Intense bombardment continues as Syrian troops advance in Idlib

Opposition fighters pose for a picture with the remains of a downed regime warplane near the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the south of Idlib province. (AFP)
Updated 16 August 2019

Intense bombardment continues as Syrian troops advance in Idlib

  • Three villages fall in morning hours and town of Khan Sheikhoun is being shelled relentlessly

BEIRUT: Syrian forces gained more ground from insurgents in the country’s northwest on Thursday, edging closer to a major opposition-held town a day after militants shot down a regime warplane in the area.

The regime offensive, which intensified last week, has displaced nearly 100,000 people over the past four days, according to the Syrian Response Coordination Group, a relief group active in northwestern Syria.

Syrian troops have been on the offensive in Idlib and its surroundings, the last major opposition stronghold in Syria, since April 30. The region is home to some 3 million people, many of them displaced in other battles around the war-torn country.

The fighting over the past days has been concentrated on two fronts as regime forces march toward the town of Khan Sheikhoun from the east and west. The latest offensive also aims to besiege opposition-held towns and villages in northern parts of Hama province, according to opposition activists.

The town of Khan Sheikhoun is a stronghold of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, the most powerful group in the opposition-held areas. The town was the scene of a chemical attack on April 4, 2017 that killed 89 people.

At the time, the US, Britain and France pointed a finger at the Syrian regime, saying their experts had found that nerve agents were used in the attack. Days later, the US fired 59 US Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat Air Base in central Syria, saying the attack on Khan Sheikhoun was launched from the base.

The Syrian regime and its Russian allies denied there was a chemical attack.

The regime-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said on Thursday pro-regime forces captured three small villages, just west of Khan Sheikhoun.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, said the villages fell in the morning hours and that the town of Khan Sheikhoun is being bombarded relentlessly.

Syrian state media confirmed that opposition fighters had downed the regime plane on Wednesday. An Al-Qaeda-linked group has released a video of the pilot in which the handcuffed man identified himself as a lieutenant colonel in the Syrian air force.

In the video, the pilot says his fighter jet was shot down when he was carrying out a mission near Khan Sheikhoun.


Dick Cheney: Upcoming decade bleak if US adopts ‘disengagement’ policy

Updated 10 December 2019

Dick Cheney: Upcoming decade bleak if US adopts ‘disengagement’ policy

  • Former US vice president sounds warning during panel discussion on ‘The global order 2030’
  • Remarks seen as indirect criticism of President Trump’s pledge to pull forces out of Syria

DUBAI: Dick Cheney, one of the most influential vice presidents in US history, has warned that “American disengagement” from the Middle East would only benefit Iran and Russia.

The 78-year-old politician’s warning came during a speech at the Arab Strategy Forum (ASF) in Dubai, an annual event in which the world’s leading decision-makers address global challenges and opportunities in “a precise, balanced and politically scientific manner.”

Cheney’s remarks could be seen as indirect criticism of US President Donald Trump’s pledges to pull forces out of northern Syria.

Addressing conference delegates, he cited the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and the 2015 lifting of sanctions against Iran during Barack Obama’s presidency, as events that amplified instability in the region.

“Our allies were left abandoned, and no one wants to feel that way again,” said Cheney, who was chief executive of Halliburton between 1995 and 2000 and held high posts in several Republican administrations.

The former VP’s remarks came during the forum’s concluding session titled, “The global order 2030: The Unites States and China,” which was attended by Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum.

Joined by Li Zhaoxing, a former Chinese foreign minister, in a candid panel discussion, Cheney offered his views on the world order in the next decade within the context of Iran’s regional ascendancy, China’s rise and Russian ambitions in the Middle East.

“I am not here to speak on behalf of the US government, or to speak to it,” Cheney said, adding that his talking points reflected concerns he suspected everyone shared.

“For decades, there’s been a consensus of America’s influence in the world and how to use it,” he said, citing instances where US disengagement had caused the political situation in the Middle East to implode.

“Humanity has benefited from America’s protectionism of the world and its relationship with its allies in the region.”

According to him, the upcoming decade would be bleak should the US adopt a disengagement policy, with the pressures most felt by supporters and partners in the Middle East.

Turning to the role that the US and China would play in the global status quo by 2030, Cheney said there were still concerns over China’s reputation.

“We had hoped that there would be a political evolution in China, but that hasn’t happened yet,” he added.

Li said: “China will never learn from a world superpower and will never try to be hegemonic,” citing as examples China’s strong relations with the UAE and the wider Arab world, and the impact of the Belt and Road Initiative (a global development strategy) on Chinese foreign policy.

“History is the best teacher, but the US has forgotten its own history. You don’t keep your promises,” added Li, directing his statement at Cheney.

Cheney said that since the end of the Cold War, the US had expected that its policy toward China would have had a beneficial effect on its behavior and helped to deepen bilateral relations.

“It was disappointing to see that these expectations were not borne out – China has only grown richer, the regime has become more oppressive, and instead of evolving, it became more assertive,” he said.

In a separate ASF meeting at the Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Center, Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, discussed Iran’s policies in a session titled, “The race for relevance and influence in the region: GCC, Iran, Turkey and Russia.”

Sadjadpour said he expected in the next 10 years to see the arrival of “an Iranian Putin” with a military background as the country’s next leader.

“After 40 years of a clerical regime and a military autocracy, there is now a rise of Persian nationalism. This is a shift from the sheer revolution ideology,” he said.

Sadjadpour said there had been an evolution of “Shiite Arab” identity during the past two decades, with the focus more on religion than nationality.

Under the circumstances, he noted that Sunni Arab powers had an important role to play in welcoming Shiite Arabs into their fold “and luring them away from Iran.”

The analyst added that the future of the Arab world could not be explored and forecast without considering a growing mental health crisis. “Today, hundreds of millions of people in the region suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and the effects of this will be with us for decades to come, resulting in issues like radicalism.”

He said there was a need for training thousands of counselors in the field of mental health in order to reach out to those whose lives had been robbed by extreme violence and conflicts.