Syrian activists: Airstrikes hit hospital in rebel village

This picture taken on August 21, 2019 shows the damaged interior of an operating room following a reported air strike on a makeshift clinic in the area of Tallmannis in Syria's northern Idlib province. (AFP)
Updated 21 August 2019

Syrian activists: Airstrikes hit hospital in rebel village

  • There was no immediate word on casualties from the airstrike on the Rahma hospital
  • Ten of thousands of people have fled to Syria’s border with Turkey in the last few days

DUBAI: Airstrikes hit a hospital in a rebel-held village in northwestern Syria, knocking it out of service early on Wednesday, opposition activists said as government forces pressed their offensive on the last major rebel stronghold in the war-torn country.
There was no immediate word on casualties from the airstrike on the Rahma hospital in Tel Mannas, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Thiqa news agency, an activist collective.
The Observatory said the hospital was struck four times but that it had been evacuated hours earlier.
Earlier this month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres authorized an investigation into attacks on health facilities and schools in the rebel-held enclave, following a petition from Security Council members.
Wednesday’s airstrike was one of several to hit Idlib province, home to some 3 million people and the area where government forces have been on the offensive for months.
The violence came a day after the main insurgent group in Idlib pulled out of Khan Sheikhoun, a key rebel town, as government forces advanced in the area slowly, clearing land mines and explosives.
The withdrawal of Al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham from Khan Sheikhoun is a blow to the opposition. Syrian government forces have been on the offensive in Idlib and northern parts of Hama province since April 30, which have killed more than 2,000 people, including hundreds of civilians.
Ten of thousands of people have fled to Syria’s border with Turkey in the last few days, residents, rights groups and opposition sources said on Wednesday.
They left Maarat Al-Numan, a city in Idlib province that has been a sanctuary for families fleeing former rebel areas, as a Russian-led push has come close to capturing the strategic town of Khan Sheikhoun further south.
“The flow of cars and vehicles leaving is not stopping,” said Abdullah Younis from the city. Rescuers there said around 60,000 people had fled in the last four days alone.
On Tuesday, Russian and Syrian jets intensified their bombing of scattered villages and towns around Maarat Al-Numan, with the Al-Rahma hospital in the area struck, residents said.
“There were 15 raids on Jarjanaz in less than five minutes,” Abdul Rahman al Halabi told Reuters from the area.
On Wednesday, government forces captured the Teraei Hill, east of the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Syrian government forces are trying to capture more ground to meet troops marching from the west in order to lay siege on rebel-held towns and villages in the central province of Hama, according to the Observatory.
Activists also reported fighting in the rebel-held areas in the Jabal Al-Akrad region in the coastal province of Latkia.
State media, broadcasting from the outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday, said government forces were battling militants but had extended their advance and seized a highway running through the town.
Capturing Khan Sheikhoun would be an important gain for Moscow and its ally into the northwestern region, where Moscow has helped President Bashar Assad turn the tide against insurgents in the eight year conflict since stepping up its intervention in 2015.
Russia has thrown its weight behind the campaign, conducting thousands of raids and strikes on rebel-held northern Hama and southern Idlib in what Western military experts and opposition figures say is a “scorched earth strategy.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged on Tuesday that Russia had military personnel on the ground in Idlib province, the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
The Russian military has previously downplayed its direct role in the advance, where it used mercenaries and special forces as well as directing battles, according to Western intelligence sources.
The fall of Khan Sheikhoun ends rebel control over neighboring northern Hama province, where a leading rebel group, Jaish Al-Izza, had been until now defending the three major towns of Latamneh, Kfr Zita and Morek.
The latest Russian-backed advance since a cease-fire broke down over two weeks ago has been aided by thousands of new reinforcements including Iranian-backed militias who had been absent from earlier battles.
Rebels said a Turkish patrol on Wednesday moved from one of a dozen military posts established in the area under agreements reached with Russia in what they said was a message by Ankara that it won’t succumb to Syrian government pressure to pull out.
A suspected Syrian army strike on Monday hit a Turkish military convoy heading to an observation post near Khan Sheikhoun. Damascus denounced what it said was a Turkish attempt to save routed rebels.
The Turkish presence in northwestern Syria and extensive covert military aid it has extended to some Ankara-backed rebel factions had complicated the campaign to seize the last rebel bastion, both Syrian military experts and rebels say.
A senior Turkish security official told Reuters talks were going on with Russia over the fate of convoy that was en route to an outpost near the frontline and that it had not moved since the strike but there was no question “it would be abandoned.”
After months of stalemate Russia has increased the intensity of raids in the last 10 days, transforming the situation on the ground. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and at least 400,000 people displaced, according to medics and NGOs and the United Nations.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights,(SNHR), which monitors casualties and briefs various UN agencies, said 196 children were among the 843 civilians killed in the Russian and Syrian raids since the campaign began last April.
“The bombing has escalated this week and this makes it likely they will win since they are absolving themselves from the rules of war by indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and use of internationally banned weapons,” Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman of SNHR, told Reuters.
Moscow and Damascus, who deny indiscriminate bombing of civilians areas or targeting hospitals, say they are fighting extremist militants drawn from across the world.

(With AP and Reuters)


Turkey’s Erdogan called out for endangering ‘US national security’

Updated 13 November 2019

Turkey’s Erdogan called out for endangering ‘US national security’

  • Strong letter by House Foreign Affairs Committee members urges withdrawal of White House invitation
  • Residents of northeastern Syria are fearful and the humanitarian situation is a cause for concern

ERBIL, DUBAI: In a humiliating rebuke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the lead-up to his visit to Washington, members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives have written a strong letter urging US President Donald Trump to withdraw the White House invitation.

The letter says Erdogan’s “decision to invade northern Syria on Oct. 9 has had disastrous consequences for US national security, has led to deep divisions in the NATO alliance, and caused a humanitarian crisis on the ground.”

The Congress members said: “Turkish forces have killed civilians and members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a critical US partner in the fight against (Daesh), and displaced over one hundred thousand people from their homes in northern Syria.”

The committee’s concerns are well founded. After weeks of instability and violence following the Turkish incursion, the situation in northeastern Syria remains tense despite the implementation of a ceasefire and an agreement between Russia and Turkey that compelled Kurdish-led SDF troops to withdraw from the border.

According to multiple sources, residents of this part of Syria are fearful for their future and the humanitarian situation is a cause for concern.

Since Turkey launched its assault, shortly after the US troop withdrawal from the border, approximately 180,000 Syrian civilians, primarily Kurds, have been displaced from their homes.

Turkey, with the help of its Syrian militia proxies, has carved out a large swath of territory — about 120 kilometers wide — that extends from Tal Abyad to Ras Al-Ayn (known by Kurds as Serekaniye).

On Oct. 31 at a gathering in Istanbul, Erdogan boasted that the “safe zones” were the most peaceful and livable places in Syria today. “We did not provide all these services with any expectation, but as our human and moral responsibilities,” he said, adding “when we look around, we see only humans, souls and life.”

Most Kurds of northeastern Syria see the situation very differently. In their view, what Erdogan has undertaken in the name of resettling millions of Syrian refugees in the so-called safe zone is a giant demographic-engineering exercise.

What has reinforced their suspicions have been incidents of Turkish-backed Syrian militias looting civilian homes and businesses, clips of which have flooded social media since the first days of the Turkish invasion.

Sounding a direct warning via Twitter, Mazloum Abdi, the SDF’s general commander, said: “There are efforts by Turkey to achieve its demographic-change goals in Northeast Syria through international organizations. The UN head’s willingness to form a team to study the proposal and engage in discussions with Turkish authorities on the issue is deeply worrying and dangerous.”

Dr. Nemam Ghafouri heads a charity called Joint Help for Kurdistan that is distributing humanitarian aid in the region. As someone who is familiar with the facts on the ground, she says “the humanitarian situation could not have been worse.”

She says because northeastern Syria has been practically under an embargo for years, “it’s very hard to find even the most basic items in significant quantities. Even finding and buying simple clothing for the displaced is very difficult and expensive.”

Ghafouri has talked to many people displaced from different areas. Some spoke of how they tried to return to their homes but the presence of the militias, whose roadside executions of Kurds have been filmed and posted on the web, acted as a deterrent.

Among the displaced Syrians Ghafouri spoke to were a pharmacist and a doctor from Ras Al-Ayn who tried to return to their homes.

“They told me about another pharmacist they knew who was arrested along with his son by these militias, who demanded a large ransom for their release,” she said. After being detained for eight hours, both were released without the ransom being paid. Instead, the militiamen “stole everything they could find in their home and their pharmacy.”

The general atmosphere, as inferred by Ghafouri, is one of “suffering and hopelessness.”

Alluding to the resettlement of Arabs on confiscated Kurdish land by Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad back in the mid-1970s, she said: “This is not the first time efforts have been made to change demographics.”

Ghafouri said that even today, on the road from Hasakah to Derik, “you can see where Arab villages have been built on the best agricultural lands in the region.”

On Oct. 24, in an interview to Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT, Erdogan came close to making the case for ethnic cleansing. “What is important is to prepare a controlled life in this enormous area, and the most suitable people for it are Arabs,” he said. “These areas are not suitable for the lifestyle of Kurds … because these areas are virtually desert.”

In actual fact, northeastern Syria, where the country’s largest Kurdish-majority areas are located, is also where Syria’s best agricultural lands happen to be. The region is often referred to as the country’s “breadbasket.”

Ghafouri believes the events of the past several weeks are “all about destroying the landscape and demography of the Kurdish regions for good,” adding: “It has been partially accomplished already.”

Besides Turkey, Russia and the Syrian regime have also sent troops to the Turkey-Syria border, but locals Ghafouri spoke to “don’t see the Russian deployment as a cause for hope.”

She said: “Despite feeling betrayed by America, people I’ve talked to there trust Russia even less. It seems that with Russian support, the Syrian regime has achieved what it wants — namely the ‘Arabization’ of predominantly Kurdish areas with the help of Turkey.”

In recent weeks, more than 14,000 Syrians have fled the conflict in the country’s northeast to neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, which already hosts a huge refugee population.

Jotiar Adil, a spokesperson for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said the KRG “does not have the capacity to handle and care for a new wave of refugees coming across the border on its own.

“Therefore, we ask the international community to take a serious stance on this and assist us in sheltering and providing for these refugees.”

While the Russian-Syrian deployment along the border in northeastern Syria is expected to lessen the likelihood of a total Turkish takeover, the agreement with Russia permits Turkey to retain forces in Syrian territories under its control and states: “Joint efforts will be launched to facilitate the return of refugees in a safe and voluntary manner.”

Nevertheless, Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and head of the Middle East department at the University of Oklahoma, rules out the worst case scenarios, saying: “Erdogan’s resettlement plan is dead. The Russians will fight it and so will the Syrians. There may be some resettlement around Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ayn, but beyond that, it is hard to imagine that right now. Even in this area, it is doubtful there will be any large-scale refugee resettlement.

“The situation will not be like in Afrin, where the Kurdish population could be chased out to make way for Arab refugees.”

However, the US lawmakers who have called on the White House to disinvite Erdogan believe “his calamitous actions in Syria follow a long list of disconcerting steps”.

Reminding Trump about the resolutions passed last month by the House warning of sanctions against Turkey, the statement said: “Given this situation, we believe that now is a particularly inappropriate time for President Erdogan to visit the US, and we urge you to rescind this invitation.”