Divisions, elections and Assad lay bare Europe’s Syrian quagmire

More than 5 million refugees mostly in Lebanon and Turkiye and millions more displaced internally have little prospect of returning home. (AFP)
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Updated 24 May 2024
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Divisions, elections and Assad lay bare Europe’s Syrian quagmire

PARIS: The European Union will convene donors next week to keep Syria on the global agenda, but as the economic and social burden of refugees on neighboring countries mounts the bloc is divided and unable to find solutions to tackle the issue, diplomats say.
Syria has become a forgotten crisis that nobody wants to stir amid the war raging between Israel and Islamist Palestinian militants Hamas and tensions growing between Iran and Western powers over its regional activities.
More than 5 million refugees mostly in Lebanon and Turkiye and millions more displaced internally have little prospect of returning home with political stability no closer than since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule began in 2011.
Funding to support them is dropping with the likes of the World Food Programme reducing its aid. Difficulties to host refugees are surfacing, notably in Lebanon, where the economic situation is perilous and a call to send Syrians home is one of the rare issues that unites all communities.
“We have no levers because we never resumed relations with the Assad regime and there are no indications anybody really will,” said a former European envoy to Syria.
“Even if we did, why would Syria offer carrots to countries that have been hostile to him and especially taking back people who opposed him anyway.”
Major European and Arab ministers along with key international organizations meet for the 8th Syria conference next Monday, but beyond vague promises and financial pledges, there are few signs that Europe can take the lead.
The talks come just ahead of the European elections on June 6-9 in which migration is a divisive issue among the bloc’s 27-member states. With far-right and populist parties already expected to do well, there is little appetite to step up refugee support.
The conference itself has changed from eight years ago. The level of participation has been downgraded. The likes of Russia, the key actor backing Assad, is no longer invited after its invasion of Ukraine. The global geopolitical situation and drop in the conflict’s intensity keeps it off radars.
There are divisions within the EU on the subject. Some countries such as Italy and Cyprus are more open to having a form of dialogue with Assad to at least discuss possible ways to step up voluntary returns in conjunction with and under the auspices of the UN.
However, others, like France which acknowledges the pressure the refugees are weighing on Lebanon and fears broader conflict between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel, remain steadfast that there can be no discussion with the Assad regime until key conditions are met.
But the reality on the ground is forcing a discussion on the issue.
Demonstrating the tensions between the EU and the countries hosting refugees, Lebanese MPs threatened to reject the bloc’s 1 billion euro package announced earlier this month, slamming it as a “bribe” to keep refugees in limbo in Lebanon instead of resettling them permanently in Europe or sending them back home to Syria.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who unlike in previous years is not due to attend the Brussels conference, has said that Beirut would start dealing with the issue itself without proper international assistance.
The result has been an upswing in migrant boats from Lebanon to Europe, with nearby Cyprus and increasingly Italy, too, as the main destinations, prompting some countries to ring alarm bells fearing a flood of new refugees into the bloc.
“Let me be clear, the current situation is not sustainable for Lebanon, it’s not sustainable for Cyprus and it’s not sustainable for the European Union. It hasn’t been sustainable for years,” Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides said this month during a visit to Lebanon.
Highlighting the divisions in Europe, eight countries — Austria, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Malta and Poland — last week issued a joint statement after talks in Cyprus, breaking ranks with the bloc’s previous positions.
They argued that the dynamics in Syria had changed and that while political stability did not exist yet, things had evolved sufficiently to “re-evaluate the situation” to find “more effective ways of handling the issue.”
“I don’t think there will be a big movement in terms of EU attitude, but perhaps some baby steps to engage and see if more can be done in various areas,” said a diplomat from one of the countries that attended the talks in Cyprus.
Another was more blunt.
“Come Tuesday Syria will be swept under the carpet and forgotten. The Lebanese will be left to deal with the crisis alone,” said a French diplomat.


The US pier in Gaza is facing its latest challenge — whether the UN will keep delivering the aid

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The US pier in Gaza is facing its latest challenge — whether the UN will keep delivering the aid

  • US and Israel say no part of the pier was used in the raid but an Israeli helicopter used a spot near the pier.
  • UN has paused its work with the pier since June 8
WASHINGTON: The US-built pier to bring food to Gaza is facing one of its most serious challenges yet — its humanitarian partner is deciding if it’s safe to keep delivering supplies arriving by sea to starving Palestinians.
The United Nations, the player with the widest reach delivering aid within Gaza, has paused its work with the pier after a June 8 operation by Israeli security forces that rescued four Israeli hostages and killed more than 270 Palestinians.
Rushing out a mortally wounded Israeli commando after the raid, Israeli rescuers opted against returning the way they came, across a land border, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesman, told reporters. Instead, they sped toward the beach and the site of the US aid hub on Gaza’s coast, he said. An Israeli helicopter touched down near the US-built pier and helped whisk away hostages, according to the US and Israeli militaries.
For the UN and independent humanitarian groups, the event made real one of their main doubts about the US sea route: Whether aid workers could cooperate with the US military-backed, Israeli military-secured project without violating core humanitarian principles of neutrality and independence and without risking aid workers becoming seen as US and Israeli allies — and in turn, targets in their own right.
Israel and the US deny that any aspect of the month-old US pier was used in the Israeli raid.
The UN World Food Program, which works with the US to transfer aid from the $230 million pier to warehouses and local aid teams for distribution within Gaza, suspended cooperation as it conducts a security review. Aid has been piling up on the beach since.
“You can be damn sure we are going to be very careful about what we assess and what we conclude,” UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said.
Griffiths told reporters at an aid conference in Jordan this week that determining whether the Israeli raid improperly used either the beach or roads around the pier “would put at risk any future humanitarian engagement in that operation.”
The UN has to look at the facts as well as what the Palestinian public and militants believe about any US, pier or aid worker involvement in the raid, spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters in New York.
“Humanitarian aid must not be used and must not be perceived as taking any side in a conflict,” Haq said. “The safety of our humanitarian workers depends on all sides and the communities on the ground trusting their impartiality.”
Rumors have swirled on social media, deepening the danger to aid workers, humanitarian groups say.
“Whether or not we’ve seen the pier used for military purposes is almost irrelevant. Because the perception of people in Gaza, civilians and armed groups, is that humanitarian aid has been instrumentalized” by parties in the conflict, said Suze van Meegen, head of operations in Gaza for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Oxfam International and some other aid organizations said they are waiting for answers from the US government because it’s responsible for the agreements with the UN and other humanitarian groups on how the pier and aid deliveries would function.
Questions include whether the Israeli helicopters and security forces used what the US had promised aid groups would be a no-go area for the Israeli military around the pier, said Scott Paul, an associate director at Oxfam.
The suspension of deliveries is only one of the problems that have hindered the pier, which President Joe Biden announced in March as an additional way to get aid to Palestinians. The US has said the project was never a solution and have urged Israel to lift restrictions on aid shipments through land crossings as famine looms.
The first aid from the sea route rolled onto shore May 17, and work has been up and down since:
— May 18: Crowds overwhelmed aid trucks coming from the pier, stripping some of the trucks of their cargo. The WFP suspended deliveries from the pier for at least two days while it worked out alternate routes with the US and Israel.
— May 24: A bit more than 1,000 metric tons of aid had been delivered to Gaza from the pier, and the US Agency for International Development later said all of it was distributed within Gaza.
— May 25: High winds and heavy seas damaged the pier and four US Army vessels ran aground, injuring three service members, one critically. Crews towed away part of the floating dock in what became a two-week pause in operations.
— June 8: The US military announced that deliveries resumed off the repaired and reinstalled project. The Israeli military operation unfolded the same day.
— Sunday: World Food Program chief Cindy McCain announced a “pause” in cooperation with the US pier, citing the previous day’s “incident” and the rocketing of two WFP warehouses that injured a staffer.
“The WFP, of course, is taking the security measures that they need to do, and the reviews that they need to do, in order to feel safe and secure and to operate within Gaza,” Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said this week.
The pier has brought to Gaza more than 2,500 metric tons (about 5.6 million pounds) of aid, Singh said. About 1,000 metric tons of that was brought by ship Tuesday and Wednesday — after the WFP pause — and is being stored on the beach awaiting distribution.
Now, the question is whether the UN will rejoin the effort.
For aid workers who generally work without weapons or armed guards, and for those they serve, “the best guarantee of our security is the acceptance of communities” that aid workers are neutral, said Paul, the Oxfam official.
Palestinians already harbored deep doubts about the pier given the lead role of the US, which sends weapons and other support to its ally Israel, said Yousef Munayyer, a senior fellow at Washington’s Arab Center, an independent organization researching Israeli-Arab issues.
Distrustful Palestinians suffering in the Israel-Hamas war are being asked to take America at its word, and that’s a hard sell, said Munayyer, an American of Palestinian heritage.
“So you know, perception matters a lot,” he said. “And for the people who are literally putting their lives on the line to get humanitarian aid moving around a war zone, perception gets you in danger.”

US says it will raise pressure on Iran if it does not cooperate with UN watchdog

Updated 14 June 2024
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US says it will raise pressure on Iran if it does not cooperate with UN watchdog

WASHINGTON: The US State Department said on Thursday that Washington and its allies were prepared to continue to increase pressure on Iran if Tehran does not cooperate with the UN nuclear watchdog.

Iran has rapidly installed extra uranium-enriching centrifuges at its Fordow site and begun setting up others, a UN nuclear watchdog report said earlier in the day. The State Department said the report showed that Iran aimed to continue expanding its nuclear program “in ways that have no credible peaceful purpose.”


Houthi missile attack severely injures sailor on cargo ship: US military

Updated 14 June 2024
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Houthi missile attack severely injures sailor on cargo ship: US military

  • Although attacks have caused major disruption to international shipping, casualties have been rare.

DUBAI: Two cruise missiles launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels struck a bulk cargo carrier in the Gulf of Aden on Thursday, severely injuring a sailor who was evacuated by American forces, the US military said.

The Houthis have been targeting vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden since November 2023 in attacks they say are in solidarity with Palestinians during the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

Although this has caused major disruption to international shipping, casualties have been rare.

The M/V Verbena — a Palauan-flagged, Ukrainian-owned, Polish-operated ship — “reported damage and subsequent fires on board. The crew continues to fight the fire. One civilian mariner was severely injured during the attack,” the US Central Command (CENTCOM) said in a statement.

“Aircraft from USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) medically evacuated the injured mariner to a partner force ship nearby for medical attention,” CENTCOM said.

“This continued reckless behavior by the Iranian-backed Houthis threatens regional stability and endangers the lives of mariners across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.”

The Houthis on Thursday said they had carried out attacks on three ships within the past 24 hours, including on the Verbena, “in retaliation to the crimes committed against our people in the Gaza Strip, and in response to the American-British aggression against our country.”

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) meanwhile reported an explosion close to a merchant vessel in the Red Sea about 80 nautical miles northwest of Yemen’s Hodeida port, with no damage or casualties.

The Houthis have launched scores of drone and missile attacks on shipping vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden since November.

The first reported fatalities from the attacks on ships occurred in the Gulf of Aden in March.

On Wednesday, the Houthis struck the Tutor, a Liberian-flagged bulk carrier, southwest of Hodeida. They claimed to have used seaborne and aerial drones, and ballistic missiles.

CENTCOM later said the Tutor had been struck by a Houthi “unmanned surface vessel” that “caused severe flooding and damage to the engine room.”


UN Security Council demands halt to siege of Sudan city of 1.8 mln people

The United Nations Security Council on Thursday demanded a halt to the siege of Al-Fashir by the paramilitary RSF.
Updated 13 June 2024
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UN Security Council demands halt to siege of Sudan city of 1.8 mln people

  • Council adopted British-drafted resolution that also calls for the withdrawal of all fighters that threaten the safety and security of civilians in Al-Fashir

UNITED NATIONS: The United Nations Security Council on Thursday demanded a halt to the siege of Al-Fashir — a city of 1.8 million people in Sudan’s North Dafur region — by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and an immediate end to fighting in the area.
The 15-member council adopted a British-drafted resolution that also calls for the withdrawal of all fighters that threaten the safety and security of civilians in Al-Fashir, the last big city in the vast, western Darfur region not under RSF control.
War erupted in Sudan in April last year between the Sudanese army (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), creating the world’s largest displacement crisis. Top UN officials have warned that the worsening violence around Al-Fashir threatens to “unleash bloody intercommunal strife throughout Darfur.”


Israeli forces kill three Palestinians, seize weapons in West Bank raid

Updated 13 June 2024
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Israeli forces kill three Palestinians, seize weapons in West Bank raid

  • The West Bank has seen a surge in violence since the outbreak of the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza
  • Troops surrounded a building where two gunmen were holed up, exchanging fire with them, the army said

QABATIYA, West Bank: Israeli forces raided a town in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, killing three Palestinians and detaining several others in what the army described as an operation to pre-empt militant attacks.
The West Bank, among territories where Palestinians seek statehood, has seen a surge in violence since the outbreak of the war between Israel and the militant Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
During the raid in Qabatiya, troops surrounded a building where two gunmen were holed up, exchanging fire with them, the army said. The two Palestinians were killed and witnesses saw the body of one them being lifted out by an armored bulldozer.
A third Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli troops elsewhere in the town, medical officials said.
There was no immediate claim of the dead men by any armed Palestinian faction. The army described the two killed in the building as “senior terrorists” without elaborating, and added that weapons were seized in the raid.
Several Palestinians were detained by troops, who also “exposed explosives planted into roads which were intended to be used to attack the forces,” the army statement said.
A soldier was wounded during exchanges of fire, it added.