UN Security Council bickers as Syrians continue to suffer

UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen announced Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, that the next round of talks toward revising the war-battered country's constitution will start in Geneva on Jan. 25 and urged the parties to move to actual drafting. (AP/File)
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Updated 21 January 2021

UN Security Council bickers as Syrians continue to suffer

  • UN officials urge the international community not to turn its back on the plight of the nation’s people
  • A combination of crises has created ‘a slow tsunami that is crashing across Syria,’ says envoy

NEW YORK: Emotions ran high during a meeting of the UN Security Council on Wednesday, as permanent members traded jabs and accusations.
It came as Geir Pedersen, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, and Mark Lowcock,  under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, delivered the latest sobering warnings about the plight of the Syrian people, after a decade of death and destruction caused by the Civil War.
They urged the international community not to turn its back on Syrians and the humanitarian crisis they face.
Bashar Jaafari, the former Syrian representative to the UN and the country’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, blamed the situation on Western nations. He accused them of “pillaging Syria’s wealth” and launching “unfounded accusations” against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and said the West promotes violence and hate and perpetuates the spread of “terrorism without borders.”
He also accused Western countries of employing double standards, and suggested that if the Jan. 6 attack by a right-wing mob on the American Capitol had happened in a non-Western country, it would have been labeled a “Spring,” an “Orange Revolution” or an expression of freedom. But “because (it) happened in a Western capital (it was) condemned by the world,” he said.
Jaafari also directed allegations of “terrorism” by Turkey toward his counterpart from the country, who refused to respond on the grounds that “he (Jaafari) is not a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”
The meeting was convened at the request of Tarek Ladeb, the permanent representative to the UN of Tunisia, which holds the presidency of the Security Council this month. It took place as the Syrian Constitutional Committee prepares to gather for a fifth round of talks in Geneva next week under the auspices of Pedersen.
The committee is a part of a UN-facilitated process seeking a reconciliation between the Assad regime and the opposition through changes to the existing constitution or the drafting of a new one. 
Almost 10 years of war have left millions of Syrians “with deep trauma, grinding poverty, personal insecurity and lack of hope for the future,” Pedersen told the Security Council. “For many, the daily struggle just to survive crowds out most other issues.”
He said the COVID-19 pandemic, the spillover from the crisis in Lebanon, and internal factors such as war economies, corruption and mismanagement have combined to create “a slow tsunami that is crashing across Syria.”
He stressed the need to ensure that any additional sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime must avoid escalating the plight of the Syrian people.
While he said it is true that the past 10 months have been the calmest since the beginning of the conflict, Pedersen added that military escalations in the northeast continue to disrupt this relative peace, along with Israeli assaults, continuous Daesh attacks, mutual shelling and airstrikes in Idlib and unrest in the southwest.
Attacks continue to cost lives, he said, and Syrians face a host of other threats including abduction, arbitrary detention, increased criminal activity and the intensification of terrorist attacks. 
“This is a fragile calm (that) could break down at any moment,” said Pedersen.
He acknowledged that the political process has not resulted in any tangible changes as yet, nor any real vision of the future for Syrians, but stressed the need to persist with confidence-building measures such as unhindered access for humanitarian aid groups, an enduring nationwide ceasefire, and access to detainees.
While free and fair elections, based on the provisions of Security Council Resolution 2254, still “seem far into the future,” Pedersen said that “more serious and cooperative international diplomacy “could unlock genuine progress and could chart a safe and secure path out of this crisis for all Syrians.”
Lowcock painted a grim picture of the humanitarian crisis in Syria. He told the council that Syrians are dealing with severe levels of food insecurity, along with fuel shortages and power cuts during a harsh winter, and a growing dependency on child labor.
Bad weather is forcing people to “spend entire nights standing up in their tents due to rising flood waters,” Lowcock added, and he warned that a new wave of COVID-19 infections could also be imminent. 
He highlighted the desperate conditions in the notorious Al-Hol refugee camp, which is home to thousands of wives and children of former Daesh militants. There has been a surge in violent incidents there in recent months, but he said security measures must be employed without endangering the residents, violating their rights or restricting humanitarian access. Most of the 62,000 people living in the camp are below the age of 12, he said, and “growing up in unacceptable conditions.”
Lowcock reiterated the UN’s commitment to providing humanitarian assistance but said it requires “adequate funding, improved access and an end to the violence that has tormented Syrians for nearly a decade.”
In her final statement to the council, Kelly Craft, the departing US ambassador to the UN, choked back tears as she shared tragic stories from Syrian refugee camps she visited in Turkey, and pleaded for the world not to abandon the people of Syria.
“Wake up to the horrors of this conflict” and take action to restore peace, she said.
“Bombed, starved, displaced and tormented by the Assad regime and its supporters, (these) are the people, the majority of whom are women and children, who have entrusted us in this council to keep them safe — to keep them alive,” she added.
Craft condemned the “political dynamics that afflict this council and continue to deny the Syrian people a path toward peace, stability, and hope. This council is failing millions of civilians of Syria, not just today but for more than a decade. It is appalling.”
She accused the Assad regime of deliberately stalling the progress of the constitutional committee to distract the attention of the international community from the thousands of civilians killed or injured by the regime “and its craven allies’ barbaric attacks,” as it gears up for “a sham presidential election this year.”
She added: “Any such election would be illegitimate (and) the US will not recognize (it.)”
Craft said any election must ensure the participation of Syrians who are refugees, internally displaced or part of the diaspora, and reiterated that the US will withhold reconstruction funding until the UN’s political process in Syria is complete.
She berated her Russian colleagues who, she said, “tell a very different story (about Syria) to this body — a story breathtaking in its dishonesty and cynicism.”
After wishing Craft well for the future, Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, said: “I will now turn to the Russian story on Syria.”
He criticized the UN for “keeping its mouth shut” while the proceeds from Syria’s natural resources “are not flowing into Syria’s coffers.” He also defended the Assad regime, saying that “Damascus is doing everything it can to keep the economy afloat” while international sanctions cause it to collapse.
UK Ambassador James Paul Roscoe rejected this suggestion and said the true cause of the tragedy in Syria is the regime’s “nepotism, corruption and brutal attacks against its people.” He called for the regime to be held accountable for its crimes.
Pedersen reiterated that the UN’s resolution on Syria stipulates that the political process in the country “must be Syrian-owned and led, but the conflict is highly internationalized, with five foreign armies active in Syria.”
The world cannot, therefore, “pretend that the solutions are only in the hands of the Syrians, or that the UN can do it alone,” he added as he called for “a more serious and cooperative international diplomacy.”


B-52s again fly over Middle East in US military warning to Iran

Updated 07 March 2021

B-52s again fly over Middle East in US military warning to Iran

DUBAI: A pair of B-52 bombers flew over the Middle East on Sunday, the latest such mission in the region aimed at warning Iran amid tensions between Washington and Tehran.
The US military’s Central Command said the two B-52s flew over the region accompanied by military aircraft from nations including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It marked the fourth-such bomber deployment into the Middke East this year and the second under President Joe Biden.
Flight-tracking data showed the two B-52s flew out of Minot Air Base in North Dakota, something Central Command did not mention in its statement on the flights though authorities later published images of the flight crew preparing its departure there.
The military did not directly mention Iran in its statement, saying the flight was to “deter aggression and reassure partners and allies of the US military’s commitment to security in the region.”
However, such flights had become common in the last months of former President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers sparked a series of escalating incidents in the region.
Biden has expressed a desire to return to the deal if Iran honors the deal’s limits on its nuclear program. However, tensions remain high after militias in Iraq — likely backed by Iran — continue to target American interests.
Biden last month launched an airstrike just over the border into Syria in retaliation, joining every American president from Ronald Reagan onward who has ordered a bombardment of countries in the Middle East.


Iran releases British-Iranian aid worker Zaghari-Ratcliffe from house arrest but court summons looms

Updated 07 March 2021

Iran releases British-Iranian aid worker Zaghari-Ratcliffe from house arrest but court summons looms

  • Zaghari-Ratcliffe spent the last year of her term under house arrest with electronic shackles tied to her feet
  • Kermani said a hearing for Zaghari-Ratcliffe's second case has been scheduled on March 14

DUBAI: Iran has released British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from house arrest at the end of her five-year prison sentence, but she has been summoned to court again on another charge, her lawyer said on Sunday.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested at a Tehran airport in April 2016 and later convicted of plotting to overthrow the clerical establishment.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who served out most of her sentence in Tehran's Evin prison, was released last March during the coronavirus pandemic and kept under house arrest, but her movements were restricted and she was barred from leaving the country.
On Sunday the authorities removed her ankle tag.
"She was pardoned by Iran's supreme leader last year, but spent the last year of her term under house arrest with electronic shackles tied to her feet. Now they're cast off," her lawyer Hojjat Kermani told an Iranian website. "She has been freed."
Iran's judiciary was not immediately available to comment about the release. Her family and the foundation, a charity that operates independently of media firm Thomson Reuters and its news subsidiary Reuters, deny the charge.
Kermani said a hearing for Zaghari-Ratcliffe's second case has been scheduled on March 14.
"In this case, she is accused of propaganda against the Islamic Republic's system for participating in a rally in front of the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009 and giving interview to the BBC Persian TV channel at the same time," Kermani said.
He said he hoped that "this case will be closed at this stage, considering the previous investigation".
Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband told Sky News on Sunday she was "pleased" her ankle tag had been removed but said the news was "mixed" from Iran due to the court summons.
"Richard Ratcliffe says Nazanin is ‘pleased’ the ankle tag is off #nazanin," Sky News reporter Lisa Holland said on Twitter. "Richard Ratcliffe has told me the news today is ‘mixed’. The ankle tag is off but Nazanin has to appear in court again next Sunday in a second case."
Ratcliffe did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
British foreign minister Dominic Raab welcomed the removal of Zaghari-Ratcliffe's ankle tag but said Iran continued to put her and her family through a "cruel and an intolerable ordeal".
"She must be released permanently so she can return to her family in the UK. We have relayed to the Iranian authorities in the strongest possible terms that her continued confinement is unacceptable," Raab said in a statement.
Her lawyer told Iranian state TV he had no news on the status of her travel ban.
British lawmaker Tulip Siddiq said she had spoken to Zaghari-Ratcliffe's family and that her first trip would be to see her grandmother.
The detentions of dozens of dual nationals and foreigners have complicated ties between Tehran and several European countries including Germany, France and Britain, all parties to Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with six powers.
The release come as Iran and the United States are trying to revive the deal, which former US president abandoned in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran. Tehran responded by scaling down its compliance.


Rouhani: Iran ready to take steps when US lifts sanctions

Updated 07 March 2021

Rouhani: Iran ready to take steps when US lifts sanctions

  • ‘Iran is ready to immediately take compensatory measures based on the nuclear deal and fulfill its commitments’
  • Hassan Rouhani: Iran is the only country that kept its side of the bargain

TEHRAN: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Sunday his country was prepared to take steps to live up to measures in the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers as soon as the United States lifts economic sanctions on Iran.
In a meeting with Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, Rouhani said: “Iran is ready to immediately take compensatory measures based on the nuclear deal and fulfill its commitments just after the US illegal sanctions are lifted and it abandons its policy of threats and pressure.”
Rouhani criticized the European signatories of the historic nuclear deal for what he said was their inaction on their commitments to the agreement. He said Iran is the only country that kept its side of the bargain.
Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew the US from the Iranian nuclear accord, in which Tehran had agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. When the US then reimposed some sanctions and added others, Iran gradually and publicly abandoned the deal’s limits on its nuclear development.
The Republic of Ireland has the role of facilitator in the implementation of the nuclear deal.
Coveney said the withdrawal of former President Donald Trump was a mistake and noted that the new US administration is determined to return to the deal.
In December, Iran’s parliament approved a bill that calls for the suspension of part of UN inspections of its nuclear facilities if European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal do not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions.

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Jordan’s PM to reshuffle cabinet to hasten IMF-guided reforms

Updated 07 March 2021

Jordan’s PM to reshuffle cabinet to hasten IMF-guided reforms

  • Six new ministers will be named including the interior and justice portfolios
  • Expected reshuffle comes after parliament last week passed a $14 billion budget

AMMAN: Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh was expected to reshuffle his cabinet on Sunday to help accelerate IMF-guided reforms seen as crucial to economic recovery in Jordan from the blow of the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.
Six new ministers will be named including interior and justice after Khasawneh fired both incumbents last week for attending a restaurant dinner party that violated coronavirus restrictions they were supposed to enforce.
The British-educated Khasawneh, a veteran former diplomat and palace aide, was appointed last October by King Abdullah to restore public trust over the handling of the coronavirus health crisis and defuse anger over successive governments’ failure to deliver on pledges of prosperity and curbing corruption.
Jordan is witnessing a nearly two-month-old surge of infections driven by a more contagious variant of the virus amid rising discontent over worsening economic conditions and curbs on public freedoms under emergency laws.
Aides say Khasawneh was expected to retain Harvard-educated Mohammad Al Ississ as finance minister. He has won International Monetary Fund praise for his handling of the economy during the pandemic, and has negotiated a four-year IMF program worth $1.3 billion, signalling confidence in Jordan’s reform agenda.
The expected reshuffle comes after parliament last week passed a 9.9-billion-dinar ($14 billion) budget which Al Ississ said aimed to maintain fiscal prudence to help ensure financial stability and rein in a record $45 billion public debt.
The economy saw its worst contraction — 3 percent — in decades last year, hit by lockdowns, border closures and a sharp fall in tourism during the pandemic, but the government and the IMF both predict a bounce of similar magnitude this year.
Officials say Jordan’s commitment to IMF reforms and investor confidence in the improved outlook helped the country maintain stable sovereign ratings at a time when other emerging markets were being downgraded.


Explosion on Gaza fishing boat kills 3 Palestinian anglers

Updated 07 March 2021

Explosion on Gaza fishing boat kills 3 Palestinian anglers

  • The cause of the blast was not immediately clear

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip: Three Palestinian fishermen were killed Sunday after a blast ripped through their boat off the Gaza shore, officials said.
Nezar Ayyash, of the association that represents fishermen, said the anglers – two brothers and a cousin – were plying their trade off the coast of the city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza Strip when the explosion happened.
The cause of the blast was not immediately clear.
Palestinian media reports blamed Israeli navy fire, but the Israeli military said it was not involved in this incident. The Hamas-run interior ministry in Gaza said it opened an investigation.
Minutes before the explosion, local media reported that Hamas, the militant group ruling the Gaza Strip, was test-firing rockets toward the sea.