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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Children 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 21 February 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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How artificial rain can make a difference to Saudi Arabia and Gulf region’s water situation

Updated 18 min 16 sec ago

How artificial rain can make a difference to Saudi Arabia and Gulf region’s water situation

  • Drought-hit nations turning to cloud seeding to supplement their water supplies
  • Saudi Arabia has become the second Gulf country to adopt the advanced technology

JEDDAH: To meet the growing demand for fresh water in Saudi Arabia, authorities have launched a project that will alter the structure of clouds to increase rainfall; a technique known as cloud seeding.

With long-term average rainfall of less than 100mm a year, a rising population and a growing agricultural sector, there is an immense thirst for more fresh water in Saudi Arabia. That is why, in early April, the Kingdom began the first phase of a cloud-seeding program to change the amount and type of precipitation.

Following the approval of the plan by the Saudi government, an aircraft was deployed in the skies over the vast rocky Najd plateau in the Kingdom’s central region, where it released plumes of silver iodide into the clouds. This caused ice crystals to form in the clouds, stimulating precipitation over targeted areas. The process began in the Riyadh region and will soon expand to other sites in Asir, Baha and Taif.

“The Kingdom is considered one of the countries with the least rainfall, with an average of 100mm annually,” Ayman Ghulam, chief executive officer of the National Center of Meteorology, said during a conference in Riyadh in March. “Cloud seeding is one of the most promising solutions in Saudi Arabia.”

The National Artificial Rain program is expected to continue for five years, with the aim of increasing rainfall by up to 20 percent. It is part of the Saudi Green Initiative, launched in March 2021 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to promote sustainable development and environmental preservation and to secure natural water sources in the Kingdom.

Roelof Bruintjes, who leads the weather modification group at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, said the Kingdom is using a well-established method of cloud seeding that is harmless to the environment.

An Emiratie pilot prepares his plane for a cloud-seeding operation. (AN file photo)

The two seeding agents used in the Saudi operation are hygroscopic (which means substances that tend to absorb moisture from the air) materials such as salts and silver iodide. They are employed in such small concentrations so as to be largely undetectable, and have been used for almost 40 years in cloud-seeding projects in the western US, where droughts are prevalent.

The success of cloud-seeding operations, Bruintjes said, depends to some degree on the characteristics of the clouds themselves.

“No cloud is the same as another cloud and no cloud will ever be the same as another cloud,” he told Arab News.

“In Saudi Arabia, most of your clouds that occur in the central region and southwest are more convective kinds of clouds. In that way, we mostly use hygroscopic cells to create larger droplets so they can more easily collide with each other and hold rain, so you could get more of the water that is processed in the cloud down to the surface.

“You’re basically trying to get more water from the clouds to increase the percentage of water the cloud processes that comes down to the surface.”

Water covers about 71 percent of the Earth’s surface but the Middle East and North Africa region has precious little of the life-giving resource. According to the UN, it is the most water-scarce region in the world, with 17 countries considered to be below the water-poverty line.

The situation is made worse by rapid population growth, poor infrastructure and the overexploitation of limited resources. Agriculture alone accounts for about 80 percent of water usage in the Middle East and North Africa region, according to the World Bank.


50 - Countries looking to establish rain-enhancement programs.

20% - Targeted increase in KSA’s rainfall through cloud seeding.

18% - Saudi share of global production of desalinated seawater.

This overuse means the region’s natural groundwater reserves are not replenished fast enough to keep pace with demand. Shortages can have wide-reaching humanitarian consequences, with droughts destroying livelihoods and displacing populations from rural to urban areas.

About 1.1 billion people worldwide lack reliable access to water, and 2.7 billion endure scarcity for at least one month of the year. By 2025, an estimated two-thirds of the global population might face water shortages.

Forecasts suggest water supplies will drop dramatically by 2030 and that rationing could become the new normal unless sustainable solutions are implemented.

The UN has classified Saudi Arabia and most other Gulf nations as water scarce. The exception is Oman, which sits slightly above the severe scarcity threshold of 500 cubic meters of water per capita per year.

Studies have found that the Middle East could be among the regions worst affected by climate change. They warn that the conditions are conducive to a process known as photochemical air pollution, which adds to the increase and high concentration of aerosol particles from sources both natural, such as desert dust, and artificial, such as pollution.

“The Middle East is the crossroads of the world,” said Bruintjes. “You get the pollution from India in the summertime, due to easterly winds, and in the winter you probably get some of the frontal systems from eastern Europe and from the Mediterranean.

“Aerosols don’t know borders, clouds don’t know borders, pollution doesn’t know borders.”

It is because of these man-made and environmental factors that cloud seeding is seen as an especially effective solution for this particular region.

“The influence of biomass smoke from Africa, the Sahara dust penetration in that region, those are the kind of things we will be evaluating as part of any cloud seeding experiment,” said Bruintjes.

“Dust particles only interact with clouds to form ice crystals, not droplets. However, outgassing in the oil industry produces sulfates more than nitrate — smaller particles that can usually inhibit precipitation — and that’s where cloud seeding may come in.”

Saudi Arabia has no permanent natural lakes or rivers, nor does it have areas of abundant natural vegetation, with the exception of its southwestern Asir highlands.

Over the past three decades, the Kingdom has been tapping its underground reserves, known as aquifers, for agricultural purposes. As a result, they have been depleted from 166 cubic meters of renewable internal freshwater resources per capita in 1987 to just 71 cubic meters in 2018.

The country has therefore been forced to rely on imports and the desalination of seawater on a massive scale to meet demand.

A 2018 UN study found that there are 16,000 desalination plants operating in 177 countries producing a volume of freshwater equivalent to almost half the average flow of Niagara Falls. Saudi Arabia is home to one of the world’s largest desalination plants.

However, research has shown that desalination plants are inevitably associated with environmental issues, including air pollution, making their long-term use unsustainable if the world hopes to reduce harmful greenhouse-gas emissions.

Saudi Arabia has decades of experience in water desalination, beginning with the opening of the country’s first facility in the 1950s. As new technologies have been developed to minimize emissions, the Kingdom has adopted solar power and other renewables to power its desalination plants.

Nevertheless, if the country is to meet the ever-growing demand for water and replenish its aquifers, alternatives must be developed at an appropriate scale. Along with ground-based seeding generators, cloud seeding is viewed as one possible way to top up dwindling reserves.

Saudi Arabia is only the second nation in the Gulf region, after the UAE, to launch a cloud-seeding program. However, many other drought-affected nations around the world have embraced the technology to modify the weather and help supplement their supplies of natural water.

The ability to predict the distribution and intensity of rainfall in the Gulf and wider MENA regions could prove critical in the years to come as climate change results in more frequent droughts.


Blinken stresses importance of concluding Israeli probe into reporter’s killing

Updated 27 May 2022

Blinken stresses importance of concluding Israeli probe into reporter’s killing

  • Secretary Blinken underscored the importance of concluding the investigations into the death of Palestinian-American Shireen Abu Akleh

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Friday to Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and stressed the importance of concluding the probes into the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the State Department said.
“Secretary Blinken underscored the importance of concluding the investigations into the death of Palestinian-American Shireen Abu Akleh,” the State Department said in a statement.
The Palestinian Authority said on Thursday its investigation showed that Abu Akleh was shot by an Israeli soldier in a “deliberate murder.” Israel denied the accusation and said it was continuing its own investigations.

Palestinians say teen killed by Israeli fire in West Bank

Updated 27 May 2022

Palestinians say teen killed by Israeli fire in West Bank

  • The ministry identified the slain teen Zaid Ghunaim, 15
  • He was wounded by Israeli gunfire in the neck and back and doctors failed to save his life

JERUSALEM: The Palestinian Health Ministry said Israeli forces shot and killed a teenager during an operation in a town near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.
The ministry identified the slain teen Zaid Ghunaim, 15. It said he was wounded by Israeli gunfire in the neck and back and doctors failed to save his life.
The death raises to five the number of Palestinian teenagers killed during Israeli military operations in the West Bank in a month. Israeli-Palestinian violence has intensified in recent weeks with near-daily arrest raids in Palestinian-administered areas of the West Bank and tensions around a Jerusalem holy site sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
The official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, cited witnesses as saying Ghunaim came upon the soldiers in Al-Khader and tried to ran away but the troops fired at him. Online videos purportedly of the aftermath of the shooting show bloodstains near a white car parked in a passageway.
There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military, which has stepped up its operations in the West Bank in response to a series of deadly attacks inside Israel.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said Israeli forces “deliberately” shot at Ghunaim with the intention to kill him.
On Sunday, Israeli ultranationalists plan to march through the main Muslim thoroughfare of the Old City of Jerusalem. The compound houses Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. The hilltop site is also the holiest for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount.
The march is meant to celebrate Israel’s capture of east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel subsequently annexed the area in a step that is not internationally recognized. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

Iran protesters seek justice as building collapse toll rises

More than four days after the tower block’s collapse, rescue teams were recovering bodies from under slabs of cement. (AFP)
Updated 27 May 2022

Iran protesters seek justice as building collapse toll rises

  • A large section of the 10-story Metropol building crumbled on Monday, causing one of Iran’s deadliest such disasters in years
  • More than four days after the tower block’s collapse, rescue teams were still recovering bodies from under slabs of cement

TEHRAN: Hundreds of people took to the streets in southwestern Iran demanding justice after a tower block collapse killed 24 people, news outlets in the Islamic republic said on Friday.
A large section of the 10-story Metropol building that was under construction in the city of Abadan, in Khuzestan province, crumbled on Monday, causing one of Iran’s deadliest such disasters in years.

Images published by Fars news agency showed hundreds of residents marching along Abadan’s streets on Thursday night, mourning those who lost their lives by banging on traditional drums and hitting cymbals.
Some shouted “Death to incompetent officials” and hailed the “Martyrs of Metropol,” Fars said.
People also took to the streets of Khorramshahr city, in the same province, expressing their sympathy with the families of those who died and calling for “a decisive and serious” trial of those responsible, it added.
Similar protests were held on Wednesday night in Abadan, state TV had reported.
More than four days after the tower block’s collapse, rescue teams were still recovering bodies from under slabs of cement.

A video posted on Tasnim news agency’s website on Friday showed rescuers carrying a gurney with a body wrapped in a black bag.
Abadan governor Ehsan Abbaspour, cited by ISNA news agency, said the number of people killed in the disaster stood at 24, up from 19 previously.
Officials said 37 people were also injured, although most have since been discharged from hospital.
It remains unknown how many people may still be trapped under the rubble.

More than four days after the tower block’s collapse, rescue teams were recovering bodies from under slabs of cement. (AFP)
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had called for perpetrators to be prosecuted and punished, in a statement posted on his official website on Thursday.
The provincial judiciary said at least 10 people were arrested following the incident, including the mayor and two former mayors, accused of being “responsible” for the collapse, the Judiciary’s Mizan Online website reported.
An investigation has been opened into the cause of the disaster in Abadan, a city of 230,000 people, 660 kilometers (410 miles) southwest of Tehran.
First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber visited Abadan on Friday to “investigate the dimensions of the building collapse incident,” according to ISNA.
In a previous major disaster in Iran, 22 people, including 16 firefighters, died in a blaze that engulfed the capital’s 15-story Plasco shopping center in January 2017.

Iran summons Swiss envoy over US seizure of Iranian oil

The ministry called for an immediate release of the ship and its cargo. (Reuters)
Updated 27 May 2022

Iran summons Swiss envoy over US seizure of Iranian oil

  • The US seized Iranian oil from a Russian-operated ship near Greece

Iran on Friday summoned the envoy of Switzerland, which represents US interests in Tehran, to protest against the US seizure of Iranian oil from a Russian-operated ship near Greece, the foreign ministry said in a statement quoted by Iranian media.
The ministry called for the immediate release of the ship and its cargo, the IRNA state news agency quoted it as saying.
The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions on what it described as a Russian-backed oil smuggling and money laundering network for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.
A spokesperson for the US Department of Justice declined to comment on the oil seizure.
“The Islamic Republic expressed its deep concern over the US government’s continued violation of international laws and international maritime conventions,” IRNA and other media quoted the foreign ministry as saying.
A source at Greece’s shipping ministry told Reuters on Thursday that the US Department of Justice had “informed Greece that the cargo on the vessel is Iranian oil.”
It was unclear whether the cargo was impounded because it was Iranian oil or due to the sanctions on the tanker over its Russian links. Iran and Russia face separate US sanctions.
Three sources familiar with the matter told Reuters on Thursday that the US plans to send the cargo to the United States aboard another vessel.
The Iranian-flagged ship, the Pegas, was among five vessels designated by Washington on Feb. 22 — two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — for sanctions against Promsvyazbank, a bank viewed as critical to Russia’s defense sector.
IRNA reported on Wednesday that its foreign ministry summoned the charge d’affaires of Greece’s embassy in Tehran following the seizure of the cargo of a ship which was “under the banner of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Greek waters and he was informed of the strong objections” of Iran’s government.
IRNA quoted Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization as saying the tanker had sought refuge along the Greek coast after experiencing technical problems and poor weather, adding that the seizure of its cargo was “a clear example of piracy.”