11 dead in Syria drone strikes on pro-Iran groups

A pro-Iran commander was among the three killed in the drone strikes. (File/AFP)
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Updated 30 January 2023

11 dead in Syria drone strikes on pro-Iran groups

BEIRUT: A series of unclaimed drone strikes on pro-Iran factions in war-torn Syria killed 11 people and destroyed trucks carrying Iranian arms from Iraq, a war monitor said on Monday.

The first attack, on Sunday evening, hit six lorries and killed seven people near Syria’s border with Iraq, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A second strike on Monday morning killed three people, including a pro-Iran commander, as they inspected the attack site in a pickup truck, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria.

Later, an unidentified drone targeted a fuel tanker the Observatory said was “likely loaded with weapons and ammunition meant for Iran-backed groups” in the same region. The tanker exploded, killing at least one person.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which occurred near the Albu Kamal-Al-Qaim border crossing between Syria and Iraq.

Pro-Iran factions, including Iraqi groups and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have a major presence in the region and are heavily deployed south and west of the Euphrates River in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province.

The Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad receives military support from Iran and its allied armed groups including Hezbollah.

Israel has carried out air and missile raids against Iran-backed and regime forces in Syria, where a US-led coalition has also conducted raids.

The Observatory said Sunday’s attack hit a convoy of six refrigerated trucks transporting Iranian weapons to Syria from Iraq, killing the drivers and their assistants.

The second strike killed “a commander in an Iran-backed group and two of his companions,” it said, adding that all of those killed in the two attacks were non-Syrians.

“The trucks were transporting Iranian weapons,” said the group’s chief Rami Abdel Rahman.

A Syrian official working at the crossing denied the trucks had been loaded with weapons, telling AFP they were carrying foodstuff that Iran had sent to Syria as aid. The 25-truck convoy had been targeted three times in less than 24 hours, he said, adding it “had obtained permission to cross into Syria.”

But an Iraqi border official said the trucks, which were Iraqi, had illegally crossed into Syria and were not carrying Iraqi goods.

“They probably used Iraqi trucks instead of Iranian ones to avoid being targeted,” the Iraqi official.

Sunday’s strikes also hit the headquarters of Iran-backed groups in the area, said Omar Abu Layla, an activist who heads the Deir Ezzor 24 media outlet.

“There was heavy damage in the area that was struck,” he said.

The Observatory said at least two similar convoys had entered Syria from Iraq in recent days, off loading their cargo to pro-Iran groups in the eastern town of Al-Mayadeen.

Albu Kamal has seen similar strikes in the past, including one that in November killed at least 14 people when it hit a pro-Iran militia truck convoy carrying arms and fuel, the Britain-based group said.

In December, Israel’s then- military chief Aviv Kohavi said his country had launched the raid, adding the convoy had been carrying weapons bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel rarely comments on individual military operations but has admitted carrying out hundreds of air and missile strikes in Syria since the civil war broke out in 2011.

A US-led coalition fighting the remnants of Daesh in Iraq and Syria has also carried out strikes against pro-Iran fighters in Syria in the past.

The conflict in Syria started in 2011 with the brutal repression of peaceful protests and escalated to pull in foreign powers and global extremists.

Nearly half a million people have been killed, and the conflict has forced around half of the country’s pre-war population from their homes.

‘Starving’ retired army personnel protest against Lebanon’s ‘corrupt’ political elite

Updated 11 sec ago

‘Starving’ retired army personnel protest against Lebanon’s ‘corrupt’ political elite

  • ‘Retired soldiers are now paid peanuts amid the sharp increase in the dollar exchange rate and the dollarization of food prices’
  • ‘We need international protection to save us from corrupt politicians. We are no longer able to secure our food’

BEIRUT: Retired military personnel took to the streets of downtown Beirut on Wednesday to protest against the increasing financial hardships they said they are facing as a result of Lebanon’s economic crisis and rampant corruption.

Their angry demonstration followed the latest sharp decline in the value of the Lebanese pound on Tuesday, which prompted calls on social media for civil disobedience and public protests. Many of the protesters carried Lebanese flags and placards denouncing the government and its financial policies.

“Where is the conscience of the ruling powers?” said one of the demonstrators Arab News spoke to.

“Don’t they feel guilty about the retired members of the military who have served their country all their lives, given that they are currently starving and not able to access medical care services? Hospitals are holding their bodies in morgue freezers because their families cannot afford the hospital bills.”

Another retired military man told Arab News: “Retired soldiers are now paid peanuts amid the sharp increase in the dollar exchange rate and the dollarization of food prices.

“We need international protection to save us from corrupt politicians. We are no longer able to secure our food. We do not follow any political party or militia. We only belong to our homeland. They are criminals, endangering their country. Let it be known that the people will have no mercy on the tyrants.”

The drastic collapse of the exchange rate of the Lebanese pound against the dollar means that the value of monthly salaries paid to retired military personnel, and public-sector workers, has fallen to between $20 and $60.

“We came to discover whether there is still any state and to claim our salaries and rights to medical care with dignity,” retired Brig. Gen. Chamel Roukoz told Arab News: “The state has a duty toward us. Taking to the streets was our only solution.”

The protesters refused to meet any representatives of the Forces of Change, new members of parliament who were elected last year with the promise of representing the popular mood of opposition to the political status quo, because “they did nothing to benefit the people.” They said that MP Paula Yacoubian and the activist Wassef Al-Harakeh had been expelled from the demonstration.

The protesters breached barbed wire fences surrounding the Grand Serail, the headquarters of caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and declared their intent to break in. In response, security and riot control officers used tear gas to disperse the crowd. The majority of the protesters were elderly and a number were treated by the Red Cross for suffocation.

“Wouldn’t it be better if they had given hungry soldiers money instead of spending it on bombs?” said one injured demonstrator.

Later, the protesters met Mikati and warned of “an unprecedented escalation if promises to fulfill the demands are not met, notably paying the public sector and retirees’ salaries based on the Sayrafa platform’s exchange rate, which is 25,000 pounds against the dollar, instead of the current rate of 90,000 pounds.”

In a separate incident, in the Jnah neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Beirut, fishermen blocked a road in protest against their deteriorating financial situation.

Elsewhere, members of an association that represents public administration employees protested in front of the Finance Ministry, demanding that the government “give public sector employees their rights by revising their salaries and transportation allowance, and securing their healthcare and education grants.”

Similar protests took place in Sidon, Tyre and Nabatieh.

An International Monetary Fund delegation, headed by Ernesto Rigo Ramirez, on Wednesday met the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Walid bin Abdullah Bukhari. Embassy sources said that they discussed “the (overall) developments and conditions needed for Lebanon to recover from the political and economic crisis, in addition to issues of common concern.”

Meanwhile, in an address to the nation at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Deryan warned of “the emerging chaos whose price will be paid by citizens.” It is necessary to “resort to the constitution immediately, elect a president and stop wasting time,” he said.

“We cannot wait any longer; people have started to lose the basic necessities of life, and the political class and citizens live in two different worlds,” he added.

Benjamin Netanyahu: Israel will not revive settlements evacuated in 2005

Updated 22 March 2023

Benjamin Netanyahu: Israel will not revive settlements evacuated in 2005

  • Lawmakers earlier voted to annul part of a law banning Israelis from living in areas of the occupied West Bank the government evacuated in 2005

JERUSALEM: Israel has “no intention” of reviving West Bank settlements evacuated nearly two decades ago, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday, after a parliamentary vote sparked US ire.
Lawmakers voted Tuesday to annul part of a law banning Israelis from living in areas of the occupied West Bank the government evacuated in 2005.
That year Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip and removed Jewish settlers from the coastal territory, as well as from four settlements in the northern West Bank.
Netanyahu’s office said the parliamentary vote scraps “a discriminatory and humiliating law, that prohibited Jews from living in areas in northern Samaria, which is part of our historic homeland,” using the biblical name for the northern West Bank.
“Having said that, the government has no intention of establishing new communities in these areas,” the statement added.
Netanyahu returned to power in December and vowed to expand settlements across the West Bank, which are deemed illegal under international law.
His assertion that the government will not formally allow settlers to return to the four sites evacuated in 2005 comes after Washington said it was “extremely troubled” by the parliamentary vote.
“The legislative changes announced today are particularly provocative,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters Tuesday.
Patel said the move was in “clear contradiction” of promises made by prime minister Ariel Sharon to US president George W. Bush, as well as assurances given just two days ago by the Netanyahu administration.
The decision by lawmakers was heralded by Israel’s settler movement which has made one of the sites — Homesh — a symbol of their cause.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, himself a far-right settler, tweeted that it marked a step toward regularizing the Israeli presence at Homesh.
A small group of activists returned to the site in 2009 and set up a Jewish seminary, which was cleared repeatedly by Israeli troops before the military eventually allowed them to stay.


Building collapse in Qatar’s capital kills 1, search ongoing

Updated 22 March 2023

Building collapse in Qatar’s capital kills 1, search ongoing

DOHA: A building collapsed Wednesday in Qatar’s capital, killing at least one person as searchers clawed through the rubble to check for survivors, authorities said.
Qatar’s Interior Ministry described the building as a four-story structure in Doha’s Bin Durham neighborhood. It said rescuers found seven survivors, while the one person killed had been inside the building at the time of the collapse.
Authorities offered no immediate explanation for the building’s collapse. Online video showed car alarms sounding after the collapse, with one part of the building falling into another nearby.
Civil defense and police surrounded the site after the 8 a.m. collapse, with multiple ambulances and an excavator at the scene. Residents were asked to evacuate for their safety.
Qatar hosted the FIFA World Cup last year.


Pro-Kurdish party gives tacit support to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rival in Turkey polls

Updated 22 March 2023

Pro-Kurdish party gives tacit support to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rival in Turkey polls

  • Peoples’ Democratic Party decision reduces the possibility of a damaging split of the anti-Erdogan vote
  • Boosts the chances of the opposition alliance’s joint candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu

ISTANBUL: Turkiye’s main pro-Kurdish party said Wednesday it would not field a presidential candidate in May elections, giving tacit support to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rival in the crucial vote.
The decision by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) reduces the possibility of a damaging split of the anti-Erdogan vote, boosting the chances of the opposition alliance’s joint candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Winning more than 10 percent of the vote in the past three national elections, the HDP was widely seen as a kingmaker in the tightly contested race.
“We will not field a candidate in the presidential elections,” Pervin Buldan, the party co-chairwoman, told reporters.
“We will fulfil our historic responsibility to end one-man rule in the coming elections,” she said, condemning Erdogan’s consolidation of power over his two decades as prime minister and president.
The HDP’s decision strips Erdogan of a key voting bloc in what is widely seen as Turkiye’s most important election of its post-Ottoman history.
Erdogan enjoyed some support from Kurdish voters earlier in his rule.
His government once worked with HDP politicians in an effort to put an end to a decades-long fight by Kurdish insurgents for an independent state that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
But he now accuses the HDP — parliament’s third largest party — of being the political wing of the PKK militants.
The leftist party denies the charges and says it is being singled out for its fierce criticism of the government’s social and economic policies.
Erdogan and his far-right allies in parliament are now trying to dissolve the HDP over its alleged terror ties.
Turkiye’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday rejected the HDP’s request to delay the outcome of the case until after the May 14 election.
The HDP was excluded from a six-party opposition alliance that has rallied around Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy.
The anti-Erdogan alliance includes staunchly nationalist parties that refuse to work with the HDP.
Meeting with HDP leaders on Monday, Kilicdaroglu promised to remove restrictions on the Kurdish language and address other Kurdish concerns.

Kurds remain biggest winners from US-led invasion of Iraq

Updated 22 March 2023

Kurds remain biggest winners from US-led invasion of Iraq

  • Irbil, the seat of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, was once a backwater provincial capital
  • That rapidly changed after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein

IRBIL, Iraq: Complexes of McMansions, fast food restaurants, real estate offices and half-constructed high-rises line wide highways in Irbil, the seat of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
Many members of the political and business elite live in a suburban gated community dubbed the American Village, where homes sell for as much as $5 million, with lush gardens consuming more than a million liters of water a day in the summer.
The visible opulence is a far cry from 20 years ago. Back then, Irbil was a backwater provincial capital without even an airport.
That rapidly changed after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein. Analysts say that Iraqi Kurds – and particularly the Kurdish political class – were the biggest beneficiaries in a conflict that had few winners.
That’s despite the fact that for ordinary Kurds, the benefits of the new order have been tempered by corruption and power struggles between the two major Kurdish parties and between Irbil and Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.
In the wake of the invasion, much of Iraq fell into chaos, as occupying American forces fought an insurgency and as multiple political and sectarian communities vied to fill the power vacuum left in Baghdad. But the Kurds, seen as staunch allies of the Americans, strengthened their political position and courted foreign investments.
Irbil quickly grew into an oil-fueled boom town. Two years later, in 2005, the city opened a new commercial airport, constructed with Turkish funds, and followed a few years after that by an expanded international airport.
Traditionally, the “Kurdish narrative is one of victimhood and one of grievances,” said Bilal Wahab, a fellow at the Washington Institute think tank. But in Iraq since 2003, “that is not the Kurdish story. The story is one of power and empowerment.”
With the Ottoman Empire’s collapse after World War I, the Kurds were promised an independent homeland in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. But the treaty was never ratified, and “Kurdistan” was carved up. Since then, there have been Kurdish rebellions in Iran, Iraq and Turkey, while in Syria, Kurds have clashed with Turkish-backed forces.
In Iraq, the Kurdish region won de facto self-rule in 1991, when the United States imposed a no-fly zone over it in response to Saddam’s brutal repression of Kurdish uprisings.
“We had built our own institutions, the parliament, the government,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a top official with the Kurdistan Democratic Party who served as foreign minister in Iraq’s first post-Saddam government. “Also, we had our own civil war. But we overcame that,” he said, referring to fighting between rival Kurdish factions in the mid-1990s.
Speaking in an interview at his palatial home in Masif, a former resort town in the mountains above Irbil that is now home to much of the KDP leadership, Zabari added, “The regime change in Baghdad has brought a lot of benefits to this region.”
Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid, from the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, also gave a glowing assessment of the post-2003 developments. The Kurds, he said, had aimed for “a democratic Iraq, and at the same time some sort of … self-determination for the Kurdish people.”
With the US overthrow of Saddam, he said, “We achieved that ... We became a strong group in Baghdad.”
The post-invasion constitution codified the Kurdish region’s semi-independent status, while an informal power-sharing arrangement now stipulates that Iraq’s president is always a Kurd, the prime minister a Shiite and the parliament speaker a Sunni.
But even in the Kurdish region, the legacy of the invasion is complicated. The two major Kurdish parties have jockeyed for power, while Irbil and Baghdad have been at odds over territory and the sharing of oil revenues.
Meanwhile, Arabs in the Kurdish region and minorities, including the Turkmen and Yazidis, feel sidelined in the new order, as do Kurds without ties to one of the two key parties that serve as gatekeepers to opportunities in the Kurdish region.
As the economic boom has stagnated in recent years, due to both domestic issues and global economic trends, an increasing number of Kurdish youths are leaving the country in search of better opportunities. According to the International Labor Organization, 19.2 percent of men and 38 percent of women aged 15-24 were unemployed and out of school in Irbil province in 2021.
Wahab said Irbil’s post-2003 economic success has also been qualified by widespread waste and patronage in the public sector.
“The corruption in the system is really undermining the potential,” he said.
In Kirkuk, an oil-rich city inhabited by a mixed population of Kurds, Turkmen and Sunni Arabs where Baghdad and Irbil have vied for control, Kahtan Vendavi, local head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front party, complained that the American forces’ “support was very clear for the Kurdish parties” after the 2003 invasion.
Turkmen are the third largest ethnic group in Iraq, with an estimated 3 million people, but hold no high government positions and only a handful of parliamentary seats.
In Kirkuk, the Americans “appointed a governor of Kurdish nationality to manage the province. Important departments and security agencies were handed over to Kurdish parties,” Vendavi said.
Some Kurdish groups also lost out in the post-2003 order, which consolidated the power of the two major parties.
Ali Bapir, head of the Kurdistan Justice Group, a Kurdish Islamist party, said the two ruling parties “treat people who do not belong to (them) as third- and fourth-class citizens.”
Bapir has other reasons to resent the US incursion. Although he had fought against the rule of Saddam’s Baath Party, the US forces who arrived in 2003 accused him and his party of ties to extremist groups. Soon after the invasion, the US bombed his party’s compound and then arrested Bapir and imprisoned him for two years.
Kurds not involved in the political sphere have other, mainly economic, concerns.
Picnicking with her mother and sister and a pair of friends at the sprawling Sami Abdul Rahman Park, built on what was once a military base under Saddam, 40-year-old Tara Chalabi acknowledged that the “security and safety situation is excellent here.”
But she ticked off a list of other grievances, including high unemployment, the end of subsidies from the regional government for heating fuel and frequent delays and cuts in the salaries of public employees like her.
“Now there is uncertainty if they will pay this month,” she said.
Nearby, a group of university students said they are hoping to emigrate.
“Working hard, before, was enough for you to succeed in life,” said a 22-year-old who gave only her first name, Gala. “If you studied well and you got good grades … you would have a good opportunity, a good job. But now it’s very different. You must have connections.”
In 2021, hundreds of Iraqi Kurds rushed to Belarus in hopes of crossing into Poland or other neighboring EU countries. Belarus at the time was readily handing out tourist visas in an apparent attempt to pressure the European Union by creating a wave of migrants.
Those who went, Wahab said, were from the middle class, able to afford plane tickets and smuggler fees.
“To me, it’s a sign that it’s not about poverty,” he said. “It’s basically about the younger generation of Kurds who don’t really see a future for themselves in this region anymore.”