Damascus shells Idlib after UN chief warns of ‘bloodbath’

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A man watches as smoke rises after what activists said was an air strike on Atimah, Idlib province March 8, 2015. (REUTERS)
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Children try improvised gas masks in their home in Binnish in Syria. (AFP )
Updated 12 September 2018
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Damascus shells Idlib after UN chief warns of ‘bloodbath’

  • Russia-backed government forces have been massing for weeks around Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people
  • UN agencies have warned that any major assault could spark one of the worst humanitarian disasters of Syria’s war

 

 

Government forces shelled Syria’s last major rebel bastion on Wednesday, hours after UN chief Antonio Guterres warned the Security Council any full-blown offensive in Idlib risks triggering a “bloodbath.” 

As troops massed for a Russian-backed offensive in the northwest, Kurdish-led rebels launched a US-backed assault in the east to oust Daesh from its last redoubt in the Euphrates Valley, the US-led coalition confirmed.

Intermittent artillery fire hit southern districts of Idlib province and adjacent rebel-held areas of Hama province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Britain-based war monitor did not immediately report any casualties from the bombardment which came after shelling and air strikes killed at least 15 civilians in the rebel zone since Sept. 4.

The northwestern province and adjacent areas form the largest chunk of territory still held by the rebels, who have been worn down by a succession of defeats in other parts of the country.

Russia-backed government forces have been massing for weeks around Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people, many of them already dependent on aid.

UN agencies and relief organizations have warned repeatedly that any major assault could spark one of the worst humanitarian disasters of Syria’s war.

“It is absolutely essential to avoid a full-scale battle in Idlib,” Guterres said on Tuesday.

“This would unleash a humanitarian nightmare unlike any seen in the blood-soaked Syrian conflict.”

Ankara, which already hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees, fears a new mass exodus and has called repeatedly for a cease-fire to give time for a negotiated settlement.

More than half of Idlib province is held by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, an extremist alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, and Turkey has warned a government offensive could scatter thousands of foreign extremists abroad, posing a security threat to the West.

A major battle would trigger a “massive wave of refugees and tremendous security risks for Turkey, the rest of Europe and beyond,” Turkish ambassador Feridun Sinirlioglu told the Security Council on Tuesday.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed strong support for the Turkish position, warning there were “many terrorists from other nations who could scatter” in the event of a joint Syrian-Russian offensive, posing “risks for our security.”

France, the European country worst hit by a wave of attacks since 2015, has been on high alert for radicals returning home from areas of Iraq and Syria that have been recaptured from Daesh.

In the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, US-backed fighters fought to oust Daesh from the town of Hajjin on the east bank of the Euphrates, the most significant remnant of the sprawling “caliphate” the jihadists once controlled spanning Syria and Iraq.

The operation “will clear remnants of Daesh from northeastern Syria along the Middle Euphrates River Valley toward the Syria-Iraq border,” the US-led coalition said.

In Idlib, civilians and fighters have been scrambling to prepare for the looming offensive.

Western governments have said Damascus might again resort to the use of chemical weapons while Moscow has accused rebels of staging one as a pretext for Western intervention.

In a southern part of Idlib, a worried father busied himself making homemade gas masks, by stuffing gauze, cotton wool and coal into paper cups, then placing them in the corner of a large plastic bag.

“We’ve been hearing the regime and Russia threaten to bomb us with chemical weapons,” said Hadheefa Al-Shahhad.

“We had to make these masks to protect our women and children just in case,” said the 27-year-old, who says he learnt how to make them by watching a video online.

On Tuesday, Russia claimed that Syrian rebels had begun working on film footage that would be presented to the world as the aftermath of an alleged chemical attack by the Syrian army.

Assad’s regime has been repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons during the conflict and last year US President Donald Trump unleashed Tomahawk missiles against the regime’s Shayrat air base following an attack that killed more than 80 people.

After another alleged toxic attack outside Damascus in April, Britain, France and the US also carried out retaliatory strikes.

Washington has spoken of far bigger reprisals if Assad orders any repetition.

“He’s been warned, and so we’ll see if he’s wised up,” US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday.

 


Tunisia’s premier unlikely to push reform as polls loom

Chahed has gathered enough support in Parliament to stave off a possible vote of no confidence. (Reuters)
Updated 22 September 2018
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Tunisia’s premier unlikely to push reform as polls loom

  • By surviving for more than two years, Chahed has become the longest-serving of Tunisia’s nine prime ministers since the Arab Spring in 2011
  • Western partners see him as the best guarantee of stability in an infant democracy that they are desperate to shore up

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has survived attempts by his own party and unions to force him out but, with elections looming, looks less and less able to enact the economic reforms that have so far secured IMF support for an ailing economy.

Last week, the Nidaa Tounes party suspended Chahed after a campaign by the party chairman, who is the son of President Beji Caid Essebsi.

Chahed has gathered enough support in Parliament to stave off a possible vote of no confidence by working with the co-ruling Islamist Ennahda party and a number of other lawmakers including 10 Nidaa Tounes rebels. But his political capital is now badly depleted.

By surviving for more than two years, Chahed has become the longest-serving of Tunisia’s nine prime ministers since the Arab Spring in 2011.

In that time, he 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.

Western partners see him as the best guarantee of stability in an infant democracy that they are desperate to shore up, not least as a bulwark against extremism.

Yet the economy, and living standards, continue to suffer: inflation and unemployment are at record levels, and goods such as medicines or even staples such as milk are often in short supply, or simply unaffordable to many.

And in recent months, the 43-year old former agronomist’s main focus has been to hold on to his job as his party starts to look to its ratings ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls in a year’s time.

The breathing space he has won is at best temporary; while propping him up for now, Ennahda says it will not back him to be prime minister again after the elections.

And, more pressingly, the powerful UGTT labor union on Thursday called a public sector strike for Oct. 24 to protest against Chahed’s privatization plans.

This month, the government once more raised petrol and electricity prices to secure the next tranche of loans, worth $250 million, which the IMF is expected to approve next week.

But the IMF also wants it to cut a public wage bill that takes up 15 percent of GDP, one of the world’s highest rates.