Besieged civilians despair as Assad army pounds Aleppo

A Syrian boy holds his brother as they wait outside a makeshift hospital following a government airstrike on the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, on Friday. Douma, the largest town in the eastern Ghouta area with more than 100,000 residents, is surrounded and regularly shelled by regime forces. (AFP)
Updated 26 November 2016

Besieged civilians despair as Assad army pounds Aleppo

ALEPPO: The Syrian Army advanced in Aleppo on Friday, pounding the rebel-held east with strikes that killed dozens and added to the despair for more than 250,000 civilians under siege.

Ten days into the Syrian government's renewed bid to recapture all of battered second city Aleppo, regime bombardment has killed nearly 190 civilians and left residents desperate for respite.
The regime is hoping to score its most important victory yet of the five-year civil war, dealing a potentially decisive blow to the rebels by recapturing eastern neighborhoods they overran in 2012.
Civilians in the east have been under siege by the army since July, with food and fuel supplies dwindling and international aid completely exhausted.
On Thursday alone, 32 civilians were killed in airstrikes and artillery fire on eastern neighborhoods, among them five children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“I'm terrified by the army's advance and the increasing bombardment,” said Abu Raed, a father-of-four living in Fardos neighborhood. “There's no safe place for me and my family.”
The Observatory said the army now controlled more than 60 percent of the strategic Masaken Hanano district and was pushing on.
Masaken Hanano is east Aleppo's largest district and its capture would cut the rebel-held sector in two.
The advances have been accompanied by relentless air and artillery bombardment, with medical staff in the east accusing the army of dropping barrel bombs filled with chlorine gas.
Retaliatory rocket fire by the rebels has killed at least 18 civilians in the government-held west, 10 of them children, according to the Observatory.
On Thursday night, rescue workers in several parts of the east battled to extricate civilians trapped under the rubble of bombed buildings.
In Bab Al-Nayrab, an AFP cameraman saw rescuers battle for more than an hour to pull out a seriously wounded boy. The lower part of his body was trapped and the back of his head badly gashed.
He cried out “father, father,” as the rescuers used pickaxes to break up the concrete surrounding him.
The desperate conditions have prompted some civilians to flee.
On the ground, residents expressed despair.
“Living under these circumstances is unbearable,” said 43-year-old Mohammed Haj Hussein, in Tariq Al-Bab district.
“There's no work, there's no food, and the bombing is incessant ... I want to get out of here by any means possible.”
In Bab Al-Nayrab district, Abu Hussein said: “I don't know what the UN is waiting for. Why don't they at least evacuate the children and women?” The UN says it has a plan to deliver aid to Aleppo and evacuate the sick and wounded, which rebel factions have approved.
But Damascus has yet to agree, and additional guarantees are needed from Moscow, UN officials say.
On Thursday, the head of the UN-backed humanitarian taskforce for Syria, Jan Egeland, warned there was no plan B to help civilians in east Aleppo.
“In many ways plan B is that people starve, and can we allow that to happen? No we cannot,” he said.
Lebanese special forces captured 11 members of Daesh, including a local commander, in an operation Friday near the border with Syria, the military said in a statement.
The army said the operation near the border town of Arsal targeted a Daesh center. It said the local Daesh commander in the town, Ahmad Youssef Amoun, was captured after being seriously wounded. No troops were hurt, it said.
Hundreds of Daesh fighters are based in the area along the Lebanon-Syria border from where they launch attacks inside Lebanon.
Photographs said to be of Amoun and posted on local media websites showed a young man with a thick black beard lying on a hospital bed, a blood-stained white sheet covering most of his body.
Lebanon's new President, Michel Aoun, less than a month in office, praised the “pre-emptive security operation,” according to a presidential statement.
“Such special operations strengthen stability and limit terrorist schemes,” Aoun was quoted as saying.
The military said Amoun was behind several explosions that hit Lebanon recently, including the predominantly Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut, and took part in attacks against army positions in border areas.
Friday's operation came two months after Lebanese commandos detained a Daesh commander, Imad Yassin, in an operation in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein El-Helweh, near the southern city of Sidon.
Separately, a Turkish soldier was killed and five wounded in clashes with Daesh in northern Syria, the military said on Friday, as Turkish-backed rebels pressed an offensive to take the city of Al-Bab from the radical group. The latest casualties bring the number of Turkish soldiers killed in Syria to 17 since Ankara launched a cross-border incursion on Aug. 24 to try to push Daesh and Kurdish fighters from the border, according to Turkish media.
The Turkish military said four Syrian rebels had been killed and 25 wounded in clashes in the 24 hours to Friday morning. Turkish fighter jets were continuing to strike Daesh targets near Al-Bab, it said.
The advance by the largely Turkmen and Arab rebels towards Al-Bab, the last urban stronghold of Daesh in the northern Aleppo countryside, potentially pits them against Kurdish fighters and Syrian government forces.


Iranians awaiting US election results with bated breath

Updated 12 min 22 sec ago

Iranians awaiting US election results with bated breath

  • Khamenei himself hasn’t commented on the election, even as public interest has soared

DUBAI: Top officials in Iran say the upcoming US election doesn’t matter, but nearly everyone else there seems to be holding their breath.
The race for the White House could mean another four years of President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Or it could bring Joe Biden, who has raised the possibility of the US returning to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
In the upper levels of Iran’s Islamic republic, overseen by 81-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, anti-Americanism is as deeply entrenched as at any time since the 1979 Islamic revolution, with presidents from both parties seen as equally repugnant.
“America has a deep-rooted enmity against the Iranian nation and whether Trump is elected or Biden, it will not have any impact on the US main policy to strike the Iranian nation,” parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf said in September, according to the semiofficial Fars news agency.
But noticeably, Khamenei himself hasn’t commented on the election, even as public interest has soared. State-run radio rebroadcast a BBC Farsi-language service simulcast of the presidential debates live — even as Iran continues to target journalists for the British broadcaster.
That interest allegedly includes Iran’s security apparatus as well. US officials accuse the Islamic republic of sending emails to voters seeking to intimidate them into voting for Trump. It may have been an attempt to link the president to apparent election interference in order to sow chaos, like Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 election. Tehran denies being involved.
The Iranian public is paying attention. The state-owned polling center ISPA said this month that 55 percent of people believe the outcome of the election will affect Iran “a lot.” Over half expected Trump would win, while a fifth said Biden. ISPA said it surveyed over 1,600 people by telephone, and did not provide a margin of error.
Trump’s reelection would mean the extension of his pressure campaign, including sanctions on Khamenei and other senior officials. Some of the sanctions are largely symbolic — Khamenei has only once traveled to America and does not hold any US bank accounts — but others have devastated the economy and sent the local currency into freefall. As a hedge, Iranians have poured money into foreign currency, real estate, precious metals and the stock market — which hit a record high in August.
Trump on the campaign trail has hit on that and his decision to launch a drone strike that killed a top Iranian general in January — a move that led Tehran to launch a retaliatory ballistic missile strike, wounding dozens of American troops.
To cheers, Trump has described the general, Qassem Soleimani, as “the world’s No. 1 terrorist,” likely due to him being blamed for the improvised explosive devices that maimed US troops in Iraq and for supporting Syria’s Bashar Assad. Many Iranians revered Solemani for fighting against Daesh and in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and millions flooded the streets for his funeral processions.
“The first call I get when we win will be from the head of Iran, let’s make a deal. Their economy is crashing,” Trump told a campaign rally in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Monday. “They will call and I want them to do well, but they cannot have a nuclear weapon.”
Biden has left open the possibility of returning to the nuclear deal, in which Tehran agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. The other signatories — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — have remained committed to the agreement and allowed a UN arms embargo to expire as part of the deal, despite a White House push to keep it in place.
After Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and restored crippling sanctions, Iran began publicly abandoning the agreement’s limits on enrichment. It now has at least 2.32 tons of low-enriched uranium, according to a September report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Experts typically say 1.15 tons of low-enriched uranium is enough material to be re-enriched for one nuclear weapon.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and still allows IAEA inspectors to monitor its atomic sites. But experts say the “breakout time” needed for Iran to build one nuclear weapon if it chooses to do so has dropped from one year under the deal to as little as three months.
Iran in the past also has threatened to abandon a nuclear nonproliferation treaty or expel international inspectors. It recently began construction at an underground nuclear site, likely building a new centrifuge assembly plant after a reported sabotage attack there earlier this year.
“’America First’ has made America alone,” Biden said at a televised ABC town hall this month, playing on a longtime Trump slogan. “You have Iran closer to having enough nuclear material to build a bomb.”
What a return to the deal means, however, is in question. Biden’s campaign website says he would use “hard-nosed diplomacy and support from our allies to strengthen and extend it.” One criticism of the accord was its narrow focus on the nuclear program, despite concerns by the US, Israel and its Gulf Arab allies over Iran’s ballistic missile program and its presence in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
Iran maintains that its ballistic missile program is vital for deterring potential attacks and non-negotiable. It is also unlikely to cease its military activities in Syria and Iraq, where it spent considerable blood and treasure in the war against Daesh.
But ensuring the survival of the Islamic republic, particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic, may require the same flexibility that saw Iran agree to negotiations with the US in the first place. Iran will hold a presidential election in June, but any decision to re-engage with Washington would have to be made by the supreme leader.
“Khamenei’s revolutionary path actually leads to America — that is, by seeking a stable, safe, and meticulously measured relationship with the United States, he believes he can guarantee the survival of both the regime and its revolutionary content and orientation,” wrote Mehdi Khalaji, a Qom-trained Shiite theologian who is an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Tehran’s objective is therefore a scandalous paradox: Deal with America to remain anti-American.”