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

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Updated 31 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.”


Spain's PM heads to Morocco to reap benefits of mended ties

Updated 6 sec ago

Spain's PM heads to Morocco to reap benefits of mended ties

BARCELONA, Spain: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez travels to Rabat on Wednesday along with 12 ministers before a meeting with Moroccan government officials. This visit comes as part of the European country’s strategy to improve historically complex relations with its neighbor across the Strait of Gibraltar.
It comes 10 months after Sánchez went to meet Moroccan King Mohammed VI and put an end to a diplomatic crisis that had erupted in 2021 regarding Morocco's disputed territory of Western Sahara. During that meeting, Sánchez declared “a new phase of bilateral relations” with Morocco, an important partner with the European Union in fighting extremism and aiding the bloc's irregular migration policies.
Sánchez is flying south again on Wednesday and will attend a forum of business leaders from both countries in Rabat. On Thursday, he will sit down with Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch, a billionaire businessman who won a 2021 election and is considered close to Mohammed VI.
Sánchez’s agenda doesn't include another meeting with the Moroccan king, with whom he shared the Iftar meal to break the day’s fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan last April in the highlight of their reconciliation.
Sánchez’s office said that the prime minister instead had a phone conversation with the monarch in which they agreed that the meeting would “contribute to consolidating this new era in the relations between Morocco and Spain.” It added that Sánchez accepted the invitation by the king to make another official visit to Rabat at an unspecified date.
Moroccans make up the single largest foreign community with 800,000 residents in Spain, and important economic ties unite the neighbors which are separated by just 13 kilometers (8 miles) of water at the nearest point.
But relations between Spain and Morocco were severely damaged in May 2021 after Spain allowed the leader of the Polisario Front, which has waged a low-intensity armed rebellion seeking the Western Sahara’s independence from Morocco, to receive medical treatment for COVID-19 in Spain.
Morocco responded by relaxing its border controls around Spain’s North African exclave of Ceuta and thousands of people crossed over into the city. Tensions remained high until Sánchez did an about-face on Spain’s long-standing position on Western Sahara by backing Rabat’s proposal to give it more autonomy as long as it remains unquestionably under Moroccan control. Madrid maintains that the people of Western Sahara must decide their future via a referendum.
Sánchez paid a high price for moving closer to Morocco.
His shift on Western Sahara angered Algeria, a backer of the Polisario Front and major natural gas supplier to Spain. It was also widely criticized in Spain, which held Western Sahara as a colony until 1975, and caused friction inside Spain’s governing left-wing coalition between Sánchez’s Socialists and its junior partner. Politicians from across Spain's spectrum considered Sánchez to have betrayed the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara for very little tangible gains in return.
Now, Sánchez is aiming to reap some benefits after last year’s return to diplomatic normalcy.
This will be first meeting since 2015 with such a large delegation of ministries represented. Sánchez is taking along his ministers in charge of the economy, energy, foreign affairs, security and policing, agriculture, commerce, transport and migration, among others.
Thursday's meeting between the governments is expected to produce several agreements between ministries and to favor business growth, including the opening of customs offices at the border crossings for Ceuta and its sister exclave, Melilla, which Morocco has never officially recognized as Spanish territories. Melilla’s customs office was closed by Morocco in 2018, while Ceuta has never had one.
Spain is the largest foreign investor in Morocco, accounting for a significant chunk of all foreign investments, making economic cooperation a top priority for the Moroccan government. Morocco is Spain’s third most important non-EU commercial partner after the United States and Britain.
Morocco, in similar fashion to Turkey and other countries in north Africa, has reaped economic benefits from the EU in exchange for curbing irregular immigration to Spain. That, however, has not stopped thousands of migrants and refugees, including young Moroccans looking for a better future in Europe, from attempting a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean, or a perilous Atlantic journey to the Canary Islands.
The frontier policing methods of both Spain and Morocco have fallen under intense scrutiny following the death of at least 23 African men, many reportedly refugees from Sudan, when they stormed a border fence at Melilla in June.
Rights group Amnesty International held a protest outside the seat of Spain’s government in Madrid on Wednesday, with cutout silhouettes of the victims of the Melilla tragedy. The rights group raises the number of deaths to 37 and says that 77 more people are still missing from the incident.
“A summit today between Morocco and Spain pretends to ignore what happened just seven months ago,” Esteban Beltrán, head of Amnesty International in Spain, said. “We want to remember that (the victims) are with us, and we want to remember the suffering of their families who have no information or a real investigation of what happened.”

Suez Canal tugs working to move broken down tanker, shipping traffic unaffected: Sources

Updated 01 February 2023

Suez Canal tugs working to move broken down tanker, shipping traffic unaffected: Sources

  • Canal sources say that shipping traffic is unaffected

CAIRO: Suez Canal tugboats are working to move a broken down LNG tanker called Grace Emilia on Wednesday, two canal sources told Reuters, adding that shipping traffic is unaffected.
The incident happened in a southern section of the canal where a second channel allows for ships to bypass the blockage caused by an engine malfunction, one of the sources said.


Iran says Iraq-based Kurd groups ‘involved’ in drone attack

Updated 01 February 2023

Iran says Iraq-based Kurd groups ‘involved’ in drone attack

  • Iranian authorities earlier reported “unsuccessful” drone attack

TEHRAN: Iran has accused Iraq-based Kurdish groups of being “involved” in a drone attack last week against a defense ministry site in the central province of Isfahan, Iranian media reported Wednesday.
“Parts of the drones that attacked the workshop complex of the defense ministry in Isfahan, along with explosive materials, were transferred to Iran with the participation and guidance of the Kurdish anti-revolutionary groups based in Iraq’s Kurdistan region,” Nour news agency said.
Iranian authorities reported an “unsuccessful” drone attack late Saturday that targeted a defense ministry “workshop complex” in Isfahan province, home to the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility.
An anti-aircraft system destroyed one drone and two others exploded, the defense ministry said, adding that there were no casualties and only minor damage to the site.
Nour charged that Kurdish groups brought the drone parts and explosive materials into Iran from “one of the hardly accessible routes in the northwest” upon “the order of a foreign security service.”
The news agency, considered close to the Islamic republic’s Supreme National Security Council, did not specify which country’s security service it accused of being behind the attack. It said the drone parts were delivered to the “service’s liaison in a border city.”
“The parts and materials have been assembled and used for sabotage in an advanced workshop by trained forces,” Nour said.
Some Western media have blamed the attack on Iran’s arch foe Israel.
Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region hosts camps and rear-bases operated by several Iranian Kurdish rebel groups, which Iran has accused of serving Western or Israeli interests in the past.
In November, Iran launched cross-border missile and drone strikes against several of the groups in Iraq, accusing them of stoking the nationwide protests triggered by the death in custody in September of Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini.


Eight rockets fired at Turkish base in Iraq

Updated 01 February 2023

Eight rockets fired at Turkish base in Iraq

  • Iraqi contractor in the base was wounded
  • No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack

IRBIL, Iraq: Unidentified attackers fired eight rockets at a Turkish military base in northern Iraq on Wednesday, two of which landed inside the facility, the Counter-Terrorism Group, a security organization in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, said.
A Turkish security source said the attack had caused no damage and there were no casualties in the base, without going into further detail.
An Iraqi security source who declined to be identified said an Iraqi contractor in the base had been wounded.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in the early hours on the Zilkan base, which hosts Turkish troops in Ninevah province of northern Iraq.
Turkiye has been carrying out operations in Iraq for decades against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has bases in the region. It is designated a terrorist group by Turkiye, the United States, and the European Union.
The group launched an insurgency in southeast Turkiye in 1984 in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.


Iraqi PM says banking reforms reveal fraudulent dollar transactions

Updated 01 February 2023

Iraqi PM says banking reforms reveal fraudulent dollar transactions

  • Iraq has in recent months been making efforts to ensure its banking system is compliant with the international electronic transfer system known as SWIFT

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s premier said Tuesday that new banking regulations had revealed fraudulent dollar transactions made from his country, as the fresh controls coincide with a drop in the local currency’s value.
Iraq has in recent months been making efforts to ensure its banking system is compliant with the international electronic transfer system known as SWIFT.
Referring to the new controls, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani hailed “a real reform of the banking system,” but denounced “falsified invoices, money going out fraudulently,” in particular as foreign currency payments for imports.
“That is a reality,” he said in an interview on state television.
The adoption of the SWIFT system was supposed to allow for greater transparency, tackle money laundering and help to enforce international sanctions, such as those against Iran and Russia.
An adviser to Sudani had said that since mid-November, Iraqi banks wanting to access dollar reserves stored in the United States must make transfers using the electronic system.
The US Federal Reserve will then examine the requests and block them if it finds them suspicious.
According to the adviser, the Fed had so far rejected 80 percent of the transfer requests over concerns of the funds’ final recipients.
Before the introduction of the new regulations, “we were selling $200 million or $300 million a day,” Sudani said.
“Now, the central bank provides $30 million, $40 million, $50 million,” he said, questioning: “What were we importing in a single day for $300 million?“
“There are products that were entering (Iraq) for prices that make no sense. Clearly, the objective was to take foreign currency out of Iraq,” he said. “This must stop.”
Money may have been transported to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan province “and from there to neighboring countries,” Sudani said, without specifying whether he was referring to Turkiye, Iran or war-torn Syria.
He said the new controls had been planned for two years, in accordance with an agreement between Iraq’s central bank and US financial authorities, and deplored previous failures to put them in place.
Iraq, which is trying to move past four decades of war and unrest, is plagued by endemic corruption.
The official exchange rate is fixed by the government at 1,470 dinars to the dollar, but the currency was trading at around 1,680 on Tuesday on unofficial markets amid dollar scarcity.
The drop has sparked sporadic protests by Iraqis worried about their purchasing power.
Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein and the new central bank chief will be among a delegation traveling to Washington on February 7 to discuss the new mechanism and the fluctuating exchange rate, Sudani said.