US envoy announces new Syria aid, seeks delivery access

US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield talks to a rescue worker as she visits the Cilvegozu border gate, opposite Bab Al-Hawa, in Hatay province, Turkey. (Reuters)
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Updated 03 June 2021

US envoy announces new Syria aid, seeks delivery access

  • Ambassador is in Turkey on a four-day visit seeking to ensure that humanitarian aid can be delivered to Syria across Bab al-Hawa border
  • “We want the U.N. to bring food to starving children and protection to homeless families,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield

ANKARA: The US Ambassador to the United Nations announced on Thursday nearly $240 million in humanitarian funding to support the people of Syria, Syrian refugees and countries hosting them.
The ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, also called for access through international crossings to allow the delivery of aid.
She made the announcement during a visit to the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria — the sole remaining point of access for humanitarian aid to enter the conflict-ravaged country.
The ambassador is in Turkey on a four-day visit seeking to ensure that humanitarian aid can be delivered to Syria across borders — a program which Russia, Syria’s closest ally, has severely limited in recent years, insisting that the Syrian government should control all assistance to millions in need. The international crossing points were reduced to a single border crossing from Turkey to Syria’s rebel-held northwest at Russia’s insistence.
“I’m proud to announce the United States is providing nearly $240 million in additional humanitarian funding for the people of Syria and for the communities that host them,” Thomas-Greenfield said, according to a statement from her office. “Right now, more than 13 million Syrian people are in dire need of assistance. That’s the population of Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington D.C. combined.”
She added: “Four in five people in northwest Syria need humanitarian assistance. For millions of civilians in Idlib, this is their lifeline. Over the last year and a half, some members of the Security Council succeeded in shamefully closing two other crossings into Syria... Bab Al-Hawa is literally all that’s left.”
The United States is seeking the reauthorization of UN access at Bab Al-Hawa and the reopening of other border crossings before the current UN Security Council mandate for humanitarian aid deliveries expires on July 10. There is strong support in the 15-member council for maintaining and even adding border crossings, but Russia holds the key.
“This isn’t a complicated issue. We want the UN to bring food to starving children and protection to homeless families. We want the UN to be able to deliver vaccines in the middle of a global pandemic. We want the suffering to stop,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
She met Wednesday with Ibrahim Kalin, a top aide to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey hosts some 4 million refugees.
The talks come ahead of US President Joe Biden’s first meeting with Erdogan on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels on June 14.
Ties between Ankara and Washington, which once considered each other as strategic partners, steadily deteriorated in recent years over differences on Syria, Turkey’s cooperation with Russia and Turkish naval interventions in the eastern Mediterranean, which US officials have described as destabilizing.
The US Agency for International Development, or USAID, said the new US funding announced by Thomas-Greenfield, would support aid agencies providing assistance, “including food for displaced families in Syria and the region” and support bakeries in Syria.
It would also provide psychosocial support and other services for children, rehabilitate water and sanitation systems and provide cash or vouchers to help Syrians meet basic needs.
USAID said the United States was the world’s largest donor to the Syria crisis, and has provided more than $13 billion since the start of the conflict.


Turkey names former Jerusalem envoy as new ambassador to Israel

Updated 22 sec ago

Turkey names former Jerusalem envoy as new ambassador to Israel

ANKARA: Turkey appointed Sakir Ozkan Torunlar as its new ambassador to Israel late on Wednesday following a mutual decision taken last month to restore full diplomatic ties, two Turkish foreign ministry officials said.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu briefed Torunlar on Wednesday night as part of the ministry’s new appointments abroad, the officials told Reuters.
A career diplomat with decades of experience, Torunlar was Turkish Consul General in Jerusalem from 2010 until 2013.
Israel has already named Irit Lillian as its next ambassador to Ankara.
Relations between Turkey and Israel have been rocky since 2011, when Ankara expelled Israel’s ambassador following a 2010 Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara aid ship to Gaza, which killed nine Turkish citizens.
The rift healed when full diplomatic relations were restored in 2016 and the two countries exchanged ambassadors.
Tensions escalated again in 2018 when Israeli forces killed a number of Palestinians who had taken part in the “March of Return” protests in the Gaza Strip.
Turkey recalled all diplomats and ordered Israeli envoys to leave the country.
The latest developments come five months after Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Ankara as part of his first visit to Turkey by an Israeli leader since 2008.

Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban

Updated 9 min 15 sec ago

Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban

  • Sali Hafiz last month broke into a BLOM Bank branch with activists from the Depositors’ Outcry
  • Hafiz was widely celebrated as a hero, and went into hiding for weeks

BEIRUT: A Lebanese judge on Thursday fined and issued a six-month travel ban to a woman who stormed her bank with a fake pistol and took her trapped savings to cover her sister’s cancer treatment.
Lebanon’s cash-strapped banks have imposed strict limits on withdrawals of foreign currency since 2019, tying up the savings of millions of people. About three-quarters of the population has slipped into poverty as the tiny Mediterranean country’s economy continues to spiral. The Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar.
Sali Hafiz last month broke into a BLOM Bank branch in Beirut with activists from the Depositors’ Outcry protest group, and stormed into the manager’s office. They forced bank employees to hand over $12,000 and the equivalent of about $1,000 in Lebanese pounds.
Hafiz was widely celebrated as a hero, and went into hiding for weeks.
Her lawyer, Ali Abbas, said that Hafiz turned herself in Wednesday night, and that the bank had pressed charges. Another sister involved in the heist was with Sali.
“The judge decided to let them go on a bail of 1 million pounds each, and a six-month travel ban,” Abbas said in a phone interview from the Justice Palace.
One million Lebanese pounds was once worth over $666, but has since devalued to $25.
Following the incident last month, the Depositors’ Outcry had vowed to support more bank raids, and about a dozen of similar incidents have since occurred.
On Wednesday, Lebanese lawmaker Cynthia Zarazir staged a sit-in at her bank branch with a lawyer, demanding to withdraw $8,500 to cover expenses for a surgery.
These developments have rocked the Lebanese banks, who say they have been unjustly targeted for tiny Mediterranean country’s fiscal crisis. The Association of Banks in Lebanon temporarily closed for a week, before partially reopening last week, citing security concerns.
Lebanon for over two years has been struggling to implement a series of reforms to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout program and make its battered economy viable again.


Iran state TV airs alleged ‘confessions’ of two detained French nationals

Updated 28 min 25 sec ago

Iran state TV airs alleged ‘confessions’ of two detained French nationals

  • Release of alleged confessions comes as Iran grapples with a new wave of women-led protests
  • France has condemned the arrests as ‘baseless’ and called for their immediate release

PARIS: Iranian state television broadcast Thursday what it said were “confessions” by two French nationals, five months after they were arrested in the Islamic republic.

French teachers’ union official Cecile Kohler and her partner Jacques Paris have been detained in Iran since May 7 and stand accused of seeking to stir labor unrest during teachers’ strikes earlier this year.

The release of their alleged confessions comes as Iran grapples with a new wave of women-led protests that erupted on September 16 following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini.

The 22-year-old Iranian Kurd died after being detained for allegedly breaching the country’s strict rules on how women should dress.

Iran had announced on May 11 the arrest of two Europeans “who entered the country with the aim of triggering chaos and destabilizing society.”

France has condemned the arrests as “baseless” and called for their immediate release.

Iran said later that it had arrested two French nationals who had entered the country on tourist visas.

The pair were “accused of association and collusion with the aim of undermining the security of the country,” judiciary spokesman Massoud Setayeshi said in July.

A French union source later identified them as Cecile Kohler, of a teachers’ union, and her husband Jacques Paris, saying they had traveled to Iran for their Easter holidays.

In a video aired Thursday, a woman speaking French and claiming to Kohler is heard saying that she is an “agent of the DGSE” French intelligence service.

In the recording shown on the Arabic-language Al-Alam channel, she says the couple were in Iran “to prepare the conditions for the revolution and the overthrow of the Iranian Islamist regime.”

She said they had planned to finance strikes and demonstrations and even use weapons “to fight against the police.”

According to Jacques Paris, who was also shown in the video, the DGSE’s objectives “were to put pressure on the Iranian government.”

Kohler and Paris are among the latest Western citizens to be detained in Iran, in what activists claim is a deliberate policy to extract concessions from the West — accusations rejected by Tehran.

Rights groups based outside Iran have repeatedly accused the Islamic republic of extracting “confessions” from detained foreigners and Iranian campaigners under duress and then broadcasting them on state media as a propaganda tool.

A 2020 report by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights and its member organization Justice for Iran said Iranian state media had broadcast over 350 such confessions in the space of a decade.

It said such “confessions” were “systematically broadcast” by Iranian state-owned media “to instill fear and repress dissent” and victims had been “subjected to torture and ill-treatment.”

Thursday’s broadcast comes amid a crackdown on the most recent protest movement in which security forces have also arrested nine foreigners — including from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland.

Iran’s judicial authority issued an order in October 2020 banning torture, the use of “forced confessions,” solitary confinement, illegal police custody and other violations of defendants’ rights.

That came a week after controversy sparked by videos posted on social media showing police officers beating detainees in pickup trucks in the middle of a street.

More than 20 Westerners, most of them dual nationals, are held or prevented from leaving Iran.

Among them are the French-Iranian researcher Fariba Adelkhah, arrested in June 2019 and later sentenced to five years in prison for undermining national security, allegations her family has strongly denied.

Another French citizen, Benjamin Briere, was arrested in May 2020 and later sentenced to eight years and eight months in prison for espionage, charges he rejects.

US citizen Baquer Namazi, who had served a prison sentence for espionage, left Iran on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced.


US operation using helicopters in Syria kills one: State TV

Updated 06 October 2022

US operation using helicopters in Syria kills one: State TV

  • It is first such operation in regime-controlled areas, the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said

BEIRUT: A US airborne operation involving multiple helicopters left one person dead in a government-controlled area of Syria’s northeast, Syrian state TV reported Thursday.
It is first such operation in regime-controlled areas, the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said.
“US occupation forces carried out a landing operation using several helicopters in the village of Muluk Saray in the southern countryside of Qamishli and killed one person,” Syria’s state broadcaster said, without elaborating.
The US armed forces’ Central Command (CENTCOM) said it currently has “no information to provide.”
The village targeted by the operation lies 17 kilometers (10 miles) south of the city of Qamishli and is controlled by Syrian regime forces, according to the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights and AFP correspondents.
“It is the first time,” that US forces conduct such an operation in regime-held areas, the Observatory said, without identifying the victim.
Several other people were captured, the monitor said, without providing a figure.
A resident of the village said that three US helicopters carrying troops had landed overnight.
US forces raided a house, killing one person and taking several others captive, the resident told AFP on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“They used loud speakers to call on residents to stay indoors” during the operation, he said.
The resident said the victim is a little-known Syrian from Hassakeh province, who he named as Abu Hayel.
Washington is part of a US-led coalition battling the Daesh group in Syria.
In July, the Pentagon said it killed Syria’s top Daesh extremist in a drone strike in the northern part of the country.
CENTCOM said he had been “one of the top five” leaders of Daesh overall.
The July strike came five months after a nighttime US raid in the town of Atme, which led to the death of the overall Daesh leader, Abu Ibrahim Al-Qurashi.
US officials said Qurashi died when he detonated a bomb to avoid capture.
After losing their last territory following a military onslaught backed by the US-led coalition in March 2019, the remnants of Daesh in Syria mostly retreated into desert hideouts.
They have since used such hideouts to ambush Kurdish-led forces and Syrian government troops while continuing to mount attacks in Iraq.


Israeli ministers to meet on Lebanon maritime deal, but approval pending

Updated 06 October 2022

Israeli ministers to meet on Lebanon maritime deal, but approval pending

  • The draft deal has had a mostly warm preliminary reception by the Israeli and Lebanese governments

JERUSALEM: Israel’s top cabinet ministers on Thursday will discuss a prospective US-mediated border demarcation deal with Lebanon addressing a disputed Mediterranean gas field, but were unlikely to take a final vote, Israeli officials said.
The draft deal, which has not been made public, has had a mostly warm preliminary reception by the Israeli and Lebanese governments. But there has also been domestic opposition in both countries, which are technically at war.
Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll said Israel’s security cabinet would meet at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT) to discuss the draft.
“The main points of the deal, and the matters we support, will be presented to it,” Roll told Ynet TV, adding that a discussion in the full cabinet, and a parliamentary review at an as-yet undecided level of the Knesset assembly, would follow.
With centrist Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid serving in a caretaker capacity ahead of a Nov. 1 election, the political opposition has demanded Knesset ratification for the deal.
Lapid’s main rival, conservative ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, argues that the deal could surrender Israeli maritime rights and benefit the enemy Lebanese Hezbollah movement. The Lapid government insists Israel’s security will be safeguarded.
Beirut, meanwhile, has balked at Lapid’s assertion that Israel will be paid partial royalties from future Lebanese exploration in the Qana gas prospect. A Lebanese ex-negotiator and some opposition lawmakers have argued that the proposed border demarcation skews too far north, thus favoring Israel.
Israeli security cabinet minister Hili Tropper said Thursday’s forum would receive Lebanese caveats and revision requests through US mediator Amos Hochstein.
“We will discuss them, and if they are significant, I am convinced that we will not accept this deal,” Tropper told Ynet.
Asked if the deal might go through before Israel’s election — a likely boon for Lapid’s campaign — Tropper said: “I can’t answer that. Our goal is to get it done as quickly as possible.”
Clocks are also ticking in Lebanon, which is keen for any sign of relief from a spiralling economic crisis and whose president, Michel Aoun, wants to seal the maritime deal before he steps down at month’s end, according to political sources.