Assad regime accused of ‘apocalypse’ as forces tighten noose around opposition enclave in Ghouta

Syrian child Hossam Hawari, 8, is treated from a shrapnel wound at a makeshift clinic in Kafr Batna following Syrian regime airstrikes on opposition-held areas in the Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 08 March 2018
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Assad regime accused of ‘apocalypse’ as forces tighten noose around opposition enclave in Ghouta

DOUMA: Syria’s regime sent reinforcements to Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday, tightening the noose around the shrinking opposition enclave.
The blistering onslaught has prompted outrage against the regime, with the UN’s human rights chief saying the government was orchestrating an “apocalypse” in Syria.
The Russia-backed Syrian regime forces and allied militia launched an offensive on Feb. 18 to retake the last opposition bastion near Damascus.
They have since taken more than 40 percent of the enclave, waging a devastating bombing campaign that has killed more than 800 civilians.
Heavy airstrikes battered several key towns in the zone on Wednesday, as the Syrian regime dispatched hundreds of pro-regime militiamen to the front.
“At least 700 Afghan, Palestinian, and Syrian loyalist militiamen came from Aleppo and were sent late on Tuesday to Ghouta,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Britain-based war monitor said the reinforcements were deployed to two main battlefronts on the western side of the enclave, including the town of Harasta.
Regime troops on Wednesday were within firing range of the key towns of Misraba and Beit Sawa, and had taken up positions at the edges of Jisreen and Hammuriyeh.
Three civilians including one child were killed in heavy airstrikes on Jisreen on Wednesday, the Observatory said.
That brought the toll in more than two weeks of bombing to 810 civilians, including 179 children.
Syria’s state television on Wednesday morning showed a live broadcast of farmland adjacent to Misraba, with columns of smoke emerging from the town’s skyline.
The bombardment has continued despite a one-month cease-fire demanded by the UN Security Council more than a week ago.
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein said the Syrian regime and its foreign allies were already planning their next “apocalypse.”
“This month, it is Eastern Ghouta which is, in the words of the secretary-general, hell on earth; next month or the month after, it will be somewhere else where people face an apocalypse — an apocalypse intended, planned and executed by individuals within the government, apparently with the full backing of some of their foreign supporters,” said Hussein.
Eastern Ghouta’s roughly 400,000 residents have lived under government siege since 2013, facing severe shortages of food and medicines even before the latest offensive began.
Forty-six aid trucks entered the area on Monday for the first time since the offensive, but had to cut short their deliveries and leave due to heavy bombardment.
Nearly half of the food aid could not be delivered and Syrian authorities removed some medical and health supplies from the trucks, the UN said.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all warring sides to allow aid trucks to return for a planned second delivery to the enclave's main town of Douma on Thursday.
Meanwhile, also on Wednesday Syrian refugees and German politicians condemned a visit to Damascus by members of an anti-immigrant party, saying their depictions of life in the city as “normal” were especially offensive when Ghouta was being bombarded.
Seven members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) are currently on a “fact-finding” trip to Syria, which the party wants classified as a safe-country of origin. This would make it easier to deport failed asylum seekers from Germany.
Syrians in Germany have been particularly angered by posts on the Facebook page of Christian Blex, a regional AfD lawmaker, who wrote that Syrian President Bashar Assad wanted the 600,000 Syrians who have sought refuge in Germany to return.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman slammed the visit.
“Those who flatter this regime disqualify themselves,” Steffen Seibert told a regular news conference. “The Syrian regime shows every day how inhumanly it treats its own people.”
A spokesman for the AfD said the visit was private and did not represent the AfD’s parliamentary group in the Bundestag lower house, though it included some Bundestag deputies.


Tunisia reforms face fresh strain after president ends political tie-up

Updated 10 min 48 sec ago
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Tunisia reforms face fresh strain after president ends political tie-up

  • Efforts to rescue Tunisia's ailing economy face the prospect of fresh turmoil
  • The Ennahda party and Nidaa Tounes agreed in 2014 on a constitution granting far-reaching political rights

TUNIS: Efforts to rescue Tunisia’s ailing economy face the prospect of fresh turmoil after the president declared his alliance with the Ennahda party at an end, deepening divisions in a fragile coalition managing the country’s transition from autocracy.

The Ennahda party and Nidaa Tounes agreed in 2014 on a constitution granting far-reaching political rights, limiting the role of religion and holding free elections, which stands out in a region often run by autocrats.

But Tunisia fell into a political crisis again this year after Essebsi’s son, who is the leader of Nidaa Tounes, called for the dismissal of prime minister Youssef Chahed because of his government’s failure to revive the economy.
His demand was supported by the powerful UGTT union, which rejected economic reforms proposed by Chahed.

Political analysts say Monday evening’s announcement by President Beji Caid Essebsi could make it difficult for the government to enact tough economic reforms sought by international lenders.

“There will be no real risk of toppling the government in parliament, but the problem is that division will deepen, social tension will rise and reforms are threatened under a fragile government coalition,” Nizar Makni, a journalist and analyst said.

“Reforms need broad consensus and the lack of compromise may lead to mass protests in the streets, especially that powerful unions rejected all proposed reforms”, he added.

Although struggling with high unemployment and inflation, the coalition of political parties has been running what has been hailed as the Arab Spring’s only democratic success, avoiding the upheaval seen in Egypt, Libya or Syria.​

AUSTERITY

But Ennahda came to Chahed’s defence, saying the departure of the prime minister would hit stability at a time when the country needed economic reforms.
In his more than two years in office, Chahed has pushed through austerity measures and structural reforms, such as cutting fuel subsidies that have helped to underpin a $2.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other financial support.
The president raised the stakes on Monday evening.
“The consensus and relationship between me and Ennahha has ended, after they chose to form another relationship with Youssef Chahed,” Essebsi, the founder of Nidaa Tounes, said in a televised interview.
Analysts said the president’s announcement would probably not lead to the overthrow of the government, which still has the support of at least 110 of a total 217 lawmakers in parliament.
But Chahed could find it difficult to enact tough reforms in the face of a strong opposition front including the unions, the president and Nidaa Tounes party.
Last week the UGTT labour union called a public sector strike for Oct. 24 to protest at Chahed’s privatisation plans.
“The president’s comments will deepen the crisis,” senior Ennahda official Lotfi Zitoun told Reuters.
“Ennahda seeks stability and a dialogue that includes all partners to get out of the crisis.”
By surviving for more than two years, Chahed has become the longest-serving of Tunisia’s nine prime ministers since its Arab Spring democratic revolution in 2011.
Chahed has gathered enough support in parliament to stave off a possible vote of no confidence by working with Ennahda and a number of other lawmakers including 10 Nidaa Tounes rebels.
Since 2011 uprising, nine cabinets have failed to resolve Tunisia’s economic problems, which include high inflation and unemployment, and impatience is rising among lenders such as the IMF, which have kept the country afloat.