‘Where will we go?’ Syrians fear threatened Turkish assault
Syrian Democratic Forces dig trenches on the outskirts of Manbij in preparation for an attack
Updated 23 July 2022
MANBIJ, Syria: Ghazwan Al-Atman thought he had found refuge in Manbij after years of displacement, but he now fears his family will be uprooted once again as a threatened Turkish onslaught looms over the Syrian town.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has repeatedly vowed to launch a new offensive in northern Syria in what he says is an operation to protect his country from Kurdish militias who have been waging a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.
Turkey has launched a string of offensives in Syria in the past six years, most recently in 2019 when it conducted a broad air and ground assault against Kurdish militias after former US president Donald Trump withdrew American troops.
“Our people are completely exhausted,” Atman said, standing in his empty shoe store in downtown Manbij, which lies just 30 kilometers (less than 20 miles) from Syria’s border with Turkey.
“We enjoyed safety and security here. Now, we don’t know where to go.”
The market where he set up shop is usually bustling with customers, but they have now been reduced to a trickle.
Atman said his family settled in Manbij in 2018 having already been displaced “four or five times.”
The 43-year-old built a house and established his business “from scratch,” but is now ready to flee again as he fears for the lives of his children.
“War has destroyed me... All we want is stability in this country,” he said.
The threat of a new assault has intensified, with Turkey saying Thursday it never seeks “permission for our military operations” despite failing to get the green light from Russia and Iran this week.
Turkish media said any potential operation is unlikely to take place before the end of August or early September.
Analysts have warned an attack on densely populated Manbij would cause mass displacement and suffering.
The people of Manbij have been busy stocking up on food in preparation.
Hussein Hamdoush said customers have been flocking to his grocery store to stockpile essentials like milk, rice and bulgur.
Hamdoush said he does not want to leave.
“Displacement means ruin,” he said. “Where will we go? I would rather die in my home.”
Food prices have shot up in the Kurdish-run town, residents say.
Umm Nidal, 48, said she feared displacement as much as she feared for her four children.
“We are facing an economic war rather than air strikes,” she said as she scanned supermarket shelves.
This is not the first time Ankara has threatened to attack Manbij, an Arab-majority town run by Kurdish fighters who expelled Daesh group militants in 2016.
Between 2016 and 2019, Ankara launched three military offensives it said were to root out the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the main component of the autonomous Kurds’ de facto army, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Analysts have told AFP that even without Moscow and Tehran’s stamp of approval, Erdogan could still launch a limited attack.
“Turkish threats are nothing new in Manbij, but the level of these threats ebbs and flows, and it has highly intensified lately,” said Sherfan Darwish, a spokesman for the SDF-affiliated Manbij Military Council.
The SDF has dug trenches on the outskirts of Manbij in readiness for a potential attack, AFP correspondents said.
“We have trained our forces... based on our experience fighting against IS, though the war against Turkish forces calls for new tactics,” Darwish said.
The SDF has reached out to Damascus for help in fending off a potential Turkish onslaught — as they have done in past campaigns.
Government and Kurdish forces have struggled to find common ground, because Damascus rejects Kurdish self-rule.
In the past few days, the regime has deployed reinforcements near Manbij, as part of a Russia-mediated agreement, to act as a buffer between Kurdish and Ankara-backed forces.
They have come bearing “heavy and high-quality weapons,” Darwish said.
Regime flags were visible on the front lines, while Manbij Military Council fighters were scattered farther back in small numbers, hiding from possible Turkish drone strikes in the shade of olive trees, an AFP correspondent said.
Syrian soldiers have trickled in over the past two days, setting up camp in nearby villages.
Hamdoush said he hopes the army will be able to protect Manbij, but others are skeptical.
“I wish we could have peace,” said Ali Abu Hassan, a 50-year-old Manbij resident. “But this (war) is an international game and we are the victims.”
Turkiye calls for US understanding ahead of possible Syria operation
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar: ‘The US asked us to re-evaluate; we emphasized that they should understand us’
Turkiye asked allied countries that have a military presence in Syria not to allow local militias to use their flags and uniforms
Updated 8 sec ago
ANKARA: Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar called on the United States on Thursday to show understanding over a possible new Turkish military operation in Syria, after Washington voiced its “strong opposition” to such a move. Turkiye has been threatening a new incursion into northern Syria for months, and stepped up preparations last month after a deadly bomb attack in Istanbul it blamed on a Kurdish militants. “The US asked us to re-evaluate. We conveyed to them our sensitivities and thoughts, and asked them to keep their promises. We emphasized that they should understand us,” Akar told reporters. Turkiye also asked allied countries that have a military presence in Syria not to allow local militias to use their flags and uniforms, Akar added. “We are reminding them that they should keep terrorists away from themselves and eventually they should cut their ties with terrorist organizations,” he said. Turkiye sees the Kurdish YPG militia, the leading presence in the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as the Syrian wing of the PKK militant group and labels both of them as terrorist organizations. The PKK is also considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. The PKK and SDF have denied involvement in the Nov. 13 bombing of a busy pedestrian avenue in Istanbul. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday told his Turkish counterpart of his “strong opposition” to a new Turkish military operation in Syria and voiced concern over the escalating situation in the county.
Iran’s World Cup team gets tepid welcome home, amid protests
The players returned from Qatar late Wednesday, a day after their 1-0 loss
Anti-government protesters, considering the team a symbol of Iran's clerical rulers, had celebrated the loss in some Iranian cities with fireworks and cheers
Updated 01 December 2022
BAGHDAD: Iran’s national soccer team received a subdued welcome home after their World Cup defeat against the United States, a match played against the backdrop of ongoing anti-government protests in Iran.
One Iranian man was shot dead celebrating the American victory.
The players returned from Qatar late Wednesday, a day after their 1-0 loss. Anti-government protesters, considering the team a symbol of Iran’s clerical rulers, had celebrated the loss in some Iranian cities with fireworks and cheers.
One man was shot dead by Iranian security forces in northwest Iran for honking his car horn in support of the US victory, the Oslo-based rights monitor Iran Human Rights reported on Thursday.
Iran’s treatment of the players will likely be scrutinized because they refrained from singing the Islamic Republic’s national anthem during their opening World Cup match. Many considered the move a show of solidarity with the protests. The team did sang the anthem in subsequent matches.
A few dozen fans greeted the national team’s return at Tehran’s international airport late Wednesday, with people cheering and waving the Iranian flag.
Yet the players have faced biting criticism from anti-government protesters who have blamed the team for not being more vocal about the security force’s violent put down of the demonstrations. Human rights groups say over 400 protesters have been killed in the crackdown, with thousands more arrested.
An image of players bowing in the presence of President Ebrahim Raisi before setting off to the tournament was widely criticized by activists on social media. A hard-line cleric, Raisi has likened protesters to “flies” and dismissed the movement as a foreign plot, without offering any proof.
Mehran Samak, 27, was shot dead after honking his car in support of the US win after Tuesday’s match in the city of Bandar Anzali in northwest Iran. Oslo-based Iran Human Rights reported he was “shot in the head by state forces when he went out to celebrate the Islamic Republic’s loss.”
Samak is also a childhood friend of Iranian midfielder Saeed Ezatollahi, who mourned his death on his social media. But again he received criticism from activists for not explicitly stating Samak was killed by government forces.
Many Iranian celebrities have however been targeted by the government with arrest or other measures for speaking out on behalf of the protesters.
Iranian officials acknowledged but downplayed compatriots celebrating the US win. Gen. Hossein Salami, chief of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, said those who had celebrated were doing so on “behalf of the enemies,” adding “it is not important to us.” His comments appeared in the semi-official Tasnim news agency.
A former culture minister and editor-in-chief of the Ettelaat newspaper, Abbas Salehi, who has close ties with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted: “Iran’s defeat in the game against America was bitter, but even more bitter was the happiness of some people.”
Iran was eliminated from the tournament in Qatar following the loss to the US on Tuesday that saw the players scrambling to score a goal in the last remaining minutes of the game. Striker Sardar Azmoun told reporters he was not satisfied with his performance in the last match.
It was the sixth time Iran has participated in the World Cup.
Anti-government protests first erupted in September, following the death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police in the capital, Tehran. The protests quickly grew into the most serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since its establishment in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Two killed in Israeli West Bank raid – Palestinian health ministry
Israeli media: The two men killed were commanders in the Islamic Jihad militant group
The military has been conducting months of arrest raids in the West Bank
Updated 01 December 2022
JERUSALEM: Two Palestinians were killed Thursday during an Israeli military raid in a militant stronghold in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.
Reports by Israeli media said the two men killed were commanders in the Islamic Jihad militant group. The Palestinian Health Ministry identified the men as Naeem Jamal Zubaidi, 27, and Mohammad Ayman Saadi, 26, but did not confirm whether they were militants.
According to the reports, the military was conducting an arrest raid in the city of Jenin and was met by gunfire. The military responded, killing the two men.
The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The military has been conducting months of arrest raids in the West Bank, prompted by a spate of Palestinian attacks against Israelis in the spring that killed 19 people. The military says the raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart future attacks, but the Palestinians say they entrench Israel’s open-ended occupation and undermine their own security forces.
The raids have ratcheted up tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, triggering another wave of Palestinian attacks in recent weeks that have killed an additional eight people.
More than 130 Palestinians have been killed this year, making 2022 the deadliest since 2006. The Israeli military says many of those killed have been militants but local youths protesting the incursions as well as others not involved in the violence have also been killed.
Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want those territories for their hoped-for future state. Substantive peace talks were last held more than a decade ago, and with Israel headed toward what’s likely to be its most right-wing government ever, there appears to be no prospect for a negotiated solution in the near future.
Daesh group announces death of chief, names replacement
Says leader Abu Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi has been killed in battle
Announces a replacement to head up its remaining sleeper cells
Updated 01 December 2022
The Daesh militant group said Wednesday that its leader Abu Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi has been killed in battle and announced a replacement to head up its remaining sleeper cells.
A spokesman for Daesh said Hashimi, an Iraqi, was killed "in combat with enemies of God", without elaborating on the date or circumstances of his death.
The US military's Central Command (CENTCOM) said Hashimi had been killed in an operation carried out by rebels of the Free Syrian Army in Daraa province in southern Syria in mid-October.
Daraa province is mostly controlled by Syrian government forces and rebels who have reached understandings with the regime. In mid-October, Damascus said it had launched a joint operation against Daesh with former rebels in the south of the province.
Using an alternative acronym for Daesh, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said: "We welcome the announcement that another leader from Daesh is no longer walking in the face of the Earth."
Speaking in an audio message, the Daesh spokesman said Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi had been named as the group's new leader.
After a meteoric rise in Iraq and Syria in 2014 that saw it conquer vast swathes of territory, Daesh saw its self-proclaimed "caliphate" collapse under a wave of offensives.
The extremist group's austere and terror-ridden rule was marked by beheadings and shootings.
It was defeated in Iraq in 2017 and in Syria two years later, but sleeper cells still carry out attacks in both countries.
The group or its branches have also claimed attacks elsewhere this year, including in Afghanistan, Iran and Israel.
The spokesman did not provide details on the new leader, but said he was a "veteran" jihadist and called on all groups loyal to Daesh to pledge their allegiance to its fourth leader.
Daesh's previous chief, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi, was killed in February this year in a US raid in Idlib province in northern Syria.
His predecessor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed, also in Idlib, in October 2019.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre would not comment on any US involvement in the operation that led to Hashimi's death.
"We are pleased to see the removal of Daesh leaders in such quick succession," she told reporters "The United States remains committed to countering the global threat from Daesh and stands ready to work with international partners."
The Daesh leadership have suffered repeated blows from various quarters this year.
In October, US forces killed a "senior" Daesh member in a pre-dawn raid in northeastern Syria, CENTCOM said at the time.
The US leads a military coalition battling Daesh in Syria.
The raid targeted "Rakkan Wahid al-Shammari, an Daesh official known to facilitate the smuggling of weapons and fighters", CENTCOM said.
It said a later air strike had killed two other senior Daesh members.
In July, the Pentagon said it had killed Syria's top Daesh jihadist in a drone strike in the north of the country.
US Central Command said he had been "one of the top five" Daesh leaders.
Turkey said in September security forces had arrested a "senior executive" of Daesh known as Abu Zeyd, whose real name was Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaidai.
Turkish media said there were some indications Sumaidai might have been the Daesh leader.
Thousands of suspected militants and their relatives are still detained in camps in Syria and prisons in Iraq.
In January, Daesh launched a major attack on a prison housing fellow jihadists in northeastern Syria, in a jailbreak attempt that triggered a week of deadly clashes.
Hundreds of Daesh prisoners, including senior leaders, were thought to have escaped, with some crossing to neighbouring Turkey or Turkish-held territory in northern Syria, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Pentagon warned Tuesday that a threatened Turkish ground operation against Kurdish targets in Syria would "severely jeopardise" gains made in the war against Daesh.
Our work in Syria is motivated purely by the humanitarian imperative, Ambassador Mona Juul of Norway tells Arab News
Norway is “working tirelessly” to renew the cross-border aid mechanism for Syria, says country’s permanent representative to UN
Along with Ireland, Norway is the current penholder of the Syrian humanitarian file at the Security Council
Updated 01 December 2022
NEW YORK CITY: While the world’s media may have stopped counting the dead and injured in the Syrian conflict, the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure and the second largest number of internally displaced people in the world both drive home the point that the war is far from over.
Syria continues to endure one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with 90 percent of the population living below the poverty line. According to the World Food Program, some 14.6 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance to survive — an increase of 1.2 million compared to last year.
The collapsing economy coupled with a looming global food shortage as a consequence of the war in Ukraine have added new layers of complexity to the situation. Now, the WFP warns, the threat of famine is knocking at Syria’s door.
“We are extremely worried,” Mona Juul, Norway’s permanent representative to the UN, told Arab News in an exclusive interview in New York.
“We have been worried for many years. But now the situation seems to be continuously deteriorating. And of course, with winter coming up, that adds to the suffering of millions and millions of Syrian people that are in dire need, in acute need, of humanitarian assistance.
“This is pretty much across the whole country. But of course, we are also very concerned about the situation in the northwest, outside the government-controlled area.”
Especially alarming is the condition of 4.4 million people in the opposition-held northwest of the country who rely on foreign aid to survive and who are now unsure whether there will be sufficient bread on the table come January.
That is when an increasingly fragile UN cross-border mechanism for delivering aid to Syria is set to expire and its renewal is up for a vote at the UN Security Council. Diplomats fear the regime’s ally Russia will use its veto to close the last remaining UN-facilitated aid gateway into Syria — Bab Al-Hawa on the Turkish border.
As the co-penholder of Syria’s humanitarian file in the Security Council, Norway, together with Ireland, is responsible for following up on the humanitarian situation in Syria by drafting resolutions, requesting emergency meetings, and organizing mission visits.
The cross-border mechanism was created in 2014 to allow for the delivery of UN aid directly to opposition-held areas of Syria.
International humanitarian law requires that all aid deliveries go through the host government. However, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s tactic of treating humanitarian supplies as a weapon of war prompted the UNSC to approve the use of four aid crossings — from Jordan, Iraq, and two from Turkiye.
Until Dec. 2019, the UNSC renewed the mandate for these crossings without obstruction. However, in Jan. 2020, Russia used its veto to force the closure of all but one crossing: Bab Al-Hawa.
If this last remaining crossing is closed, humanitarian agencies fear an alternative would be near impossible to find.
“And that’s why we are working tirelessly to make sure that we can extend the mandate of the UN Security Council resolution that allows cross-border humanitarian assistance at Bab Al-Hawa,” said Juul.
Since 2020, the renewal has become the subject of much delicate negotiations, at a time when diplomatic channels between Russia and the US have been all but shut, impacting every issue on the UNSC agenda.
“It is no secret that every time we have to renew this cross-border mechanism, the starting point is that at least one member of the Security Council does not want to have this resolution and this mechanism,” said Juul. “That has been the starting point since the mechanism was established back in 2014.”
Moscow argues the international aid operation violates Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Since Syria has been “liberated,” it says all aid destined for the north should go via the capital, Damascus.
Although internal shipments from Damascus to opposition-held areas would provide a welcome addition to the cross-border lifeline, Juul says they are no substitute. Even if deployed regularly, such convoys could not replicate the size and scope of cross-border operations.
Although the UN says its internal aid delivery operations are conducted in a “transparent and principled” manner, aid agencies say assistance delivered to Damascus does not reach areas that oppose the Assad regime.
They accuse the government of deliberately withholding basic goods and services, including food and clean water, from millions of Syrians as a tool of war.
A recent investigation into the UN’s procurement operations in Syria, conducted by the Syrian Legal Development Program and the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks, found around 50 percent of UN procurement involves actors linked to the regime, many of them implicated in rights violations and war crimes.
Asked to comment on the report’s findings, Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN secretary-general, told Arab News the UN is “well aware of the challenges” posed by working in such contexts.
He said the UN is engaging with the authors of the report, and that UN teams in Syria continue “to try to improve” their methods.
“The other thing I would say is that there is an increase in terms of the value of items that are procured outside of Syria, but there are items that can only be procured in-country, (such as) telephones, fuel, and so on.
• 4.1m People in northwestern Syria in need of humanitarian assistance.
• 80% Syrians receiving cross-border aid who are women and children.
•* 1/3 Proportion of children under the age of 5 who are undernourished.
• 800 Average number of trucks delivering supplies via Turkiye per month.
“It is also important to note that we operate in Syria under the same rules that we operate in every country, in terms of currency exchange and vendors.
“So we are well aware of the challenges posed by us working in many countries, including Syria, and I think the general effort has been one of trying continuously to improve how we work and how we manage the global taxpayers’ money.”
For her part, Juul underscored her country’s advocacy for Syria is anchored in purely humanitarian values. “Our very, very strong argument is that this is not about aiding the opposition or helping the other side and not the government,” she said.
“We are (motivated) purely by the humanitarian imperative to help the people. It’s the people of Syria that we care about and that goes back to a very strong humanitarian tradition in Norway. We are almost always there when there is a humanitarian crisis and we want to help.”
That long tradition was at the heart of Norway’s message when it campaigned for a seat at the Security Council two years ago, and also expressed its willingness to take up the Syrian file.
“We have always had a pretty large portion of our foreign assistance purely for humanitarian work,” said Juul.
“So for us, going into the council, bringing that tradition with us, having for a long time been one of the largest humanitarian contributors to Syria, not only per capita, but in real terms, and having seen the merit of the cross-border operation, we were very much willing to take up that difficult file and Ireland the same.”
Long before it became a wealthy oil and gas producer, Norway had at one time been an aid recipient, and is no stranger to invasion, war and displacement.
“A third of the Norwegian population migrated to America to find livelihoods because we didn’t find it at home. Norway is a very cold country. It’s difficult to survive during winter if you’re poor. So we migrated,” said Juul.
“And then we were occupied by the Germans for five years. We were on the other, aid recipient end. We received Marshall aid from America. We know what it’s like to need aid. And then, of course, we now have the resources to contribute.
“So, there is this strong solidarity with the underdogs, those who are suffering. This is what drives us. We are not being naive about the political complexity in Syria, but we really see no alternative to continuing with the cross-border operation.”
In the run-up to the last renewal vote in July, intensive negotiations went on behind closed doors. Juul and her Irish counterpart at that time, Geraldine Nason Byrne, were seen rushing between UN chambers trying to rally Security Council members to reauthorize Bab Al-Hawa.
Securing the coming renewal vote is unlikely to be any easier.
“One needs to work very hard in order to get it renewed, every time,” Juul told Arab News. “This has been a continuous challenge for the Security Council to be able to uphold this crucial mechanism.”
Although Norway and Ireland’s Security Council tenure is coming to a close by the year’s end, Juul vowed to continue to “do as much as possible to prepare the ground for extension.”
She draws hope from the successful renewal they achieved in July.
“We had to go through a veto. It was really tough negotiations mainly between us and the Russians. But we managed in the end to find — I will not even call it a compromise — we found a way to agree that we extend it to January, but with a very clear intention that there will be another extension in six months.”
She added: “That is what diplomacy is all about. I dare say it is what diplomacy is all about when the situation is as it is.
“We cannot stop relating to those we disagree with on other files. Norway has been very clear on condemning Russia’s invasion and the war on Ukraine. But, at the same time, we see that it’s very important that the Security Council is not paralyzed on all the other files.
“And I think, so far, the council has proven that we have been able to do that.”
She added: “We also worked very much together with the other elected members. And we feel that this is an elected-member resolution. We have 100 percent support from all the elected members. And as we say, when the E10 agrees, we are the sixth veto power in the council.”