2018 staved off a fully fledged offensive that risks triggering the Syrian civil war’s bloodiest phase yet.

Lebanon is a sinking ship, parliament speaker warns

Updated 18 November 2019

Lebanon is a sinking ship, parliament speaker warns

  • Lebanon’s Berri says country a sinking ship
  • Hezbollah expects “political understandings” on new gov’t

BEIRUT: The speaker of parliament on Monday described Lebanon as a sinking ship at risk going under completely, underlining the depth of crisis in a country hamstrung by political deadlock and facing the worst economic strains since the 1975-90 civil war.
Banks, which have been seeking to prevent capital flight, were set to reopen on Tuesday as staff ended a one-week strike over security concerns posed by clients demanding their cash and protests at branches.
Struggling with a massive public debt and economic stagnation, Lebanon has sunk deeper into trouble since protests erupted against its ruling elite a month ago, leading Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri to quit on Oct. 29.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri told his visitors Lebanon was like a ship that was “sinking little by little,” the newspaper Al-Joumhuria reported.
“If we don’t take the necessary steps, it will sink entirely,” he said.
An-Nahar newspaper quoted him as likening Lebanon to the Titanic.
Berri, an ally of the powerful Shiite group Hezbollah, also said that efforts to form a new government were “completely frozen” and awaiting developments at any moment, Al-Joumhuria reported.
Efforts to form a new government, needed to enact urgent reforms, hit a setback at the weekend when former finance minister Mohammad Safadi withdrew his candidacy for the post of prime minister, drawing bitter recriminations.
Safadi had emerged as a candidate after Hariri, who is aligned with Western and Gulf Arab states, had been unable to agree with the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies on the type of government that should replace the outgoing cabinet.
Hariri had said that he would only return as prime minister of a cabinet of specialist ministers capable of securing international aid and saving Lebanon from crisis.
Hezbollah, which is heavily armed and listed as a terrorist group by the United States, and its allies have insisted that the government include politicians.
Hezbollah’s deputy leader, in comments to Iranian media, said “political understandings” would take place between “the parties and even with leaders of the protest movement” to form a new government, without giving further details.
Sheikh Naim Kassem also said the new government’s agenda would help to calm down the streets.
Both Hezbollah and Berri have said their preference is for Hariri to return again as prime minister — a post reserved for a Sunni Muslim in Lebanon’s power-sharing system.
The nationwide protests have been fueled by the mismanagement and perceived corruption of the ruling elite.
Lebanon’s economic problems have been compounded by a slowdown of capital inflows, leading to a scarcity of US dollars and spawning a hard currency black market.
Dollars were being offered at 1,820 pounds, around Friday’s level, dealers said, but still some 20% weaker than the official rate of 1,507.5 pounds.
On Sunday, banks, which have mostly been closed since the protests began, announced temporary measures including a weekly cap of $1,000 on cash withdrawals and restricting transfers abroad to cover urgent personal spending only.
A union representing bank staff said banks would be operating as normal on Tuesday after a decision to end the strike. It cited an interior ministry security plan and the newly declared measures announced by the banking association as the reason for the decision to go back to work.
“Tomorrow the banking sector will no longer be on strike. Tomorrow is a normal working day in all banks and all branches,” George Al-Hajj, President of the Federation of Syndicates of Bank Employees, said.