Next priority is retaking Idlib, Assad tells Russian media

Syrian fighters have suffered military setbacks in Quneitra province. (Reuters)
Updated 28 July 2018

Next priority is retaking Idlib, Assad tells Russian media

MOSCOW: Syrian President Bashar Assad told Russian media on Thursday his regime’s next priority would be retaking Idlib province, currently dominated by the opposition.

“Now Idlib is our goal, but not just Idlib,” Assad said of the northwestern province, in comments carried on Russian newswires.

“There are of course territories in the eastern part of Syria that are controlled by various groups... So we will be moving into all these regions,” Assad added.

“The military — and it is at their discretion — will decide priorities and Idlib is one of these priorities,” he said.

“Now we have liberated Ghouta, we will finish the liberation of the south-western part of Syria,” Assad said.

Syrian regime forces launched an offensive last month backed by Russian planes to retake the south of Syria, including Daraa and Quneitra provinces.

Russia, Turkey and Iran have held talks under the Astana peace process launched last year and agreed to create four “de-escalation” zones to pave the way for a nationwide cease-fire.

Idlib is part of one such zone. It borders Turkey to the northwest but is otherwise almost totally surrounded by regime territory, prompting fears the regime would eventually attack it.

Idlib has received many fighters and their families evacuated from other regions under Russian-brokered “reconciliation deals” that then saw regime forces move in to take rebel-held areas.

According to the UN, Idlib’s population today stands at 2.5 million — half of them displaced people.

In the same interview, Assad said rescue workers from the White Helmets group would be killed if they did not turn themselves in.

He said the White Helmets volunteers were a cover for militant groups.

“Either they can lay down their arms as part of an amnesty ongoing for four or five years, or they will be liquidated like any other terrorist,” Assad said.

Israel on Sunday helped more than 400 people — opposition-linked White Helmets rescuers and their families — flee a pocket of southwest Syria as regime forces bore down on them. But hundreds more remain trapped in the south, fearing reprisals from approaching regime troops. Damascus accuses the White Helmets of being a front for terrorists.

Assad also appealed for Syrian refugees, especially those who had their own businesses in the country, to return.

The rapid return of refugees to Syria is the main issue being discussed between Damascus and Moscow, he said.

Assad said Russian forces were needed in the country long-term and for more than just fighting terrorism.

“Russian armed forces are needed for balance in our region, at least in the Middle East, until the global political balance changes. And this might not even happen, we do not know. So it is important and necessary,” Interfax news agency cited Assad as saying.

He said Syria’s agreement with Russia over the Hmeimim military base was signed to last over 40 years, indicating that the relationship between the two countries was of a long-term nature, Interfax reported.


Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

Updated 24 August 2019

Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

  • Egyptian social startups are taking alternative approaches to fostering awareness and reducing waste

CAIRO: Global plastics production reached 348 million tons in 2017, rising from 335 million tons in 2016, according to Plastics Europe. 

Critically, most plastic waste is not properly managed: Around 55 percent of it was landfilled or discarded in 2015. These numbers are extremely concerning because plastic products take anything from 450 to 1,000 years to decompose, and the effects on the environment, especially on marine and human life, are catastrophic.

While initiatives around the world are taking action to combat this problem, some Egyptian projects are doing it more creatively.

“We’re the first website in the Middle East and North Africa that trades waste,” said Alaa Afifi, founder and CEO of Bekia. “People can get rid of any waste at their disposal — plastic, paper and cooking oil — and exchange it for over 65 products on our website.”

Products for trading include rice, tea, pasta, cooking oil, subway tickets and school supplies.

Bekia was launched in Cairo in 2017. Initially, the business model did not prove successful.

“We used to rent a car and go to certain locations every 40 days to collect waste from people,” Afifi, 26, explained. “We then created a website and started encouraging people to use it.”

After the website was launched, people could wait at home for someone to collect the waste. “Instead of 40 days, we now could visit people within a week.”

To use Bekia’s services, people need to log onto the website and specify what they want to discard. They are assigned points based on the waste they are offering, and these points can be used in one of three ways: Donated to people in need, saved for later, or exchanged for products. As for the collected waste, it is given to specialized recycling companies for processing.

“We want to have 50,000 customers over the next two years who regularly use our service to get rid of their waste,” Afifi said.  

Trying to spread environmental awareness has not been easy. “We had a lot of trouble with initial investment at first, and we got through with an investment that was far from enough. The second problem we faced was spreading this culture among people — in the first couple of months, we received no orders,” Afifi said.

The team soldiered on and slowly built a client base, currently serving 7,000 customers. In terms of what lies ahead for Bekia, he said: “We’re expanding from 22 to 30 areas in Cairo this year. We’re launching an app very soon and a new website with better features.”

Go Clean, another Egyptian recycling startup dedicated to raising environmental awareness, works under the patronage of the Ministry of Environment. “We started in 2017 by recycling waste from factories, and then by February 2019 we started expanding,” said founder and CEO Mohammed Hamdy, 30.

The Cairo-based company collects recyclables from virtually all places, including households, schools, universities, restaurants, cafes, companies and embassies. The customers separate the items into categories and then fill out a registration form. Alternatively, they can make contact through WhatsApp or Facebook. A driver is then dispatched to collect the waste, carrying a scale to weigh it. 

“The client can be paid in cash for the weight of their recyclables, or they can make a donation to a special needs school in Cairo,” Hamdy explained. There is also the option of trading the waste for dishwashing soap, with more household products to be added in the future.

Trying to cover a country with 100 million people was never going to be easy, and Go Clean faced some logistical problems. It overcame them by hiring more drivers and getting more trucks. There was another challenge along the way: “We had to figure out a way to train the drivers, from showing them how to use GPS and deal with clients,” said Hamdy.

“We want to spread awareness about the environment everywhere. We go to schools, universities, companies and even factories to give sessions about the importance of recycling and how dangerous plastic is. We’re currently covering 20 locations across Cairo and all of Alexandria. We want to cover all of Egypt in the future,” he added.

With a new app on the way, Hamdy said things are looking positive for the social startup, and people are becoming invested in the initiative. “We started out with seven orders per day, and now we get over 100.”