Palestinian leader’s health scares spark succession talk

Abbas, a heavy smoker with long-standing heart problems who turns 83 next week, insists he is fine. (AP)
Updated 22 March 2018
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Palestinian leader’s health scares spark succession talk

RAMALLAH, West Bank: A series of recent health scares have raised new concerns about octogenarian President Mahmoud Abbas, reviving anxiety about a potentially chaotic, and even bloody, succession battle that is bound to further weaken the Palestinian cause.
In the latest sign of Abbas’ health troubles, officials and medical sources say a cardiologist has moved into the presidential compound in Ramallah to monitor the longtime leader.
The move follows a mysterious hospital visit in the US after Abbas appeared weak in an address to the UN Security Council.
Abbas, a heavy smoker with long-standing heart problems who turns 83 next week, insists he is fine. But after more than a decade of avoiding discussion of the post-Abbas era, Palestinian officials acknowledge that they are concerned, and potential successors are quietly jockeying for position.
The topic of succession has been taboo in Palestinian official circles since Abbas took office 14 years ago. Abbas took over as a caretaker leader following the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004, and was elected for what was supposed to be a five-year term the following year. He has remained in firm control since then, refusing to designate a successor while a political split with rival Hamas prevented new elections.
Abbas has a long history of health issues, ranging from his heart troubles to a bout with prostate cancer a decade ago. Last summer, he underwent a health checkup at a Ramallah hospital and separately, dispelled rumors he had suffered a stroke. Two years ago, he underwent an emergency heart procedure after suffering exhaustion and chest pains. He suffers from arterial plaque and has had stents implanted.
Concerns deepened after Abbas’ Feb. 20 appearance before the UN Security Council, where he appeared to struggle for breath at times.
After the speech, he traveled to Baltimore for a series of tests at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Feeling fatigued, Abbas then decided to return to the West Bank rather than continue on to Venezuela, as initially planned, according to three Abbas aides who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are under strict orders not to discuss his health.
It was rare for the globetrotting Abbas to cancel a planned trip.
Abbas said after his return that the medical tests conducted in the US yielded “positive and reassuring” results, but did not elaborate.
A Palestinian official and two medical sources said a heart specialist is now present at the presidential compound whenever Abbas is there. Abbas’ regular physician visits the compound every day as well.
The medical sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss Abbas’ health. One said he requires medication and close attention.


US, allies set to evacuate Syrian aid workers from southwest

Updated 20 July 2018
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US, allies set to evacuate Syrian aid workers from southwest

  • US officials say the United States is finalizing plans to evacuate several hundred Syrian civil defense workers and their families from southwest Syria
  • Two officials familiar with the plans said Thursday that the US, Britain and Canada are spearheading the evacuation that would transport members of the White Helmets group to transit camps

WASHINGTON: US officials say the United States is finalizing plans to evacuate several hundred Syrian civil defense workers and their families from southwest Syria as Russian-backed government forces close in on the area.
Two officials familiar with the plans said Thursday that the US, Britain and Canada are spearheading the evacuation that would transport members of the White Helmets group to transit camps in neighboring countries. From there, they will be sent to third countries, including Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and possibly Canada, according to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
The officials, and a member of the White Helmets who is due to be evacuated from Quneitra province, said the operation appears to be imminent as the Syrian army continues to gain ground in its latest offensive. The White Helmets, who have enjoyed backing from the US and other Western nations for years, are likely to be targeted by Syrian forces as they retake control of the southwest, according to the officials.
The officials said planning for the evacuation has been taking place for some time but accelerated after last week’s NATO summit in Brussels.
“These are hard hours and minutes,” the White Helmets volunteer in Quneitra said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear for his life. “This is the worst day of my life. I hope they rescue us before it is too late.”
The evacuation is expected to take place from Quneitra, which straddles the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and where the civil defense team is trapped. It is the last sliver of land still outside government control in the region.
Since the government offensive began in June, the area along the frontier with the Golan Heights has been the safest in the southwestern region, attracting hundreds of displaced people because is along the disengagement line with Israel demarcated in 1974 after a war. The Syrian government is unlikely to fire there or carry out airstrikes.
Negotiations are also ongoing to evacuate armed rebels and their families who don’t want to accept the return of the rule of Bashar Assad’s government to Quneitra, which the rebels have controlled for years. The fighters will be evacuated to the northern part of Syria, where the opposition still holds sway.
Except for that sliver of land, the southern tip of the southwestern region lies along the border with Jordan and the Golan Heights and is occupied by a Daesh-affiliated group. The area is expected to be the target of the next government advances and the civil defense teams don’t operate there.
The White Helmets are not without controversy. They only operate in opposition-held areas, where government services are almost non-existent and aerial bombings are recurrent. Syrian government supporters accuse them of being politically affiliated with the rebel groups. Russia and the Syrian government have repeatedly accused them of staging chemical attacks in opposition areas, a charge that has never been proven.
They have continued to receive US support even as President Donald Trump presses ahead with his plans to withdraw all American forces from Syria as soon as Islamic State forces are routed.
In June, the State Department freed up a small portion — $6.6 million out of some $200 million — in frozen funding for Syria stabilization programs to keep the White Helmets operating through the end of this year.
In other parts of Syria, where government control has been restored, civil defense volunteers have almost always evacuated to other opposition-controlled areas. It is not clear why this time they will be evacuated out of the country.