Assad forces mass for new attack on opposition stronghold

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Members of the Syrian regime forces move toward the town of Khan Sheikhun in the northern Idlib province on August 24, 2019, after they announced the total control of the city a day before. (AFP / Maher Al Mounes)
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Members of the Syrian government forces stand guard near tanks in the strategic town of Khan Sheikhun on August 24, 2019, after they announced the total control of the city a day before. (AFP / Maher Al Mounes)
Updated 25 August 2019

Assad forces mass for new attack on opposition stronghold

  • Troops drive north toward Turkish border
  • Kurdish buffer zone ‘fully operational’

BEIRUT: Assad regime troops massed in northwest Syria on Saturday in preparation for a new drive north toward the border with Turkey.

The border region of Idlib is the last bastion of the Syrian opposition. Until last week, it was controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, an alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Regime forces backed by Russian airstrikes captured the key town of Khan Sheikhun from the militants on Wednesday, and on Friday they overran the countryside to the south of the town.

“The day after they controlled the area south of Khan Sheikhun, regime forces began massing in the area north of it,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. They were “preparing to continue their advance toward the area of Maaret Al-Noman,” a town about 25km north, he said.

Heavy bombardment hit the area on Saturday in preparation for a further push north. Thick gray smoke billowed up into a clear blue sky after a strike on the outskirts of Maaret Al-Noman. Like Khan Sheikhun, the town sits on the main highway between Damascus and Aleppo, a key target for the regime to recapture.

However, the new offensive that began in April has heightened tension with Turkey, which fears an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting. Turkish troops have been deployed at 12 observation posts around the Idlib region in an attempt to set up a buffer zone to protect civilians.

FAST FACTS

  • The border region of Idlib is the last bastion of the Syrian opposition.
  • Turkish troops have been deployed at 12 observation posts around the Idlib region.

The regime accuses Turkey of using the observation posts to arm and supply the militants. Last week, airstrikes targeted a Turkish military convoy traveling south down the main highway toward one of the posts at Morek. The convoy was still stranded on Saturday north of Khan Sheikhun.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu denied the Morek observation post had been surrounded and said Turkish troops would not withdraw from the position.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit Moscow on Tuesday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Further east in Syria, a joint Turkish-US control center to establish and manage a safe zone is fully operational, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said. 

“The command of the center is by one US general and one Turkish general,” he said, and the first joint helicopter flight took place on Saturday after Turkish drones carried out surveillance work in the safe zone last week.

Syrian Kurds said on Saturday they would support the implementation of the buffer zone. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) played a key role in the battle against Daesh in Syria, but Ankara views them as terrorists.

“The SDF will be a positive party toward the success of this operation,” said Mazloum Kobani, head of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

 


Tehran hard-liners admit Iran attacked Israeli ship off Oman

Updated 01 March 2021

Tehran hard-liners admit Iran attacked Israeli ship off Oman

  • Kayhan, Iran’s leading ultraconservative daily, claimed the vessel was “a military ship belonging to the Israeli army”

JEDDAH: An Israeli ship hit by an explosion off the coast of Oman was “a legitimate target” attacked by Iran and its allies, a hard-line Iranian media outlet claimed on Sunday.

The MV Helios Ray, a vehicle carrier, was traveling from the Gulf to Singapore on Thursday when the blast blew two holes in its hull.

Kayhan, Iran’s leading ultraconservative daily, claimed the vessel was “a military ship belonging to the Israeli army” and was “gathering information” about the Arabian Gulf and the Sea of Oman when it was targeted.

According to unnamed “military experts,” the newspaper said: “This spy ship, although it was sailing secretly, may have fallen into the ambush of one of the branches of the resistance axis,” a phrase used by the Tehran regime to describe Iran and its allies.

Israel’s “attacks and crimes in the region, which have been going on publicly for some time, seem to have finally made it a legitimate target,” Kayhan said.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz also said Israel’s initial assessment was that Iran was responsible for the explosion aboard the vessel. “This ... takes into account the proximity to Iran and the context,” he said. “This is what I believe.”

The US and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for a number of attacks on shipping in Gulf waters in mid-2019, using limpet mines to blow holes in two Saudi oil tankers, and former US President Donald Trump came close to ordering an attack on Iran in retaliation.

The Helios Ray arrived on Sunday at Port Rashid in Dubai, where it will be assessed in dry dock, and an Israeli delegation traveled to Dubai to investigate the attack.

Rami Ungar, the Israeli businessman who owns the vessel, said the explosion caused two holes above the waterline about a meter and a half in diameter. It was not yet clear if the damage was caused by missiles or mines attached to the ship, he said.


UN calls for children in Syria camps to be allowed home

Updated 28 February 2021

UN calls for children in Syria camps to be allowed home

  • UNICEF made its plea a day after three children died in a fire at Al-Hol camp
  • Syria’s Kurds hold thousands of alleged militants in jails and tens of thousands of their family members in camps in northeast Syria

BEIRUT: The UN children’s agency called Sunday for all minors held in displacement camps or jails in northeast Syria to be allowed home.
UNICEF made its plea a day after three children died in a fire at the overcrowded camp of Al-Hol, for people displaced in the fight against Daesh.
After years of leading the US-backed fight against Daesh, Syria’s Kurds hold thousands of alleged militants in jails and tens of thousands of their family members in camps in northeast Syria.
They hail from Syria, neighboring Iraq and dozens of other foreign countries.
Many are children.
“In the northeast of Syria, there are more than 22,000 foreign children from at least 60 nationalities who languish in camps and prisons, in addition to many thousands of Syrian children,” UNICEF regional director Ted Chaiban said in a statement, without giving a number of children held in jails.
He urged authorities in the northeast of Syria and UN member states to “do everything possible to bring children currently in the northeast of Syria back home.”
They should do this “through integrating Syrian children in their local communities and the repatriation of foreign children,” he added.
The Kurdish authorities have started sending thousands of displaced Syrians home from the camps.
But repeated calls for Western countries to repatriate their nationals have largely fallen on deaf ears, with just a handful of children and even fewer women being brought home.
Three children and a woman died on Saturday after a stove exploded in the Al-Hol camp, starting a fire, a Kurdish official said.
The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said at least 26 were injured.
Al-Hol is home to more than 62,000 people, displaced family members and relatives of alleged IS fighters, more than half of them children, it says.
A spate of killings, including decapitations, has rocked the camp since the start of the year, and humanitarian actors have repeatedly deplored living conditions there.
On February 1, the Save the Children charity also urged Iraq and Western countries to repatriate children from northeast Syria faster.
Daesh overran large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.
Kurdish-led forces backed air strikes by a US-led coalition expelled Daesh from their last patch of territory in Syria in March 2019, in a battle that displaced tens of thousands.


Jordanian ministers sacked for attending dinner breaching COVID-19 rules

Updated 28 February 2021

Jordanian ministers sacked for attending dinner breaching COVID-19 rules

  • A local news website said the pair had gone to a dinner at an Amman restaurant attended by nine people
  • The sackings come amid Jordanians’ increasing unease about the handling of the pandemic

AMMAN: Two Jordanian ministers resigned on Sunday for violating coronavirus-containment regulations, days after one of them had vowed “zero tolerance” against COVID-19 rule breakers.

Prime Minister Bisher al-Khasawneh asked Interior and Justice Ministers Samir Mubaidin and Bassam Talhouni to step down for violating the defense order put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.

A government source told Arab News that al-Khasawneh's directives, which were immediately endorsed by King Abdullah, came after the two ministers were at an event that brought together more than six people.

A local news website said the pair had gone to a dinner at an Amman restaurant attended by nine people, in violation of a defense order that allows a maximum of six.

Mubaidin chaired a meeting with senior security officers last Thursday where he had stressed the need to abide by defense orders, notably following the curfew, wearing masks and physical distancing. 

He vowed “zero tolerance” against violators, adding that these measures were aimed at protecting public health.

A royal decree was issued on Sunday accepting the resignation of Talhouni and Mubaidin. 

Another decree assigned the deputy prime minister and minister of local administration, Tawfiq Kreishan, to take on the Ministry of Interior, and for the minister of state for legal affairs, Ahmad Ziadat, to take on the Ministry of Justice, as of Sunday.

Jordan has toughened its health regulations, reinstating a curfew on Fridays and extending lockdown hours, with the country witnessing a surge in coronavirus cases. It has recorded around 387,000 COVID-19 infections and 4,675 deaths.

The sackings come amid Jordanians’ increasing unease about the handling of the pandemic.

“The sacking of the two ministers should have been in fact linked to the failure in handling matters related to citizens’ lives, including vaccines, the health situation and food security,” political analyst Amer Sabaileh told Arab News.


Russian helicopter makes emergency landing in Syria

Updated 28 February 2021

Russian helicopter makes emergency landing in Syria

  • Russian Defense Ministry said the helicopter was not fired at

AMMAN/MOSCOW: A Russian Mi-35 helicopter made an emergency landing due to technical problems during a flight over Syria’s northern Hasaka province, state agencies quoted Russia’s Defense Ministry as saying on Sunday.
“The crew was quickly evacuated to the airfield. There is no threat to lives of the pilots,” the RIA news agency cited a Defense Ministry statement as saying.
The helicopter was not fired at, it added.
Syrian state media said earlier there were reports of a Russian helicopter crash in northeast Syria that killed the pilot.
It said the site of the crash was in Hasaka province, near Tal Tamr close to a Russian base.


Vatican envoy to Iraq tests COVID-19 positive ahead of Pope visit

Updated 01 March 2021

Vatican envoy to Iraq tests COVID-19 positive ahead of Pope visit

BAGHDAD: The Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq Mitja Leskovar has tested positive for COVID-19, two officials told AFP Sunday, just days before Pope Francis’ historic visit.
“Yes, he tested positive, but it will have no impact on the visit,” an Iraqi official involved in the papal plans said.
An Italian diplomat also confirmed the infection.
As apostolic nuncio to Baghdad, Leskovar had been traveling across the country in recent weeks to prepare for the pope’s ambitious visit, including visits to Mosul in the north, the shrine city of Najaf and the southern site of Ur.
During foreign trips, popes typically stay at the nuncio’s residence, but Iraqi officials have not revealed where Francis will reside during his trip, citing security reasons.
Iraq is experiencing a resurgence of coronavirus infections, which the health ministry has blamed on a new faster-spreading strain that first emerged in the United Kingdom.
The country of 40 million is registering around 4,000 new cases per day, near the peak that it had reached in September, with total infections nearing 700,000 and deaths at nearly 13,400.
Pope Francis, as well as his Vatican staff and the dozens of international reporters traveling with him, have already been vaccinated.
Iraq itself has yet to begin its vaccination campaign.