Cat-and-mouse game over Syria’s Palmyra continues

Cat-and-mouse game over Syria’s Palmyra continues
Smoke billows in the background as Syrian regime fighters advance to retake the ancient city of Palmyra from Daesh. (AFP)
Updated 03 March 2017

Cat-and-mouse game over Syria’s Palmyra continues

Cat-and-mouse game over Syria’s Palmyra continues

BEIRUT: Daesh and the Syrian regime continued to play cat and mouse in the historic Syrian city of Palmyra on Thursday as President Bashar Assad’s forces claimed they had completed the recapture of the city with the help of Russian air power.
The oasis city has traded hands several times during Syria’s six-year civil war and become a symbol of Daesh’s wanton destruction of priceless cultural heritage in areas under its control.
Bolstered by airstrikes and ground troops from their ally Moscow, Syrian forces battled through the desert for weeks to reach Palmyra.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin of Palmyra’s recapture, a Kremlin spokesman told news agencies in Moscow.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said the terrorists had withdrawn from the desert city but not before mining several areas.
“The Syrian Army is still clearing neighborhoods of mines and has not spread out into the whole city yet,” said its director, Rami Abdel Rahman.
Meanwhile, a senior member of the main Syrian opposition said the prospects for progress after a week of peace talks in Geneva were “very dim.”
“We are convinced that there is no military solution, we are going for a political solution,” Basma Kodmani, a negotiator for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), told a side event in Geneva.
“But there is no prospect as you can tell from the end of this second week or 10 days of talks here in Geneva. The prospects are very dim.”
Russia accused the HNC of “sabotaging” sputtering talks and questioned their ability to reach a deal.
“The results of the first days of the intra-Syrian dialogues, as before, raise questions over the ability of the Syrian opposition representatives to reach a deal,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
Syrian regime negotiator Bashar Al-Jaafari accused the opposition of holding talks hostage because of their reported refusal to unify under one opposition delegation and include terrorism on agenda.
“Counter-terrorism operations will continue until the last inch of territory from our country is retaken from the foreign terrorists who are wreaking havoc,” Al-Jaafari said.
The lead negotiator said he hoped US President Donald Trump would correct the “catastrophic” errors of his predecessor Barack Obama to become a reliable partner against “devilish” Iran.
“The people in Syria paid a high price because of the catastrophic mistakes made by the Obama administration,” Nasr Al-Hariri told reporters in a briefing after meeting UN mediator Staffan de Mistura.
“Obama lied and he did not keep any of the promises he made for the Syrian people. He drew red lines that he erased himself, he kept silent on crimes committed by Bashar Assad.”
Hariri said: “We reiterated the devilish role that Iran is playing through hundreds of thousands of fighters on the Syrian soil.”
Trump’s administration has so far done little to suggest it is willing to engage in finding a political solution for Syria.
“Their policy is still unknown,” said a Western diplomat at the talks. “They are almost not here.”
While Western envoys were coordinating with the Syrian opposition in Geneva, the US envoy kept his head down and left after a few days to deal with other issues.
“The US is not a direct participant in the UN-led talks,” a spokesperson for the US Mission in Geneva said. “The US remains committed to any process that can result in a political resolution to the Syrian crisis.”
When asked during a White House briefing this week about the talks, spokesman Sean Spicer gave no clear answer on how Washington saw the process or Assad’s role. 
Hariri said the opposition had common ground with Trump because both wanted to fight terrorism and curtail Iranian influence. Washington, he said, should support the opposition.
Separately, Al-Qaeda confirmed that a US-led coalition drone strike had killed senior leader Abu Al-Khayr Al-Masri in Syria.
A statement issued by the militant group’s Maghreb and Arabian Peninsula branches said he died in a “treacherous” drone strike it described as a “new crime by America and the crusader coalition.”


UK imams mobilize to counter COVID-19 vaccine disinformation

UK imams mobilize to counter COVID-19 vaccine disinformation
Updated 8 min 48 sec ago

UK imams mobilize to counter COVID-19 vaccine disinformation

UK imams mobilize to counter COVID-19 vaccine disinformation
  • A report from the scientific committee advising the government showed stronger mistrust of vaccines among ethnic minorities than the rest of the UK population
  • Imams are pushing back in particular at fears among Britain’s estimated 2.8 million Muslims that the vaccines contain pork gelatin or alcohol

LONDON: Imams across Britain are helping a drive to dispel coronavirus disinformation, using Friday sermons and their influential standing within Muslim communities to argue that Covid-19 vaccines are safe.
Qari Asim, chairman of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) which is leading a campaign to reassure its faithful, is among those publically advocating that the inoculations are compatible with Islamic practices.
“We are confident that the two vaccines that have been used in the UK, Oxford AstraZeneca and Pfizer, are permissible from an Islamic perspective,” he told AFP.
“The hesitancy, the anxiety (and) concern is driven by misinformation, conspiracy theories, fake news and rumors.”
Britain, the hardest-hit country in Europe by the virus after registering nearly 95,000 deaths, is relying on its biggest-ever vaccination effort to end repeated cycles of lockdowns and restrictions.
However, a report from the scientific committee advising the government showed stronger mistrust of vaccines among ethnic minorities than the rest of the UK population.
It highlighted that 72 percent of Black survey respondents were unlikely or very unlikely to get the vaccine.
Among those from Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds, the figure was 42 percent.
Imams are pushing back in particular at fears among Britain’s estimated 2.8 million Muslims that the vaccines contain pork gelatin or alcohol, which are banned by Islam.
Asim said it was “legitimate” to question whether things were permissible under Islam but without paying attention to unfounded claims.
Among the falsehoods spread about the vaccine are that it can modify DNA, make recipients sterile, or even involve inserting a microchip in the body.
Misinformation around the coronavirus is all the more dangerous given several studies have shown that it can impact minorities disproportionately.
“These are precisely the communities we should be trying to target,” said Nighat Arif, a general practitioner based in Chesham, near London.
When she received her vaccination, she posted a video in Urdu on social media aimed at the language’s speakers living in Britain.
“I’m hoping that because they see someone who looks like them, who is a practicing Muslim, wears a hijab, someone who is Asian who speaks their language, that’s more relatable than something that’s coming through from the government,” she added.
Arif is still surprised by the refusal of certain patients to be inoculated, noting they will often get vaccinated to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabi, or to visit Pakistan or India.
She blames conspiracy theories spread online, which contribute to the science behind the process “being lost.”
Samara Afzal, 34, a general practitioner at Netherton Health Center in Dudley in the West Midlands, also shared a video in Urdu with her 35,000 Twitter followers to “debunk some myths.”
She said some people had asked her to send the video directly to them so they could forward it to skeptical loved ones via social tools like WhatsApp.
At her medical center, Afzal estimates that around 40 to 50 people out of 1,000 have refused to be vaccinated when she had expected only one or two.
“It’s still a fair amount of people that are saying no and obviously we haven’t even addressed the younger ones, so this is just the elderly,” she added.
“So I’m sure when it comes down to the younger ones, there’ll be a lot more that say no.”
Around five million people, almost entirely the elderly and caregivers, have already received a first dose of the vaccine in the UK, the highest rate in Europe.
In a sign of officials’ concerns about minority take-up of the jabs, the state-run health service is mobilizing “influencers” in communities to convince the skeptics.
“There’s a big piece of work happening where we’re translating information, we’re making sure the look and feel of it reaches the populations that matter,” Harpreet Sood, a doctor who is leading the anti-disinformation campaign, told the BBC.
A vaccination center has even been set up in a mosque in Birmingham, Britain’s second biggest city, which has a large south Asian population.
Imam Nuru Mohammed said the move sent “a big ‘no to fake news’” message to his 2,000-strong religious community and beyond.
He shared the video of his own vaccination on social media.
For Asim, the MINAB chairman whose mosque is in Leeds, in northern England, their efforts also help counter far-right claims.
“If there was a lower take-up of vaccines in Muslim communities in comparison to all other communities, then potentially, it could fan the flames of Islamophobia,” he noted.
“And in this pandemic, no one should be scapegoated.”