UN green light for aid to Idlib puts miseries of Syria’s war into stark relief

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Children attend an outdoor event celebrating World Children's Day at the Haranbush camp for displaced Syrians in Syria's rebel-held Idlib province on Nov. 20, 2021. (OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP)
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hildren attend the first day of school in a village in the countryside of Syria's northwestern Idlib province on Oct. 9, 2021. (AFP file)
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Children help put together tables and chairs to use in class as they attend the first day of school in a village in the countryside of Syria's Idlib province on Oct. 9, 2021. (Omar Haj Kadour / AFP)
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Syrian rescuers, known as White Helmets, recover bodies in Zardana, in the mostly rebel-held northern province of Idlib, following air strikes in the area late on June 7, 2018. (AFP file)
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Updated 13 January 2022

UN green light for aid to Idlib puts miseries of Syria’s war into stark relief

  • White Helmets say attacks by the Assad regime and its foreign military backers have intensified in recent months 
  • Campaigners say children in northwest Syria are traumatized and unable to go to school due to constant bombing

WASHINGTON D.C.:  Airstrikes targeting civilian infrastructure in the rebel-held enclave of Idlib in Syria have become so common in recent months, they have ceased to be considered news by many Western media outlets, human-rights campaigners say.

According to Syrian Civil Defense, the rebel-affiliated first responders also known as the White Helmets, attacks by the Bashar Assad regime and its foreign military backers have intensified, maiming and killing scores of children.

One photograph released by the White Helmets in mid-November shows first responders lifting the lifeless body of a little girl from the rubble of what used to be her home. Such images were once front-page news. Now they barely register on the news media’s radar.

Syria's White Helmets volunteers search through the rubble of a building destroyed by an exploding bomb in Idlib. (AFP file photo)

Since June this year, the White Helmets have documented the deaths of 63 children in air and artillery attacks on rebel-held northwest Syria. To highlight the issue, the group has launched a social media hashtag campaign, #ChildrenUnderAttack.

Northwest Syria does receive a modicum of media attention every time the UN extends a measure that allows cross-border aid into the region for a period of six months, as happened on Monday. Roughly three million people live in Idlib, which remains outside the Assad regime’s control.

The green light for continued passage of humanitarian supplies through the crossing at Bab Al-Hawa, on the Syrian-Turkey border, was given even though the Assad government does not approve of the move and the Security Council did not hold a new vote on the matter.

Many analysts argue that Assad has “won” the Syrian civil war and therefore the international community ought to accept the new status quo. However, teachers in rebel-held areas have said it is wrong for the world to simply turn a blind eye to the regime’s crimes.

School staff in Idlib recently published an open letter with the help of a UK-based charity, The Syria Campaign, urging world leaders not to forget the region’s children who live under almost daily bombardment.

“We are the teachers of students in northwest Syria who are deliberately targeted in their homes, classrooms and as they walk to school,” the letter states. “We go to work afraid of another attack, and of another traumatizing day, which we know will affect our pupils for the rest of their lives.

“Our letter could not be more urgent. Early on Wednesday, October 20, four students and our colleague, Arabic teacher Qamar Hafez, were tragically killed on their way to school when Syrian government forces attacked the town of Ariha in southern Idlib with artillery shells.

Children attend the first day of school in a village in the countryside of Syria's northwestern Idlib province on Oct.  9, 2021. (Omar Haj Kadour / AFP)

“One million children in Idlib are terrified they might be next or they might lose their best friend at any moment. Like teachers everywhere, we are deeply committed to the children we teach, and we do all we can to try to protect them, but it is not enough. We need world leaders to stop the attacks, and ensure that children are safe and able to continue their education.”

Children have suffered the brunt of the Syrian conflict, which began more than a decade ago when anti-government protests met with violent repression, sparking a civil war.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, another UK-based monitor, at least 29,661 children have been killed in Syria since March 2011 — 22,930 of them at the hands of regime forces.

In its latest report, published on Nov. 20 to coincide with World Children’s Day, the network said at least 1,197 schools and 29 kindergartens had been completely or partially destroyed across Syria since March 2011.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

An estimated 2.5 million children in Syria are out of school, with another 1.6 million at risk of dropping out, according to UNICEF, which estimates that nine in 10 children in Syria live in poverty and more than 5,700 children — some as young as seven — have been recruited to fight.

According to UNICEF, 512 children were killed in attacks last year, most of them in northwest Syria. Around 1.7 million vulnerable children reside in the rebel-held areas, most of whom have been displaced multiple times by successive regime offensives. There are currently at least 2.5 million displaced children in Syria.

First responders have catalogued the impact of the war on the mental health of children living in the region’s displacement camps. Humanitarian aid workers have referred to the trend as a “psychological disaster that threatens this generation, and future generations of Syria.”

Speaking to Arab News, Layla Hasso, a Syrian advocacy director for the Hurras Network, a child protection NGO, said: “The goal is to terrify the half million children who live in Idlib province and to send a clear message to their families that there is no future for their children here. It’s why civilians are being targeted at their homes, schools, hospitals.

Pictures of Syrian regime victims are displayed during a protest in Koblenz, Germany, during the trial of two former Syrian officials accused for crimes against humanity. (AFP file)

“This is what I call terrorism and it has to stop. The international community cannot continue to turn a blind eye to this horror.”

However, anecdotal evidence suggests news consumers across the world are fatigued by the unending stream of images of devastation emanating from the region. As a result, global concern over Syria and its people has declined noticeably in recent years.

Analysts say this indifference, coupled with the inaction of the UN Security Council, has emboldened the regime to continue its bombing campaign. By giving the Syrian crisis a human face, The Syria Campaign hopes to revive international interest in the plight of Idlib’s children.

“Teachers joined together to write this letter to remind world leaders that Syrian and Russian forces continue to bomb civilians, including children, in northwest Syria with zero accountability,” Sara Hashash, communications director at The Syria Campaign, told Arab News.

Children in northwest Syria are unable to go to school due to constant bombing and displacement. (AFP photo)

“Children in northwest Syria are traumatized and unable to go to school due to constant bombing and displacement. A child has been killed almost every other day for the past four months.

“On Nov. 15, two children were killed by Syrian regime artillery shelling on Kafr Nouran in the Aleppo countryside. It’s frustrating that many of these attacks no longer get widespread media coverage.”

The result of the media silence on the issue has been political inaction. Already the Assad regime is being welcomed back into the regional fold. Many feel it is perhaps only a matter of time before Western and moderate Arab powers accept that Assad is here to stay.

In remarks to reporters on Nov. 11, Ned Price, the US State Department spokesperson, said: “This (Biden) administration will not express any support for efforts to normalize or rehabilitate Bashar Assad, who is a brutal dictator.”

A Syrian air force MiG-23 jet drops a payload during an air strike in the rebel-held town of Arbin in Eastern Ghouta region, outskirts of the Damascus, on Feb. 7, 2018. (AFP)

He said: “There has been no change in our position and Bashar Assad certainly has not said anything that would rehabilitate his image or that would suggest that he or his regime is changing its ways.”

In his column in Asharq Al-Awsat, the Syrian commentator Ibrahim Hamidi recently wrote: “As it stands, the room for confrontation is now limited to two options: The first is engaging Assad and ending Damascus’ isolation with the hope of easing Iran’s influence. Some Arab countries have indeed forged ahead with normalization, demanding that Damascus begin reining in Iran in Syria and the region.

“The second option lies in banking on the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ability to rein in Iran. This option stems from the position that the war had brought together Putin and Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei in Syria, but peace and normalization will pull them apart.”


2.5 million Children out of school in Syria.

9/10 Living in poverty.

5,700 Recruited to fight.

(Source: UNICEF)

For better or worse, according to Hashash of the Syria Campaign, the normalization effort is still limited to regional leaders. “On an international level, Assad is still largely isolated and dependent on the backing of Russia and Iran, and heavily sanctioned by the US and EU,” she told Arab News.

“Regional leaders who seem to be ready to move on from Assad’s crimes must be reminded that there can be no real peace in Syria without justice and accountability.”

According to the White Helmets, the number of civilian casualties has increased dramatically since the regime and Russia began using Krasnopol laser-guided artillery. The group says several members of the same family are often killed in such strikes.

The White Helmets allege that regime artillery and Russian jets have deliberately targeted schools and deprived children of an education.

In many cases, entire families are killed in indiscrimate shellings and bombings by the Assad regime. (AFP file photo)

Reports from the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic corroborate many of their claims that residential areas, markets and medical facilities have been deliberately targeted, often indiscriminately.

With the Russian military in control over Idlib’s airspace and operating an airbase in neighboring Latakia province, local medical and aid workers are unequivocal in pointing the finger of blame.

The Russian government has consistently and strenuously denied responsibility for the airstrikes, as well as accusations that its forces indiscriminately attack civilians.

Against this backdrop of conflicting accounts, Hashash has a message for the international media: It must speak to Syrians to amplify their voices and ensure their narrative is highlighted when reporting on the war-torn country.

“When stories are told, the world will listen,” she said.


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Kurds advance on jihadists in besieged Syria jail, appeal for help

Updated 26 January 2022

Kurds advance on jihadists in besieged Syria jail, appeal for help

  • A tense stand-off has gripped the prison, with Kurdish forces and their Daesh rivals facing either a bloodbath or talks to end the fighting

HASAKAH, Syria: Kurdish forces advanced Wednesday inside a Syrian prison where Daesh group fighters have been holed up with minors for six days, amid pleas for international assistance to contain a jihadist resurgence.
More than 100 jihadists of the Daesh group last week attacked Ghwayran prison in the northeast Syrian city of Hasakah, held by a semi-autonomous Kurdish administration.
The brazen assault on the Kurdish-run facility involved a double suicide bombing and saw the jihadists free fellow Daesh members, seize weapons and take over a series of jail blocks.
It is considered the most sophisticated attack carried out by the group since it was territorially defeated in Syria nearly three years ago.
On Wednesday, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and allied fighters “carried out search operations inside prison blocks” and in areas surrounding the facility, where intermittent clashes had broken out overnight, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
US-backed Kurdish forces were “advancing slowly” inside the jail where jihadists were still holed up, said the Britain-based monitor.
Fighting in and around the prison since Thursday has killed 181 people, including 124 Daesh jihadists, 50 Kurdish fighters and seven civilians, according to the Observatory.
With operations inside the facility underway, fears were raised over the fate of minors detained at Ghwayran, which held more than 700 boys among 3,500 Daesh suspects prior to the attack.
“They say they fear they’ll be shot down if they try to come out. They are begging for food, water, medicine,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Letta Tayler, adding she had made contact with three inmates including one minor trapped inside the jail.
They are calling for the United Nations “or other international organization to negotiate their safe exit,” Tayler said.
A tense stand-off has gripped the prison, with Kurdish forces and their Daesh rivals facing either a bloodbath or talks to end the fighting.
“The most likely way this ends is with the total defeat of the Daesh fighters at the prison,” said Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Newlines Institute.
“But the nightmare scenario for the SDF and the US-led coalition is a drawn out standoff that kills hundreds, including many children prisoners.”
Kurdish forces since Monday have freed 32 prison staff, some of whom appeared in video footage that Daesh had shared on social media after launching the attack, the Observatory says.
Around 1,000 men, including rebelling inmates and Daesh jihadists, have so far surrendered to Kurdish forces, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said Wednesday.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said that a Syrian Daesh jihadist was negotiating with Kurdish forces to end the mutiny and secure medical care for wounded jihadists.
Farhad Shami of the SDF media office said the SDF had made calls for Daesh to surrender, but he refused to refer to them as formal negotiations.
Ghwayran is the prison with the largest number of suspected Daesh members in Syria, the Observatory says.
Kurdish authorities say more than 50 nationalities are represented in a number of Kurdish-run prisons, where over 12,000 Daesh suspects are being held.
The Kurdish administration has long warned it does not have the capacity to hold, let alone put on trial, the thousands of Daesh fighters captured in years of operations.
“This issue is an international problem,” Abdulkarim Omar, the administration’s top foreign policy official, told AFP on Wednesday.
“We cannot face it alone.”
He called on the international community to “support the autonomous administration to improve security and humanitarian conditions for inmates in detention centers and for those in overcrowded camps.”
The proto-state declared by Daesh in 2014 once straddled large parts of Iraq and Syria.
After five years of military operations conducted by local and international forces, its last rump was eventually flushed out on the banks of the Euphrates in eastern Syria in March 2019.

Iran arrests 17 over social media horror pranks

Updated 26 January 2022

Iran arrests 17 over social media horror pranks

  • Gags included mock murders and a suicide as well as throwing cakes in the faces of passengers on the escalators of the Tehran metro

TEHRAN: Iranian police have arrested 17 university graduates on suspicion of filming candid camera horror pranks that boosted their social media followings but “sowed panic” in Tehran streets, reports said Tuesday.
Gags included mock murders and a suicide as well as throwing cakes in the faces of passengers on the escalators of the Tehran metro, Iranian newspapers reported.
“Police have arrested some individuals who amused themselves by playing on people’s nerves and the peace and security of the public by filming candid camera footage of horror gags on the streets of the capital,” Tehran police chief General Hossein Rahimi told the Iran newspaper.
“We arrested 17 people who perpetrated these illegal acts.”
The author of the gag filmed on the Tehran metro was open about his motives.
“I wanted to make people happy and increase the number of followers on my Instagram page,” he told the Shahab newspaper.
But the head of Tehran’s cyber police Col. Davoud Moazzami expressed outrage that educated people would scare the public for personal gain in this way.
“They filmed these candid camera videos to attract followers and advertising on Instagram and Twitter,” Moazzami said. “All 17 of those arrested had received university educations and worked for respected companies.”

Kuwait death toll raised to 4 in oil refinery fire

Updated 26 January 2022

Kuwait death toll raised to 4 in oil refinery fire

  • The fire erupted Jan. 14 during maintenance work at the Mina Al-Ahmadi oil refinery

DUBAI: The death toll from a fire at a major oil refinery in Kuwait has been raised to four after two critically injured workers died of their wounds, the Kuwait National Petroleum Company said in a statement Wednesday.
The fire, which erupted Jan. 14 during maintenance work at the Mina Al-Ahmadi oil refinery, initially killed two Asian workers, whose bodies were found on site, and had left five others in critical condition.
The state-owned company said that two of the critically injured workers have since died in the hospital while receiving treatment, raising the death toll to four.
The company’s top executive issued a statement in the days after the blaze saying such incidents, while “very painful for us,” are “very likely in a complex industry.”
Kuwait’s Oil Minister Mohammed Al-Fares and other top executives of the state-owned oil company visited the refinery immediately after the fire. They were seen fist-bumping members of the fire brigade and standing in front of the site of the blast for photos that were shared by the Kuwait National Petroleum Company’s Twitter account.
It was the second fire in a month at the site. A smaller fire erupted last week at separate petrochemical line run by the company, though no injuries were reported in that blaze.
The Mina Al-Ahmadi refinery was built to handle 25,000 barrels of oil a day to supply Kuwait’s domestic market primarily with gasoline and diesel. The facility recently underwent an expansion to reduce its emissions and boost capacity to 346,000 barrels a day.
Kuwait, a nation home to 4.1 million people, has the world’s sixth-largest known oil reserves.


UAE discussing defense upgrade after Houthi attacks- envoy to UN

Updated 26 January 2022

UAE discussing defense upgrade after Houthi attacks- envoy to UN

  • Nusseibeh confirmed ongoing security discussions with Washington but declined to provide details
  • The Houthis said they are punishing the UAE for backing forces battling the group in energy-producing regions

DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates may upgrade its defensive capabilities after missile attacks by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group, while continuing diplomacy with Tehran to reduce regional tensions, a senior UAE diplomat said.
The Emirati envoy to the United Nations, Lana Nusseibeh, told CNN on Tuesday that UAE intelligence showed the two assaults — the first on the regional commercial and tourism hub — had originated from Yemen, and there was also a need to stem illicit flows of weapons and funds to the group.
A Saudi-led military coalition, which includes the UAE, accuses Iran of supplying the Houthis with arms, which both Tehran and the group deny.
Monday’s strike, aimed at a base in Abu Dhabi hosting US forces, was thwarted by American-built Patriot interceptors, after a deadly attack a week earlier on the capital.
Nusseibeh confirmed ongoing security discussions with Washington but declined to provide details. The UAE uses the US anti-missile interception system THAAD.
“Our ability to intercept and deflect these attacks is world class,” she said. “There can always be upgrades and improvements and... additional intelligence cooperation and I think these are the fields we’re looking at with our (US) partners.”
She said the UAE, which has urged Washington to reinstate a terrorist designation of the Houthis, was also discussing with partners increasing pressure on the group to engage with stalled UN-led peace efforts.
“That means listing them again on sanctions regimes ... potentially listing additional figures, it means stopping the illicit flow of weapons and finance to them.”
The Houthis said they are punishing the UAE for backing forces battling the group in energy-producing regions, after the UAE in 2019 largely distanced itself from Yemen.
The Houthis have repeatedly launched attacks on Saudi Arabia in the war, seen as a proxy conflict between Riyadh and Tehran.
Nusseibeh said the Houthis would not succeed in undermining the UAE’s safe-haven status.
The UAE, which has been engaging with Iran, would continue diplomacy aimed at de-escalation, she said, while reserving the right to defend itself “defensively and offensively” in the Yemen conflict.


Rights group says Lebanese staffer targeted with NSO spyware

Updated 26 January 2022

Rights group says Lebanese staffer targeted with NSO spyware

  • The New York-based rights group said the software was used against Lama Fakih
  • NSO Group has been mired in controversy following revelations against its spyware

BEIRUT: Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that one of its senior staff members was targeted last year with spyware designed by the Israeli hacker-for hire company NSO Group.
The New York-based rights group said the software was used against Lama Fakih, the director of its Beirut office who also oversees its crisis response in several countries, including Syria, Myanmar, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and the United States.
NSO Group has been mired in controversy following revelations its spyware was used in several countries against journalists, activists and even US diplomats. The US barred the firm from accessing American technology last year, saying its tools have been used by repressive regimes, and Facebook and Apple have filed lawsuits against NSO over hacks against their products.
NSO Group does not disclose its clients but says it has safeguards in place to ensure its products are only used to target suspected criminals and terrorists. It says it does not have access to the intelligence its clients gather.
Its Pegasus spyware grants full access to a person’s phone, including photos, emails and real-time communications. The targeted person does not have to take any action, such as clicking a link, and would not be able to detect the breach without a sophisticated technical analysis.
NSO Group issued a statement expressing support for an “international regulatory structure” for cyber intelligence tools, but said any calls to suspend their use until one is established would benefit criminals who evade other forms of surveillance. It did not directly address the hacking reported by Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch said Fakih, a dual US and Lebanese citizen, was targeted on five occasions between April and August. Apple informed her of the breach on Nov. 24, and forensic analysis by Human Rights Watch confirmed the presence of the software, the group said.
“It is no accident that governments are using spyware to target activists and journalists, the very people who uncover their abusive practices,” Fakih said. “They seem to believe that by doing so, they can consolidate power, muzzle dissent, and protect their manipulation of facts.”