Deaths rise, 100,000 displaced as Turkish forces push deeper into Syria

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Smoke billows from targets in Tel Abyad, Syria, during bombardment by Turkish forces, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. (AP)
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Turkish-backed Syrian rebels gather in al-Bab city in the eastern countryside of Aleppo province on October 11, 2019 as they prepare to take part in Turkey's invasion of northeastern Syria. (AFP)
Updated 12 October 2019

Deaths rise, 100,000 displaced as Turkish forces push deeper into Syria

  • Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis, with nearly a half-million people at risk near the border

ANKARA:  Turkish forces pushed deeper into northeastern Syria on Friday, the third day of Ankara’s offensive against US-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters, as casualties mounted, international criticism of the campaign intensified and thousands of civilians fled the violence. 

The UN said the attack had forced around 100,000 people to flee their homes and that there were many other humanitarian consequences to the assault. It said a water station servicing 400,000 people in the city of Hasakeh and surrounding areas was out of service.

Turkey said it captured more Kurdish-held villages in the border region, while a camp for displaced residents about 12 kilometers (7 miles) from the frontier was evacuated after artillery shells landed nearby amid intense clashes. Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis, with nearly a half-million people at risk near the border.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said the military intends to move 30 kilometers (19 miles) into northern Syria and that its operation will last until all “terrorists are neutralized.” NATO member Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters to be terrorists linked to a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey and says the offensive is a counterterrorism operation necessary for its own national security.

US President Donald Trump has warned Turkey to act with moderation and safeguard civilians, and the Pentagon said the operation is a threat to progress in combatting Daesh militants and a potential threat to US troops in Syria.

Plumes of black smoke billowed Friday from the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad as Turkey continued bombarding the area in an offensive that was progressing “successfully as planned,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said.

The Defense Ministry statement reported the death of two Turkish soldiers, with three wounded, but did not give details. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said 342 “terrorists” — Ankara’s term for Syrian Kurdish militiamen — have been killed so far. The figure could not be independently verified. Syrian activists say only eight fighters were killed.

The Pentagon said the incursion was damaging US-Turkey relations, adding that the US was not abandoning its Kurdish partners.

“We have not abandoned the Kurds, let me be clear about that,” US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at the Pentagon.

“Nobody green-lighted this operation by Turkey, just the opposite. We pushed back very hard at all levels for the Turks not to commence this operation,” Esper said.

The Kurdish YPG is the main fighting element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which have acted as the principal allies of the US in a campaign that recaptured territory held by Daesh.

The SDF now holds most of the territory that once made up Daesh’s “caliphate” in Syria, and has been keeping thousands of Daesh fighters in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.

Eight people were killed and 35 wounded when the YPG militia launched a mortar and rocket attack on Turkey’s Syrian border town of Nusaybin, the governor’s office in the southeastern province of Mardin said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to send millions of Syrian refugees to Europe if the EU calls Turkey’s military offensive “an invasion.”

The statement is considered by some a move to “weaponize” the refugees who have been in Turkey since the beginning of Syrian civil war, and to use them as a leverage.

“Turkey must understand that our main concern is that their actions may lead to another humanitarian catastrophe, which would be unacceptable. Nor will we ever accept that refugees are weaponized and used to blackmail us. That is why I consider threats made by Erdogan totally out of place,” Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said.

(With AP and Reuters)

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.