Protests against powerful group persist in Syria’s last major rebel stronghold

Militants of the Al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham block a road in front of demonstrators protesting against them in Binnish town, in Idlib province, on May 17, 2024. (AP)
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Updated 17 May 2024
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Protests against powerful group persist in Syria’s last major rebel stronghold

  • Protests took place Friday in several areas, including the provincial capital of Idlib and major towns such as Jisr Al-Shughour, Binnish and Sarmada
  • Officials at one hospital in Binnish said they had received 36 people who suffered bruises and tear gas inhalation

IDLIB, Syria: Members of a powerful insurgent group in Syria ‘s rebel-held northwest fired into the air and beat protesters with clubs Friday, injuring some of them as protests intensified to demand the release of detainees and an end to the group’s rule.
Protests took place Friday in several areas, including the provincial capital of Idlib and major towns such as Jisr Al-Shughour, Binnish and Sarmada.
They came days after Abu Mohammed Al-Golani, the leader of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, or HTS, described the demonstrators as anarchists and told dignitaries in Syria’s Idlib province to persuade them to stop protesting.
The protests, which are calling for the ouster of Al-Golani, broke out in late February following the death of a member of a rebel faction, allegedly while being tortured in a jail run by HTS, which previously had links to Al-Qaeda. Since then, HTS released hundreds of detainees, but many remain in jails run by the group’s so-called General Security Agency.
“I came out against injustice. We don’t want Al-Golani and we don’t want the security fist. We want the prisoners of opinion to be out” of jails, protester Mazen Ziwani told The Associated Press.
Officials at one hospital in Binnish said they had received 36 people who suffered bruises and tear gas inhalation.
After more than 13 years of civil war and more than half a million deaths, Idlib is the last major rebel stronghold in Syria.
On Tuesday, HTS members attacked protesters with clubs and sharp objects outside a military court in Idlib city, injuring several people.
Anti-HTS sentiments had been rising since a wave of arrests by the group of senior officials within the organization, which was previously known as the Nusra Front, when it was Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, before changing its name several times and distancing itself from Al-Qaeda.
Over the years, Al-Golani’s HTS crushed many of its opponents to become the strongest group in the rebel-held region that stretches to the western parts of Aleppo province.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said HTS fighters closed major roads leading to Idlib city Friday to prevent the demonstrators from reaching the provincial capital.
Over the past years, HTS has been trying to distance itself from Al-Qaeda and market itself as a more moderate Syrian opposition group after years of strict religious rule.
In 2017, HTS set up a so-called “salvation government” to run day-to-day affairs in the region. At first, it attempted to enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Religious police were tasked with making sure that women were covered, with only their faces and hands showing.
The police would force shops to close on Fridays so that people could attend the weekly prayers. Playing music was banned, as was smoking water pipes in public.


An agricultural fire spreads through settlements in southeast Turkiye leaving at least 5 dead

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An agricultural fire spreads through settlements in southeast Turkiye leaving at least 5 dead

  • The fire was brought under control early on Friday
ANKARA: Five people were killed and dozens more required medical treatment after a fire that started with the burning of crop stubble spread through settlements in southeast Turkiye overnight, officials said Friday.
The blaze erupted in an area neighboring the provinces of Diyarbakir and Mardin. Fanned by winds, it moved quickly through the villages of Koksalan, Yazcicegi and Bagacik, Diyarbakir Governor Ali Ihsan Su said. The fire was brought under control early on Friday.
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca wrote on social media platform X that 44 people who were affected by the blaze and smoke, were treated in hospitals. Ten of them were in serious condition.
Television images showed a large blaze illuminating the night.
Across the country in northwest Turkiye, meanwhile, firefighters were battling to contain a wildfire near the town of Ayvacik in Canakkale province, said the state-run Anadolu Agency.
No one was hurt but authorities evacuated the small village of Camkoy as a precaution, the agency reported.
It was one of several wildfires to have erupted in the province of Canakkale in the past week amid high winds and scorching summer temperatures.

US’s Gaza aid pier effort hit by repeated setbacks

Updated 21 June 2024
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US’s Gaza aid pier effort hit by repeated setbacks

  • The UN has said it welcomes all efforts to bring in aid, but that land routes are the most important routes for the arrival of assistance

WASHINGTON: The controversial US effort to boost Gaza aid deliveries by building a temporary pier has faced repeated problems, with bad weather damaging the structure and causing other interruptions to the arrival of desperately needed assistance.
More than 4,100 metric tons (nine million pounds) of aid has been delivered via the $230 million pier project so far, but it has only been operational for limited periods, falling short of President Joe Biden’s pledge that it would enable a “massive increase” in assistance reaching Gaza “every day.”
The coastal territory has been devastated by more than eight months of Israeli operations against Palestinian militant group Hamas, uprooting Gaza’s population and leaving them in dire need of aid.
“The Gaza pier regretfully amounted to an extremely expensive distraction from what is truly needed, and what is also legally required,” said Michelle Strucke, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Humanitarian Agenda.
That is “safe and unimpeded humanitarian access for humanitarian organizations to provide aid for a population in Gaza that is suffering historic levels of deprivation,” she said.
US forces have also dropped aid by air, but that plus deliveries via the pier “were never meant to substitute for scaled, sustainable access to land crossings that provided safe access by humanitarian workers to provide aid,” Strucke said.
“Pursuing them took away decision makers’ time, energy, and more than $200 million US taxpayer dollars.”
Biden announced during his State of the Union address in March that the US military would establish the pier and American troops began constructing it the following month, initially working offshore.
But in a sign of issues to come, high seas and winds required construction to be relocated to the Israeli port of Ashdod.
The pier was completed in early May, but weather conditions meant it was unsafe to immediately move it into place, and it was not attached to the Gaza coast until the middle of the month.
High seas caused four US Army vessels supporting the mission to break free of their moorings on May 25, beaching two of them, and the pier was damaged by bad weather three days later, requiring sections to be repaired and rebuilt at Ashdod.
It was reattached to the coast on June 7, but aid deliveries were soon paused for two days due to bad weather conditions.
The pier then had to be removed from the shore and moved to Ashdod on June 14 to protect it from high seas. It was returned to Gaza this week and aid deliveries have now resumed.
Raphael Cohen, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation research group, said the “pier effort has yet to produce the results that the Biden administration hoped.”
“Aside from the weather issues, it’s been quite expensive and has not fixed the operational challenges of getting aid into Gaza,” he said.
Cohen said that despite the issues with the pier, it does provide another entry point for aid and allows assistance to be brought in even when land crossings are closed — a persistent problem that has worsened the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.
And he said the effort may also help improve future deployments of the military’s temporary pier capability, which was last used operationally more than a decade ago in Haiti.
In addition to weather, the project is facing a major challenge in terms of the distribution of aid that arrives via the pier, which the UN World Food Programme decided to halt while it assesses the security situation — an evaluation that is still ongoing.
That announcement came after Israel conducted a nearby operation earlier this month that freed four hostages but which health officials in Hamas-ruled Gaza said killed more than 270 people.
The UN has said it welcomes all efforts to bring in aid, but that land routes are the most important routes for the arrival of assistance.
Strucke emphasized that “what Gazans need is not the appearance of aid — they need actual aid to reach them.”
Washington “should be very careful not to support actions that may look good on paper to increase routes to provide assistance, but do not result in aid actually reaching Palestinians in need at scale,” she said.


US destroys six Houthi drones in Red Sea

Updated 21 June 2024
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US destroys six Houthi drones in Red Sea

  • The Houthis are engaged in a long-running civil war that has triggered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises

WASHINGTON: The US military said Thursday that it had destroyed four Houthi nautical drones and two aerial ones over the Red Sea off Yemen.
The Iran-backed Houthis have launched scores of drones and missiles at commercial vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden since November, describing the attacks as being in support of Palestinians during the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.
The United States and its allies, particularly Britain, have responded with an increased naval presence to defend shipping in the vital waterway and with retaliatory strikes on Houthi targets.
The US Central Command (CENTCOM) said in a statement Thursday night that its forces had “destroyed four Iranian-backed Houthi uncrewed surface vessels (USV) in the Red Sea and two uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) over the Red Sea” in the past 24 hours.
CENTCOM said the day before that it had destroyed “one ground control station and one command and control node” in a Houthi-controlled area of Yemen.
This week, a merchant ship whose hull was breached in an earlier Houthi attack, the M/V Tutor, was believed to have sunk in the Red Sea after its crew was evacuated, according to a maritime security agency run by the British navy.
A Filipino sailor aboard the vessel was killed in the attack.
A Sri Lankan crew member on another ship, the M/V Verbena, was seriously injured in a separate attack, and the vessel had to be abandoned.
US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller condemned those attacks in a statement and said Washington would “continue to take necessary action to protect freedom of navigation and commercial shipping.”
He also called on the Houthis “to release all detainees, including the United Nations, diplomatic, and non-governmental organization staff they detained earlier this month.”
The Houthis earlier this month arrested a number of people they claimed were part of a US-Israeli spy network, adding that those held worked under “the cover of international organizations and UN agencies.”
The heads of six United Nations agencies and three international NGOs subsequently issued a joint call for the release of their staff, with UN rights chief Volker Turk dismissing the spying accusations as “outrageous.”
The Houthis are engaged in a long-running civil war that has triggered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. More than half of the population is dependent on aid in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country.


Blinken tells Israeli officials of need to avoid further escalation with Lebanon

Updated 21 June 2024
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Blinken tells Israeli officials of need to avoid further escalation with Lebanon

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Israeli officials during a meeting on Thursday of the need to avoid further escalation in Lebanon amid the war in Gaza, the State Department said.
Blinken was meeting Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Ron Dermer, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs.


Iran’s presidential candidates talk economic policies in 2nd live debate ahead of June 28 vote

Updated 21 June 2024
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Iran’s presidential candidates talk economic policies in 2nd live debate ahead of June 28 vote

  • Qalibaf is a former Tehran mayor with close ties to the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard

TEHRAN, Iran: In the second live debate on state television, six presidential candidates on Thursday discussed Iran’s economic problems ahead of the country’s June 28 election following a helicopter crash last month that killed President Ebrahim Raisi and seven others.
It was the second of five debates planned in the days before the vote in a shortened campaign to replace Raisi, a hard-line protégé of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei once floated as a possible successor to the 85-year-old cleric.
Like the first debate, the second one also related to economics with the candidates discussing their proposals for Iran’s spiraling economy which is struggling under sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western nations.
The candidates also discussed inflation, the budget deficit, fuel consumption subsidies and education. They all promised to try to get the sanctions lifted and to introduce reforms, but none offered concrete details.
“Negotiation is a method of struggle,” said prominent candidate Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, 62, with regards to getting the Western sanctions on Iran lifted. Qalibaf is a former Tehran mayor with close ties to the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
He emphasized the destructiveness of the sanctions on the economy and said that Iranians have a right to a good life, not just an ordinary life.
Iran’s vice president, Amir Hossein Qazizadeh Hashemi, 53, said he will continue Raisi’s unfinished administration and vowed to develop the tourism industry.
Regarding the health sector and the emigration of doctors and nurses abroad, Qalibaf said there should be a fundamental change in the way health workers are paid to increase the motivation to stay.
Many doctors and nurses reportedly have left Iran in recent years over its deepening economic woes and poor working conditions. Qalibaf’s call for more pay for health workers was repeated by the other candidates.
All the candidates said they believe the Education Ministry is the most important part of the government because “the next generation of the country is raised in this ministry.” Qalibaf said the ministry’s budget must be increased.
The one pro-reform candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian, who is backed by pro-reform figures such as former President Mohammad Khatami and former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, thinks the economic crisis can be resolved by solving party differences inside the country as well as external factors.
The June 28 election comes at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program, its arming of Russia in that country’s war on Ukraine and its wide-reaching crackdowns on dissent.
Iran’s support of militia proxy forces throughout the wider Middle East, meanwhile, has been increasingly in the spotlight as Iran-backed Yemen’s Houthi rebels attack ships in the Red Sea over the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.