Russia-backed conference on Syrian refugees dismissed as ‘dog and pony show’

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Syria's President Bashar Assad is seen on screen as he speaks during the international conference on the return of Syrian refugees in Damascus on Nov. 11, 2020. (SANA/Handout via REUTERS)
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Russia's special envoy on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev speaks during the international conference on the return of Syrian refugees in Damascus on Nov. 11, 2020. (SANA/Handout via REUTERS)
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Ali-Ashgar Khaji, senior aide to Iran's foreign minister, speaks during the international conference on the return of Syrian refugees in Damascus on Nov. 11, 2020. (SANA/Handout via REUTERS)
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Updated 13 November 2020

Russia-backed conference on Syrian refugees dismissed as ‘dog and pony show’

  • US State Department officials describe it as a distraction that is using millions of refugees as ‘political pawns’

NEW YORK: The US State Department on Thursday dismissed as a distraction a Russian-backed conference in Damascus that called for the return of millions of Syrian refugees to the war-ravaged country.

Richard Albright, deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said it is no more than a show that bears no relation to the grim reality of the situation in Syria.

Joel Rayburn, the US special envoy for Syria, said the conference was “just a dog and pony show meant to distract from the fact that the Russians and the Assad regime have not done what the international community has been pressing them to do, which is to end the war and move to a political solution under UN Security Council resolution 2254.”

During the joint briefing, Albright also accused Russia and the Syrian regime of using refugees as “political pawns” to lend legitimacy to the regime. 

“This blatant disregard for the lives at stake is reprehensible,” he said, pointing out that the position of the UN is that conditions in Syria are not yet conducive to the safe and sustainable return of refugees.

“The few returns that have taken place have all too often been met with secondary displacement, continued dependence on international assistance and, in some cases, forced conscription, detention, forced disappearances and other human-rights violations,” Albright added.

“Displaced Syrians know this, and that’s why they’re not going back.”

The briefing came as the conference in Damascus entered its second day, with the aim of facilitating the return home of millions of people displaced by the Civil War. Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a televised speech that they “want to return home” but fear “terrorists and jihadists.”

Since the war began in 2011, more than half of the Syrian people have fled their homes. Millions are now refugees in other countries.

Albright said that a million Syrians were displaced by a regime offensive between December 2019 and February this year. This was “a pace of displacement faster than at any other time in the nine-year conflict,” he added,

“The Syrian government has a choice,” said Rayburn. “They can either take irreversible steps toward a peaceful resolution of this nearly decade-long conflict, or they can face further crippling sanctions and diplomatic isolation.”

On Nov. 9, the US administration implemented the fifth tranche of its Caesar Act sanctions, targeting Syrian military commanders, MPs, senior government figures and financiers. A total of 94 individuals and entities have been blacklisted since the first sanctions were announced in June.

The Caesar Act attracted overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans in Congress, where it was backed by more than 500 of the 535 members. 

“There’s a bipartisan mandate for the Syria policy that we have been executing, and that is unlikely to change,” Rayburn said. 

Delegates at the conference in Damascus included representatives of 27 countries, including Iran, Venezuela and China. The UN and its organizations were not represented, nor were any of the major refugee-hosting countries. 

“Some of the countries that joined (the conference) are the same ones that continue to kill and injure civilians in Syria, forcing millions to flee,” said Rayburn. “These countries falsely suggested that Syria is now safe for refugees to return.

“Russia and the Assad regime in particular are seeking to raise funds for rebuilding a Syria that they themselves are responsible for destroying, while the Assad regime continues to fund military operations — at many millions of dollars a month — against its own citizens, and the Syrian regime is continuing to disappear Syrians who do return to areas under the regime’s control.”

Asked by Arab News what effects the US sanctions are having on the Syrian regime, Albright said they have damaged its “ability to mask the resources that it’s been using to attack and keep a stranglehold on the Syrian people.”

He added: “The impact has been quite deep on the Assad regime; the leaders at the top are desperate to get out from under the sanctions’ pressure. They are worried that it will continue to build.”

Rayburn said the US campaign of political and economic pressure is being carried out in concert with the EU, and vowed that the diplomatic and economic isolation of the Syrian regime will continue until a political solution is implemented, based on UN Security Council resolutions.

“We simply think you can’t have political reconciliation without accountability for what has happened,” he added. “Until there’s accountability and justice, there cannot be meaningful discussions around refugee returns.”

Rayburn also warned that “any attempt to reestablish or upgrade relations with the Syrian regime without addressing (its) atrocities undercuts efforts to promote accountability and move toward a lasting, peaceful and political solution to the Syrian conflict.”


Palestinians clash with Israeli police in Jerusalem

Updated 21 sec ago

Palestinians clash with Israeli police in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM: Palestinians clashed with Israeli police at a popular gathering place just outside Jerusalem’s Old City as thousands celebrated a Muslim holiday.
It was a repeat of violence earlier this year that eventually led to the 11-day Gaza war in May.
Israeli police said Palestinians hurled rocks at police and public buses near the Damascus Gate leading into the Old City. They said 22 suspects were arrested.
Earlier, thousands of Palestinians had marched along the Old City walls and paused at the gate, where a scout band played the Palestinian national anthem. They continued to the Al-Aqsa mosque, where tens of thousands prayed in honor of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.
Palestinians say Israeli police moved to restrict the annual gathering in and around Damascus Gate in what they saw as a provocation.
An Associated Press photographer said a few dozen youths began shouting at police and throwing water bottles, after which police fired stun grenades. The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said it treated 17 people who were wounded, including 10 who were taken to a hospital.
Palestinians clashed with Israeli police on a nightly basis during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in April and May over a decision to place police barricades at Damascus Gate, a popular holiday gathering spot for Palestinians families.
The clashes continued even after the barricades were removed and eventually spread to the nearby Al-Aqsa mosque compound, a flashpoint site sacred to Muslims and Jews. The violence, along with efforts by settlers to evict dozens of Palestinian families from their homes, eventually ignited the fourth war between Israel and the militant Hamas group ruling Gaza.
The Old City is in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally. Israel considers the entire city its capital, while the Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state.
The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is the third holiest site in Islam and the holiest for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount because it was the location of the Jewish temples in antiquity.
Over the last two weeks, sporadic fights have broken out at Damascus Gate between Palestinians and Israelis, and between Palestinians and the police.

Israel gives legal status to 4K in gesture to Palestinians

Updated 19 October 2021

Israel gives legal status to 4K in gesture to Palestinians

  • It's one of a series of gestures announced after a rare high-level meeting in August between Israeli Defense Minister and Palestinian President aimed at strengthening the PA
  • Israel is trying to bolster the increasingly unpopular and autocratic PA in order to weaken its militant Hamas rivals

JERUSALEM: Israel said Tuesday it would grant legal residency to 4,000 Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
The move comes as a gesture to the Palestinian Authority that will allow people who have lived under severe restrictions for years to get official IDs.
It’s one of a series of gestures announced after a rare high-level meeting in August between Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas aimed at strengthening the PA, which administers parts of the occupied West Bank and coordinates with Israel on security.
Israel is trying to bolster the increasingly unpopular and autocratic PA in order to weaken its militant Hamas rivals, who rule the Gaza Strip. Other gestures include loaning some $155 million to the cash-strapped PA and authorizing an additional 15,000 permits for Palestinian laborers to work in Israel and its settlements.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state and has shown no interest in reviving peace talks, which stalled out more than a decade ago. Israel is also continuing to build and expand settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories it captured in the 1967 war that the Palestinians want for their future state.
But Israeli officials have vowed to take steps to improve the Palestinian economy and daily life in order to reduce frictions.
“The stronger the Palestinian Authority is, the weaker Hamas will be,” Gantz was quoted as saying after his meeting with Abbas. “And the greater its ability to govern is, the more security we’ll have and the less we’ll have to do.”
The Israeli defense body that oversees civilian affairs in the territories said it would approve the registration of 1,200 Palestinians who have been living in the West Bank for many years but are not listed in the Palestinian population registry. It will approve a change of address for 2,800 Palestinians who moved to the West Bank from Gaza prior to 2007, when Hamas seized power.
Hussein Al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official who serves as the liaison with Israel for civilian affairs, confirmed that a “first batch” of 4,000 names had been approved and said the PA was working to secure more.
Israel, which controls all access to the occupied West Bank, must approve any changes to the Palestinian population registry, which is administered by the PA. When the second Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000, Israel restricted new registrations to children under 16 with a resident parent.
That and other Israeli policies have left an estimated tens of thousands of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza without legal status, severely limiting their freedom of movement. They include foreign nationals — mainly Palestinians from other countries — who married Palestinians in the territories and have families there.
Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank who are registered in Gaza are meanwhile at risk of deportation. Israel maintains dozens of checkpoints within and around the West Bank.
Human Rights Watch referred to Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian residency in a lengthy report earlier this year accusing it of the international crime of apartheid. The nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers living in the occupied West Bank have Israeli citizenship and face no similar restrictions.
Jessica Montell, the head of HaMoked, an Israeli rights group that assists Palestinians, said the latest move was welcome but did not go far enough.
Israel has previously approved tranches of applications for legal status as goodwill gestures to the PA. In 2008, it granted legal status to some 32,000 Palestinians following several petitions filed by HaMoked on behalf of families, Montell said.
“To my mind the real headline is tens of thousands of people are living with no status and Israel is not fulfilling its legal obligation to grant them status,” she said.


10,000 children killed or maimed in Yemen since 2015: UNICEF

Updated 19 October 2021

10,000 children killed or maimed in Yemen since 2015: UNICEF

  • Four out of every five children need humanitarian assistance in Yemen

GENEVA: Ten thousand Yemeni children have been killed after the Iran-aligned Houthi group ousted the government in 2015, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said on Tuesday.
“The Yemen conflict has just hit another shameful milestone. We now have 10,000 children who have been killed or maimed since ... March 2015,” UNICEF spokesperson James Elder told a UN briefing in Geneva after returning from a visit to Yemen.
“That is the equivalent of four children every single day,” Elder said, adding that many more child deaths or injuries went unreported.
Four out of every five children — a total of 11 million — need humanitarian assistance in Yemen, while 400,000 are suffering from acute malnutrition and more than 2 million are out of school, Elder said.
UN-led efforts to engineer a nationwide cease-fire have stalled as the Houthis resist compromise to end more than six years of a war that has caused what the UN calls the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Hundreds of Yemenis are trapped by fierce fighting between government and Houthi forces in the northern Marib governorate, residents and a local official said last week, after battles for control of the gas-rich region displaced some 10,000 people.


Lebanese parliament confirms March polls amid efforts to secure IMF rescue

Updated 19 October 2021

Lebanese parliament confirms March polls amid efforts to secure IMF rescue

CAIRO: Lebanon's parliament voted on Tuesday to hold legislative elections on March 27, parliamentary sources said, giving Prime Minister Najib Mikati's government only a few months to try to secure an IMF recovery plan amid a deepening economic meltdown.
Lebanon's financial crisis, labelled by the World Bank as one of the deepest depressions of modern history, had been compounded by political deadlock for over a year before Mikati put together a cabinet alongside President Michel Aoun.
The currency has lost 90% of its value and three quarters of the population have been propelled into poverty. Shortages of basic goods such as fuel and medicines have made daily life a struggle.
Mikati, whose cabinet is focused on reviving talks with the International Monetary Fund, had vowed to make sure elections are held with no delay and Western governments urged the same.
But a row over the probe into last year's Beirut port blast that killed over 200 people and destroyed large swathes of the capital is threatening to veer his cabinet off course.
Some ministers, aligned with politicians that lead investigator Judge Tarek Bitar is seeking to question over the explosion, last week demanded that the judge be removed from the probe.
Mikati has since said the cabinet will not convene another meeting until an agreement is reached on how to deal with the matter.
On Thursday, Beirut witnessed the worst street violence in over a decade with seven people killed in gunfire when protesters from the Hezbollah and Amal Shi'ite movements made their way to demonstrate against Judge Bitar.
The bloodshed, which stirred memories of the 1975-1990 civil war, added to fears for the stability of a country that is awash with weapons.
The early election date - elections were originally expected to be held in May - was chosen in order not to clash with the holy Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.
Once a new parliament is elected, the Mikati cabinet will only act in a caretaker role until a new prime minister is given a vote of confidence and tasked with forming a new government. 


Lebanon elite united against Beirut port blast probe seen as survival threat

Updated 19 October 2021

Lebanon elite united against Beirut port blast probe seen as survival threat

  • Explosion of a huge stockpile of poorly stored fertilizer on the dockside on August 4, 2020 killed more than 210 people
  • ‘Lebanon’s ruling class may be political opponents but they are united in profiteering from the system’

BEIRUT: They may often squabble but Lebanon’s political parties seem united in rejecting an investigation into Beirut’s massive port explosion that they fear could threaten their survival, analysts say.
The explosion of a huge stockpile of poorly stored fertilizer on the dockside on August 4, 2020 killed more than 210 people, wounded thousands and ravaged half the capital.
In the aftermath of mass protests in late 2019 demanding the ouster of the traditional ruling class, many said the disaster was just the latest example of official incompetence and corruption.
But months into a domestic investigation, no one has been held accountable.
Politicians have repeatedly obstructed the work of judge Tarek Bitar by refusing to show up for questioning, filing legal complaints against him or calling for his dismissal, which last week sparked deadly violence in the heart of Beirut.
Analyst Lina Khatib said hopes were fading of holding those responsible for the port blast accountable.
“The ruling class in Lebanon is in agreement about wanting the port probe to be abandoned and they will use all available means to derail it,” said Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank.
The country’s powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah has spearheaded a campaign to remove Bitar, accusing him of political bias.
The debate over his future, which comes after the previous investigator was removed in February, has already triggered the postponement of one cabinet meeting despite the urgency of addressing Lebanon’s acute economic crisis.
Nadim Houry, executive director at the Arab Reform Initiative, said that the whole ruling class felt under threat in what he described as “an essential battle in Lebanon for rule of law.”
“A section of society has decided that they want to go all the way and ask for truth,” but they face “a political class that is willing to use threats, use violence, use even launching into another civil war to prevent that quest for truth from leading to a result,” he said.
It emerged after the port blast that officials had known that hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate had for years been left to linger in a warehouse near residential neighborhoods.
Families of the victims see in Bitar the only hope for justice in a country where impunity has long been the norm.
After the 1975 to 1990 civil war, Lebanon issued a broad amnesty that benefited the country’s warlords, allowing many of them to become political leaders.
“Regardless of what Bitar finds, it’s the idea itself that any of them can somehow be held accountable that they are resisting,” Houry said.
Any success in the blast probe would set a precedent and unravel a “impunity regime” under which each party agrees not to pursue the other for its crimes, as long as it is not targeted itself.
Tensions came to a boil last week after a rally against Bitar organized by Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Amal descended into violence that killed seven of their supporters.
The sound of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades trapped residents indoors for hours, reviving memories of the civil war.
Hezbollah accused snipers of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, of causing the bloodshed, but the latter has denied this.
The army, meanwhile, is investigating a video circulated on social media that appears to show a soldier shooting at protesters.
“Hezbollah is increasingly acting as the praetorian guard of the regime that has come into place since the 1990s,” Houry said.
The Iran-backed movement, the only one not to have disarmed after the civil war, is at least partly blacklisted by most Western governments but holds seats in parliament.
While political parties have publicly supported an investigation, analysts say they ultimately wish to protect their own interests.
“Lebanon’s ruling class may be political opponents but they are united in profiteering from the system... and they therefore oppose any steps to reform it or to instil accountability within it,” Khatib said.
A spokesman for the families of blast victims quit on Saturday, after many feared he had been intimidated into toeing the Hezbollah line and calling for Bitar to step down.
Ibrahim Hoteit, who lost his brother in the explosion, lives in a Shiite-majority neighborhood.
The following day, many refrained from taking part in a protest to mark the second anniversary of the now-defunct 2019 protest movement, fearing further violence.
“Ultimately, the ruling class want to push the Lebanese to conclude that the price of accountability is too high,” Khatib said.