UN Palestinian agency in urgent search for cash at global gathering

A Palestinian refugee flies a kite at a school belonging to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in the town of Sebline east of the southern Lebanese port of Saida, on March 12, 2018, during a protest against US aid cuts to the organization. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)
Updated 14 March 2018
0

UN Palestinian agency in urgent search for cash at global gathering

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: Global powers will gather in Rome Thursday to discuss the future of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which faces an unprecedented crisis after the US froze hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) only has enough funds to keep schools and medical services open until May, its commissioner general Pierre Krahenbuhl told AFP.
US President Donald Trump’s administration has so far committed only $60 million to the agency this year, down from $360 million in 2017.
Trump continues to pressure the Palestinians to end their boycott of his administration sparked by his December recognition of the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
A major funding drive launched by UNRWA after the US freeze has raised little new money and diplomats are not optimistic about getting major pledges in the Italian capital.
UN officials want European countries to step in to fill part of the gap but are especially looking at Gulf Arab countries.
Fear is rife about the future of the organization that employs more than 20,000 people across the Middle East, the vast majority Palestinians.
UNRWA was established after the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948 when around 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled.
It offers vital support for these refugees and their descendants in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the West Bank and Gaza, providing services for more than three million people.
This includes education for around half a million students, with nearly 30 percent of its funding coming from the United States.
In January, Trump tweeted “we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” accusing them of walking away from peace negotiations.
Two weeks later his administration confirmed it would hold back tens of millions in aid to UNRWA, saying it wanted the rest of the world to pay more.
Krahenbuhl labelled it the agency’s worst ever financial crisis and launched a major funding drive, turning the front page of its website into a call for donations.
Senior officials traveled globally to push for funds, with UNRWA aiming to find nearly half a billion dollars in new money.
But since the launch of the “Dignity is Priceless” campaign, the only new funding was a $900,000 grant from Kuwait, though European countries have advanced donations planned for the summer.
Private donations ran only into the “hundreds of thousands,” Krahenbuhl said, calling it “not groundbreaking.” UNRWA did not respond to multiple requests for a more specific figure.
Krahenbuhl downplayed concerns the world was not stepping up to fill the gap.
“It takes a lot of political dialogue for these things to move forward, especially in light of the size of the shortfall,” he told AFP.
“States were planning to contribute $20-25 million to UNRWA and suddenly see a shortfall that has increased by $300 million. It is quite natural you will not have one single state that will come forward and close that shortfall.”
But UNRWA employees face deep concerns about the sheer size of the gap.
Nicola Jones, of the ODI think tank that focuses on aid, said she expected UNRWA leaders to be “really concerned” by the slow pace of new funds.
“They really did try to have a high profile public awareness campaign about the cost of withdrawing funding and I think it is clearly extremely disappointing that it hasn’t been fruitful.”
The Rome conference, co-hosted by Sweden, Egypt and Jordan, will seek fresh momentum.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will attend, his office confirmed Tuesday, though the US had yet to confirm who would attend from their side.
“When any agency depends on a single donor it is a vulnerability,” said Sweden’s ambassador to the United Nations Olof Skoog.
“Sharing the responsibility more equally is therefore reasonable, but we expect the United States to stay committed.”
Hugh Lovatt, Israel/Palestine analyst at the European Council of Foreign Relations think tank, said European countries were wary of being seen to bridge the funding gap for fear of vindicating Trump’s attempts to cut international aid funding.
Trump is due to announce his proposal for new Israel-Palestinian peace talks and Lovatt said all countries were waiting to see what vision it proposes for UNRWA.
He expected Europeans in Rome to make “concerted effort to corner the Americans and convince them to reconsider (their aid cuts).”


Turkey may launch new offensive against US-backed Kurdish militia in Syria

Updated 14 min 34 sec ago
0

Turkey may launch new offensive against US-backed Kurdish militia in Syria

  • The operation is expected to begin from Turkey’s southeastern border town of Suruc
  • Turkey maintains its regional alliance with Russia as leverage against US support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia

ANKARA: Turkey is gearing up for a military offensive on Tal Abyad in Syria, according to some news reports, with video footage showing the Turkish military deploying troops near its border town Akcakale. 

Experts interviewed by Arab News noted that the military deployment to the Syrian border with many tanks and howitzers was aimed at putting additional pressure on the US to accelerate the implementation of a roadmap endorsed by Turkey and the US in June for the northern Syrian city of Manbij.

A recent agreement between Ankara and Moscow that forestalled a full-scale Syrian regime offensive against the Syrian province of Idlib also triggered Turkey’s ambitious military activities along the border. 

Turkey maintains its regional alliance with Russia as leverage against US support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, seen as a domestic security threat to Turkey due to their links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state for more than three decades. 

And the Manbij roadmap between Turkey and the US consists of the withdrawal of the YPG from the city to stabilize the region.

Tal Abyad, an Arab-majority town located to the north of Raqqa city and near the Turkish border, was captured from Daesh in 2015 by the YPG in an offensive supported by US-led airstrikes. The YPG remains a reliable American partner in Syria. 

A potential operation in Tal Abyad, if it happens, would likely mark a new phase in Turkey’s military intervention in Syria by directly clashing with the YPG on the ground. 

Mete Sohtaoglu, an analyst on Syrian politics, expects Turkey’s operation in Tal Abyad to start by March 2019. 

“Turkey’s main objective is to wipe out all YPG presence in the east of the Euphrates. The details of the operation, if it occurs, will become clear following an upcoming meeting between Turkish and American presidents,” he told Arab News. 

“The operation is expected to begin from Turkey’s southeastern border town of Suruc, then will specifically include the zone between Tal Abyad and Kobani cantons,” he said. 

Although not officially confirmed, Trump and Erdogan are likely to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s 73rd session, which will begin on Sept. 25. 

According to Sohtaoglu, the prime condition for the US to address Ankara’s concerns and withdraw its support for the YPG would be a change of policy by Turkey about Iran. 

Ankara recently gave the green light for military cooperation with Washington in Syria. Since June 18, US and Turkish troops have been conducting “coordinated independent patrols” to the north of Manbij as part of the roadmap. 

In a press conference on Friday, Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin announced that Turkey would soon start joint training and patrols with the US in the Syrian Kurdish-held town of Manbij, but said Washington’s continuous arms support of the YPG was unacceptable.

The US State Department omitted the YPG and its political wing the Democratic Union Party (PYD) from its 2017 Country Reports on Terrorism, which was released on Wednesday.

However, some experts do not expect any decrease of US support to its local partner YPG, while mobilizing the forces alongside the border is a tactical move. 

“I don’t expect an imminent and direct military operation to Tal Abyad. I think the recent military reinforcement intends to put pressure on the US to quickly operationalize the joint roadmap on Manbij, another Kurdish-held province,” Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert at the Ankara-based think-tank ORSAM, told Arab News. 

Orhan thinks that Turkey’s tactical move would change the local balance in Tal Abyad. 

“It would create a sense that the Turkish army wants to enter the area and would incite some rebels. The removal of YPG from this province would undermine the terror group’s aim to create an integrated zone in this region because it will break the geographical continuity between the cantons,” he said. 

Further increasing its geographical importance, Tal Abyad is located on an intermediate point between the major cantons of Kobani and Qamishli. 

Orhan said that Turkey already had the support of Arab tribes that took refuge in Turkey from Tal Abyad, and Ankara’s ability to rally this support in an Arab-majority town would force the US to reconsider its alliance with the YPG. 

“In the past, the Arab tribes that took shelter in Turkey often expressed their willingness to take part in an Turkish operation to Tal Abyad if Ankara supports them,” he said. 

Last year in March, Turkey convened a meeting of about 50 Sunni Arab tribal leaders in the Turkish southeastern province of Sanliurfa that lies to the north of Tal Abyad, and their position against the YPG was put on the table.