Civilians flee as Syria Kurds battle Turkish invasion

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that 70,000 people have been newly displaced since Ankara launched its operation. (IHA via AP)
Updated 12 October 2019

Civilians flee as Syria Kurds battle Turkish invasion

  • Turkish assault seen as a blatant betrayal of Washington’s erstwhile Kurdish allies
  • International condemnation of the Turkish invasion was overwhelming

TALL TAMR, Syria: Thousands of civilians fled air strikes and shelling as Syria’s Kurds battled to hold off a Turkish invasion on Thursday, with fears mounting of a developing humanitarian crisis.
US President Donald Trump tried to justify the de facto green light he gave his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan for an assault seen as a blatant betrayal of Washington’s erstwhile Kurdish allies.
Later Trump suggested that Washington could mediate between Turkey and Kurdish groups and a US official said Trump has asked American diplomats to broker a cease-fire.
But international condemnation of the Turkish assault was overwhelming and the response to the operation was discussed in an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.
UN chief Antonio Guterres expressed “deep concern” over the violence, while the council’s five European members urged Turkey “to cease the unilateral military action.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for an emergency meeting of the US-led coalition against the Daesh group.
Syrian Kurdish forces lost 11,000 personnel and played a major role in the years-long battle to eliminate the “caliphate” Daesh had set up in the region.
In scenes all too familiar since the start of Syria’s war in March 2011, civilians were seen abandoning their homes Thursday, in vehicles or on foot with their belongings on their backs.
The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on Thursday estimated that 70,000 people have been newly displaced since Ankara launched its operation.
“We’re heading to the countryside because we’re scared of renewed bombing and intensified clashes,” said Rizan Mohammad, 33, who fled the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli with his family.
After launching the assault with air strikes and intense artillery fire on Wednesday, the Turkish army and its Syrian proxies crossed the border into Kurdish-controlled areas.
On Thursday, Turkish jets carried out fresh strikes, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a Kurdish military official said.
Fighting broke out in several locations along the roughly 120-kilometer wide front where operations are focused, they said.
Turkish forces and allied rebels captured 11 villages in the area, the Observatory said.
Fighting mostly centered around Tal Abyad — one of the main Kurdish-controlled towns in the area coveted by Ankara.
Clashes also raged around Ras Al-Ain further west, the other main town in the zone that Turkish media reports say is the first goal of the offensive.
The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources in Syria, said at least 29 fighters and 10 civilians have been killed since the start of the assault.
AFP correspondents saw fighters crossing into Syria in dozens of vehicles.
Turkey, which staged two previous offensives into Syria since the start of the conflict, relies heavily on Syrian proxy fighters, many of whom once battled President Bashar Assad’s troops.
Erdogan wants a buffer zone to which he can send back some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees his country hosts.
On Thursday he warned the European Union that the alternative was to allow the refugees to head to its shores instead.
“If you try to frame our operation there as an invasion ... we will open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants to you,” Erdogan said.
Fourteen humanitarian organizations, including the Norwegian Refugee Council and Mercy Corps, warned that hundreds of thousands of people were in danger.
“An estimated 450,000 people live within five kilometers of the Syria-Turkey border and are at risk if all sides do not exercise maximum restraint and prioritize the protection of civilians,” a joint statement said.
The SDF, which have little armor and no air force, are unlikely to hold out very long against Turkish firepower in the flat and open terrain they are defending.
“The question that remains is how far can Turkey advance before international or regional actors, stop it,” said Nick Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security.
The assault appeared almost inevitable after Trump announced Sunday that US troops deployed in the area were pulling back from the border.
The withdrawal was implemented the next day, effectively clearing the way for Turkey’s offensive.
Trump on Thursday suggested Washington could mediate between Turkey and the Kurds.
“We have been tasked by the president to try to see if there are areas of commonality between the two sides (and if) there’s a way that we can find our way to a cease-fire,” a US official said on condition of anonymity.
One of the Kurds’ last hopes is that the prospect of Daesh prisoners breaking out and regrouping with increasingly active sleeper cells will spur the world into action.
About 12,000 men linked to Daesh are held in seven detention centers across northeast Syria, according to the Kurds.
On Thursday, the Kurdish administration said a prison housing Daesh fighters in the region under its control was hit by Turkish bombardment.


Protests in Lebanon after move to tax calls on messaging apps

Updated 17 October 2019

Protests in Lebanon after move to tax calls on messaging apps

  • Demonstrations erupted in the capital Beirut, Sidon, Tripoli and in the Bekaa Valley
  • Demonstrators chanted the popular refrain of the 2011 Arab Spring protests: “The people demand the fall of the regime.”

BEIRUT: Hundreds of people took to the streets across Lebanon on Thursday to protest dire economic conditions after a government decision to tax calls made on messaging applications sparked widespread outrage.
Demonstrations erupted in the capital Beirut, in its southern suburbs, in the southern city of Sidon, in the northern city of Tripoli and in the Bekaa Valley, the state-run National News Agency reported.
Across the country, demonstrators chanted the popular refrain of the 2011 Arab Spring protests: “The people demand the fall of the regime.”
Protesters in the capital blocked the road to the airport with burning tires, while others massed near the interior ministry in central Beirut, NNA said.
“We elected them and we will remove them from power,” one protester told a local TV station.
Public anger has simmered since parliament passed an austerity budget in July, with the aim of trimming the country’s ballooning deficit.
The situation worsened last month after banks and money exchange houses rationed dollar sales, sparking fears of a currency devaluation.
The government is assessing a series of further belt-tightening measures it hopes will rescue the country’s ailing economy and secure $11 billion in aid pledged by international donors last year.
And it is expected to announce a series of additional tax hikes in the coming months as part of next year’s budget.
On Wednesday, the government approved tax hikes on tobacco products.
Earlier on Thursday, Information Minister Jamal Jarrah announced a 20 cent daily fee for messaging app users who made calls on platforms such as WhatsApp and Viber — a move meant to boost the cash-strapped state’s revenues.
The decision approved by cabinet on Wednesday will go into effect on January 1, 2020, he told reporters after a cabinet session, adding that the move will bring $200 million annually into the government’s coffers.
Lebanese digital rights group SMEX said the country’s main mobile operators are already planning to introduce new technology that will allow them to detect whether users are trying to make Internet calls using their networks.
“Lebanon already has some of the highest mobile prices in the region,” SMEX said on Twitter.
The latest policy “will force users to pay for Internet services twice,” it added.
TechGeek365, another digital rights group, said it contacted WhatsApp and Facebook regarding the matter.
“A spokesperson mentioned that if the decision is taken, it would be a direct violation of their ToS (terms of service),” it said.
“Profiting from any specific functionality within WhatsApp is illegal,” it added on Twitter.
But SMEX said that the 20 cent fee would be “a condition of data plans” offered by mobile operators.
“Also, Facebook previously complied with a social media tax in Uganda, which is effectively the same thing,” it said on Twitter.
Growth in Lebanon has plummeted in the wake of repeated political deadlocks in recent years, compounded by the impact of eight years of war in neighboring Syria.
Lebanon’s public debt stands at around $86 billion — higher than 150 percent of GDP — according to the finance ministry.
Eighty percent of that figure is owed to Lebanon’s central bank and local banks.