How one Aleppo neighborhood continues to defy siege of Syria’s Assad

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Updated 25 January 2023

How one Aleppo neighborhood continues to defy siege of Syria’s Assad

  • Kurdish-majority Sheikh Maksoud has been in the news since a five-story residential building collapsed there on Jan. 22
  • Syrian army’s Fourth Division has blocked vital deliveries of food, fuel and medicine to the enclave since March 2022

ALEPPO, Syria: At 2:30 a.m. on January 22, Sheikh Maksoud, a Kurdish-majority neighborhood in Syria’s Aleppo, was struck by tragedy. A five-story residential building collapsed, burying dozens of residents under a mountain of rubble.

After round-the-clock rescue efforts, 16 bodies were recovered and two survivors were brought to the neighborhood’s hospital for treatment. According to state media, the structure’s foundations had been weakened by water leakage.

For residents of Sheikh Maksoud, this is just the latest in a litany of disasters as the neighborhood struggles to survive under a crushing siege imposed by opposition and regime groups alike.

Over the past decade, Aleppo has been transformed from a once-thriving trade, travel and cultural hub into a battleground, leaving much of the city in ruins.

Slowly, as the frontline moved elsewhere, Syria’s second-biggest city began to rebuild. However, Sheikh Maksoud, an autonomous enclave on the northwestern edge of the city, continues to fight for its life.




A family of internally displaced persons cooks a meal in Serdem Camp in Shahba, located between Afrin and Aleppo. AN Photo by Ali Ali

With half of the 2-square-kilometer neighborhood left destroyed after years of fighting between opposition groups and the neighborhood’s self-defense militias, the people of Sheikh Maksoud have done their best to continue living life as normal.

Over the past year, one force has been particularly brutal in depriving the neighborhood’s residents of everything from medicine to fuel and even food — the regime’s Iran-backed Fourth Division.

With winter biting, residents are struggling to cope.

“We’ve been burning trash because there is no fuel. It gave me a chest infection. I’ve been to the hospital twice this week,” said one resident of Sheikh Maksoud when Arab News visited the neighborhood in December.

Merai Sibli, a member of the General Council of Sheikh Maksoud and Ashrafiyah, said fuel had not reached the neighborhood for more than 50 days, with residents often receiving an hour or less of electricity per day as their private generators run empty.

“We can’t get fuel. Children and the elderly can’t cope with the cold,” said Sibli. “They don’t even allow medicine to pass here. What is allowed to pass is very expensive. Six months ago, they cut off our flour, and all bakeries were closed for nearly 20 days.”

According to Sibli, the Fourth Division demands up to SYP2.5 million (more than $380) for every fuel truck which enters the neighborhood — a heavy price, considering the average monthly salary in Syria is just SYP150,000 (approximately $23).

“Soon our workshops and tailors will shut down because they are without electricity, and in the end, all of our youth will be out of work and forced to sit at home in the dark.”

The Fourth Division has roots going back to the 1980s, when Hafez Assad’s brother Rifaat fled the country and his paramilitary group, Defense Companies, dissolved into several militia groups.

The Fourth Division would eventually form out of these groups, and was later used to crush uprisings in Deraa, Baniyas, Idlib and Homs from the outset of the Syrian crisis. A Human Rights Watch Report from 2011 documents the Fourth Division’s participation in several abuses, including arbitrary detentions and the killing of protesters.

The de facto commander of the division is Maher Assad, the younger brother of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. According to an investigation by the Lebanese Al-Modon newspaper, the Fourth Division has been enjoying Iranian support — material, financial and advisory — since the start of Iran’s intervention in the Syrian civil war.

FASTFACTS

• Sheikh Maksoud is under the control of the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

• Many buildings in Aleppo were destroyed or damaged during Syria’s 11-year conflict.

• Aleppo is Syria’s second largest city and was its commercial center before its destruction.

Early on in the conflict, the Syrian military was overwhelmed by defections and internal conflict, an effect from which the Fourth Division was not spared. As with many other units in the Syrian army, the Fourth Division was forced to rely on Iranian militias to bolster its strength.

The Fourth Division’s siege is not limited to Sheikh Maksoud. It extends to the city’s northern countryside, in the Shahba region, between Afrin and Aleppo. Shahba includes the town of Tel Rifaat (with a population of approximately 18,500, of which 15,700 are internally displaced persons, or IDPs) and five camps, which are all home to thousands of IDPs from the Afrin region.

At some regime checkpoints in Shahba, photos of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are displayed next to photos of Bashar and Hafez Assad.

“No one is joining the Syrian military anymore. Their soldiers are all Iranian mercenaries. When those mercenaries come here, their aim is to take everything and share it with the state,” Muhammad Hanan, the co-chair of the Tel Rifaat district, told Arab News.

Hanan explained that the Iranian militia presence in the Shahba region serves mainly to protect the Shiite majority towns of Nubl and Zahraa, between Tel Rifaat and Aleppo. 

From 2013 to 2016, the region was controlled by opposition groups, which were ousted by the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units, or YPG. At that time, Syrian state military presence was mainly limited to small towns and villages in the area.




The Iran-backed Fourth Division’s siege is not limited to Sheikh Maksoud but extends to the Shahba area. AN Photo by Ali Ali

However, after the Turkish invasion of Afrin in 2018, government forces — and consequently, Iranian mercenaries — began to grow in number on the pretext of protecting the region from Turkish-backed opposition groups.

“In the end, they are not defending anything. Until now, the Syrian state takes every opportunity to weaken us and take over all of Shahba,” Hanan said.

Hanan and other local officials told Arab News that regime checkpoints block vital aid from the UN and other NGOs from reaching the region.

“The regime’s Fourth Division has closed the roads. If you want to bring something from outside, like fuel or propane, you have to give them a cut,” Dr. Azad Resho, administrator of Avrin Hospital in Shahba, told Arab News.

“It’s the same with the medicine. It has to come from the regime side. When international health organizations give aid to Syria, because the Syrian regime has status, all aid has to come through the regime.

“There are also international forces here, like Russia and Iran. It is all a political game. Even if the regime were to give aid, it must be in the interests of these forces. Because of this, we have become the victims of politics.”

Hassan, an administrator in the Shahba branch of the Kurdish Red Crescent, told Arab News: “The situation is terrible. There is no medicine at all. We just deal with emergency cases. We have no dermatologists, no nephrologists, and we have no equipment such as MRI machines.

“For patients with these needs, we have to send them to Aleppo. That has its own problems; the regime often prevents these people from entering (the city).”




A file photo from January 2017 shows Syrians walking past a poster of President Bashar Assad in Aleppo’s Saadallah Al-Jabiri Square. AFP

Under the suffocating embargo of Sheikh Maksoud and the Shahba region, however, there is one commodity that the Fourth Division appears happy to allow into these areas — drugs.

Last year, a New York Times investigation discovered that the Fourth Division was responsible for the production and distribution of Captagon pills and crystal meth across Syria, with the division moving the drugs to border crossings and port cities.

“Just recently, we confiscated and burned 124 kg of hashish. These 124 kg were brought in by the Syrian regime — by the Fourth Division, Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups. They attempted to bring it in containers of oil,” Qehreman, an official in the Internal Security Forces of Sheikh Maksoud, told Arab News.

“They want to bring some things in, especially narcotic pills, with their members, and spread them among the people.”

Sibli said that despite the siege, “our people are very resilient.”

“Does the regime want us to lose and return us to the year 2007? They insist we must all be under one flag, one language and one leader.

“Because we in Sheikh Maksoud want coexistence and brotherhood of the peoples, the regime doesn’t accept us. But of course, people who have found their freedom will never return to the regime’s embrace.”


Israeli guards kill ‘armed’ Palestinian near West Bank settlement

Updated 29 January 2023

Israeli guards kill ‘armed’ Palestinian near West Bank settlement

RAMALLAH: Israeli guards killed a Palestinian near a settlement in the occupied West Bank, Palestinian health officials said Sunday, with the Israeli military alleging he was armed.
Karam Ali Ahmad Salman, 18, was shot dead by “the Israeli occupation near the settlement of ‘Kedumim’,” the Palestinian health ministry reported.
Israel’s army said a “civilian security team” shot a person “armed with a handgun” near the settlement in the northern West Bank.
The Palestinian health ministry reported that Kedumim was built on privately-owned Palestinian land.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 Six-Day War and settlements are regarded as illegal under international law, a charge Israel disputes.
Salman is one of at least 32 Palestinians killed in the West Bank this month, including civilians and militants, according to an AFP tally based on official sources.
A Palestinian gunman killed seven people Friday outside a synagogue in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
In response to the deadly attack, the Israeli government announced a slew of measures including “steps to strengthen settlements.”
The latest violence follows a surge in killings last year.
At least 26 Israelis and 200 Palestinians were killed across Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2022, the majority in the West Bank, according to AFP figures.


Sweden tells citizens to avoid crowds in Turkiye after Qur'an burning

Updated 28 January 2023

Sweden tells citizens to avoid crowds in Turkiye after Qur'an burning

  • Last week Turkiye suspended talks with Sweden and Finland on their applications to join NATO
  • "Swedes in Turkiye are asked to stay updated on the development of events and to avoid large gatherings and demonstrations," the foreign ministry said

STOCKHOLM: Sweden’s foreign ministry on Saturday warned Swedes in Turkiye to avoid crowds and demonstrations following protests there over the burning of the Qur’an by a far-right politician in Stockholm last week.
Last week Turkiye suspended talks with Sweden and Finland on their applications to join NATO after the protest at which Rasmus Paludan, leader of the Danish far-right political party Hard Line, burned a copy of the Qur’an outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm.
Paludan’s actions have led to demonstrations in a number of Muslim countries as well as in Turkiye.
“Swedes in Turkiye are asked to stay updated on the development of events and to avoid large gatherings and demonstrations,” the foreign ministry said on its advice page for Swedes abroad.
“Continued demonstrations can be expected outside the embassy in Ankara and the consulate general in Istanbul in the coming days.”
After Paludan’s protest, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said he supported freedom of speech.
“But what is legal is not necessarily appropriate. Burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act,” Kristersson said on Twitter.
Sweden and Finland applied last year to join NATO following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
They need support from all 30 members of the Alliance. Turkiye has said Sweden in particular must first take a clearer stance against what it sees as terrorists, mainly Kurdish militants and a group it blames for a 2016 coup attempt, in order for it to back NATO membership for the two Nordic countries.


New gun attack in east Jerusalem after synagogue mass shooting

Updated 29 January 2023

New gun attack in east Jerusalem after synagogue mass shooting

  • Police said the suspect was “neutralized” following the latest gun attack in the Silwan neighborhood
  • Israel’s Magen David Adom emergency response service identified the victims as two men, aged 47 and 23

JERUSALEM: An assailant shot and wounded two people in east Jerusalem on Saturday, Israeli medics said, hours after a Palestinian gunman killed seven outside a synagogue in one of the deadliest such attacks in years.
Police said the suspect was “neutralized” following the latest gun attack in the Silwan neighborhood, just outside Jerusalem’s old, walled city.
Israel’s Magen David Adom emergency response service identified the victims as two men, aged 47 and 23, both with “gunshot wounds to their upper body.” It did not identify those involved.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday that Israel's response to an attack by a Palestinian gunman attack that killed seven people on the outskirts of Jerusalem will be "strong, swift and precise" .
Netanyahu made the statement as he convened his security cabinet over Friday's attack. 
Police had earlier announced 42 arrests in connection with Friday’s synagogue attack.
The mass shooting unfolded as a 21-year-old resident of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem drove up to the synagogue in the Neve Yaakov neighborhood and opened fire during the Jewish Sabbath.
The bloodshed, which unfolded on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked another dramatic escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It came a day after one of the deadliest army raids in the occupied West Bank in roughly two decades, as well as rocket fire from militants in the Gaza Strip and Israeli retaliatory air strikes.
There have widespread calls to de-escalate the spiralling violence, but tensions are rising.
Crowds shouted “Death to Arabs” as Netanyahu toured the scene of the synagogue attack late Friday.
Palestinians also held spontaneous rallies to celebrate the killings, in Gaza and across the West Bank, including in Ramallah where large crowds swarmed the streets chanting and waving Palestinian flags.
Several Arab nations that have ties with Israel-- including Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates — condemned the synagogue shooting.
The Lebanese group Hezbollah, one of Israel’s most prominent foes, praised the attack as “heroic,” voicing “absolute support for all the steps taken by the Palestinian resistance factions.”

The gunman at the synagogue was shot dead by police during a shootout that followed a brief car chase after the attack.
There has been no indication that he had prior involvement in militant activity or was a member of an established Palestinian armed group.
“The Jerusalem District Police and border police fighters arrested 42 suspects — some of them from the terrorist’s (immediate) family, relatives and (neighbors),” a police statement said.
“The police will thoroughly examine the connection between each of the arrested suspects and the terrorist who carried out the attack, as well as the extent of their knowledge and/or involvement,” it added.
In a separate statement, police said the force had been placed on the “highest level” of alert following the attack.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem following the 1967 Six-Day War. Palestinians claim the area as the capital of their future state.
Israel’s police chief Kobi Shabtai called the shooting “one of the worst attacks (Israel) has encountered in recent years.”

Nine people had been killed Thursday in what Israel described as a “counter-terrorism” operation in the Jenin refugee camp.
It was one of the deadliest Israeli army raids in the occupied West Bank since the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, of 2000 to 2005.
Israel said Islamic Jihad operatives were the target.
Islamic Jihad and Hamas both vowed to retaliate, later firing several rockets at Israeli territory.
Most of the rockets were intercepted by Israeli air defenses. The military responded with strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza.
There were no injuries reported on either side, but Gaza’s armed groups vowed further action.
After the synagogue shooting, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said the attack proved “the resistance knows how to find the appropriate response” to Israeli “crimes.”
Washington had announced Thursday that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would travel next week to Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he would push for an “end to the cycle of violence.”
A US State Department spokesman confirmed on Friday that the visit would go ahead and said Blinken would discuss “steps to be taken to de-escalate tensions.”
At least 26 Israelis and 200 Palestinians were killed across Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2022, the majority in the West Bank, according to an AFP tally from official sources.

(With AFP and Reuters)

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Seven killed in synagogue attack as West Bank violence spirals

Updated 28 January 2023

Seven killed in synagogue attack as West Bank violence spirals

  • Gunman identified as a 21-year-old Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem who appeared to have acted alone
  • Attack comes amid escalating violence in occupied West Bank, including the shooting of 3 Palestinians by an Israeli land-grabber in Nablus

JERUSALEM: A Palestinian gunman opened fire outside an east Jerusalem synagogue Friday night, killing seven people, including a 70-year-old woman, and wounding three others before he was shot and killed by police, officials said. It was the deadliest attack on Israelis in years and raised the likelihood of more bloodshed.
The attack, which occurred as residents were observing the Jewish sabbath, came a day after an Israeli military raid killed nine people in the West Bank. The shooting set off celebrations in both the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where people fired guns into the air, honked horns and distributed sweets.
The burst of violence, which also included a rocket barrage from Gaza and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes, has posed an early challenge for Israel’s new government, which is dominated by ultranationalists who have pushed for a hard line against Palestinian violence. It also cast a cloud over a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the region Sunday.
Addressing reporters at Israel’s national police headquarters, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had held a security assessment and decided on “immediate actions.” He said he would convene his Security Cabinet on Saturday night, after the end of the sabbath, to discuss a further response.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) visits the site of an attack in a settler neighborhood of Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem on Jan. 27, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP) 

Netanyahu declined to elaborate but said Israel would act with “determination and composure.” He called on the public not to take the law into their own hands.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the US strongly condemned the attack and was “shocked and saddened by the loss of life,” noting it came on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
US officials said later Friday that President Joe Biden spoke with Netanyahu to offer US support to the government and people of Israel, calling the shootings “an attack against the civilized world.” “The President stressed the iron-clad US commitment to Israel’s security,” the White House said of the call.
Israeli police said the shootings occurred in Neve Yaakov, a neighborhood with a large ultra-Orthodox population, and that the gunman fled in a car. Police said they chased after him and after an exchange of fire, killed him.
Jerusalem police chief Doron Turjeman confirmed seven deaths, in addition to the shooter, and said three people were wounded.
Police identified the attacker as a 21-year-old east Jerusalem resident who apparently acted alone. Turjeman promised an “aggressive and significant” effort to track down anyone who helped him.
Police also released a photo of the pistol it said was used by the attacker.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant huddled with Israel’s military chief and other top security officials and instructed them to assist police and strengthen defenses near Jerusalem and for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
“Israel’s defense establishment will operate decisively and forcefully against terror and will reach anyone involved in the attack,” Gallant said.
Israel’s MADA rescue service said the dead victims were five men and two women, including several who were 60 or older. Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital said a 15-year-old boy was recovering from surgery.

The attack was the deadliest on Israelis since a 2008 shooting killed eight people in a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem, according to the Foreign Ministry. Given the location and timing, it threatened to trigger a tough response from Israel.
Overnight Thursday, Gaza militants fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel, with all of them either intercepted or landing in open areas. Israel responded with airstrikes on targets in Gaza. No casualties were reported, and calm had appeared to be taking hold before Friday night’s shooting.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. In Gaza, Hazem Qassem, spokesman for the ruling Hamas militant group, said the attack was “a revenge and natural response” to the deadly military raid Thursday.
At several locations across the Gaza Strip, dozens of Palestinians gathered in spontaneous demonstrations to celebrate the Jerusalem attack, with some coming out of dessert shops with large trays of sweets to distribute.
In downtown Gaza City, celebratory gunfire could be heard, as cars honked and calls of “God is great!” wafted from mosque loudspeakers. In various West Bank towns, Palestinians launched fireworks.
The attack escalated tensions that were already heightened following Thursday’s raid in the town of Jenin, where nine people, including at least seven militants and a 61-year-old woman, were killed. It was the deadliest single raid in the West Bank in two decades. A 10th Palestinian was killed in separate fighting near Jerusalem.
Angry Palestinians marched Friday as they buried the last of those killed a day earlier.
Scuffles between Israeli forces and Palestinian protesters erupted after the funeral for a 22-year-old Palestinian north of Jerusalem and elsewhere in the occupied West Bank, but calm prevailed in the contested capital and in the blockaded Gaza Strip for most of the day.

That suddenly dissolved with the east Jerusalem shooting, described as “horrific and heartbreaking” by Yair Lapid, the opposition leader and former prime minister.
Neve Yaakov is a religious Jewish settlement that Israel considers to be a neighborhood of its capital. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its undivided capital, while the Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as a capital of their future state.
Blinken’s trip will probably now focus heavily on lowering tensions. He is likely to discuss the underlying causes of the conflict, the agenda of Israel’s new far-right government and the Palestinian Authority’s decision to halt security coordination with Israel in retaliation for the raid.
The Biden administration has been deeply engaged with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in recent days, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, underscoring the “urgent need here for all parties to deescalate to prevent the further loss of civilian life and to work together to improve the security situation in the West Bank.”
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller skirmishes since the militant group seized power in Gaza from rival forces in 2007.
Tensions have soared since Israel stepped up raids in the West Bank last spring, following a series of Palestinian attacks.
Nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 2022, making it the deadliest year in those territories since 2004, according to leading Israeli rights group B’Tselem. Last year, 30 people were killed in Palestinian attacks against Israelis.
So far this year, 30 Palestinians have been killed, according to a count by The Associated Press.
Israel says most of the dead were militants. But youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in the confrontations also have been killed.
Israel says its raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart attacks. The Palestinians say they further entrench Israel’s 55-year, open-ended occupation of the West Bank, captured along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war.


Protests against Qur’an burning held across the Middle East

Updated 27 January 2023

Protests against Qur’an burning held across the Middle East

  • The protests in countries including Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon ended with people dispersing peacefully
  • Swedish officials have stressed that freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Swedish Constitution

BEIRUT: Protests were held Friday in several predominantly Muslim countries to denounce the recent desecration of Islam’s holy book by far-right activists in Sweden and the Netherlands.
The protests in countries including Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon ended with people dispersing peacefully. In Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad, police officers stopped some demonstrators trying to march toward the Swedish Embassy.
About 12,000 Islamists from the Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party rallied in Lahore, the capital of the eastern Punjab province to denounce the desecration of the Qur’an in the two European countries. In his speech to the demonstrators, Saad Rizvi, the head of the TLP, asked the government to lodge a strong protest with Sweden and the Netherlands so that such incidents don’t happen again.
Similar rallies were also held in the southern city of Karachi and in the northwest.
Friday’s rallies dispersed peacefully. However, Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan in recent years has held violent rallies over the publication of caricatures of Islam’s prophet in France and elsewhere in the world.
In the Iranian capital of Tehran, hundreds of people marched after Friday prayers during which they burned a Swedish flag.
In Beirut, about 200 angry protesters burned the flags of Sweden and the Netherlands outside the blue-domed Mohammed Al-Amin mosque at Beirut’s central Martyrs Square.
Earlier this month, Rasmus Paludan, a far-right activist from Denmark, received permission from police to stage a protest outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm where he burned the Qur’an.
Days later, Edwin Wagensveld, Dutch leader of the far-right Pegida movement in the Netherlands, tore pages out of a copy of the Qur’an near the Dutch Parliament and stomped on them.
The moves angered millions of Muslims around the world and triggered protests.
On Friday, Paludan, who holds both Danish and Swedish citizenship, told Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet that he would replicate the protest in front of the Turkish Embassy in Copenhagen every Friday until Sweden is admitted into NATO.
Turkiye’s state-run Anadolu Agency said the Danish ambassador was summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry where Turkish officials “strongly condemned the permission given to this provocative act which clearly constitutes a hate crime.”
Swedish officials have stressed that freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Swedish Constitution and gives people extensive rights to express their views publicly, though incitement to violence or hate speech isn’t allowed. Demonstrators must apply to police for a permit for a public gathering. Police can deny such permits only on exceptional grounds, such as risks to public safety.
Iraq’s powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr asked in comments released Friday whether freedom of speech means offending other people’s beliefs. He asked why “doesn’t the burning of the gays’ rainbow flag represent freedom of expression.”
The cleric added that burning the Qur’an “will bring divine anger.”
Hundreds of his supporters gathered outside a mosque in Baghdad waving copies of the Qur’an.