Airstrikes kill 16 civilians as US-backed Syrian forces battle to take last Daesh pocket

In this Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019 image from video provided by Hawar News Agency, ANHA, an online Kurdish news service, civilians flee fighting near Baghouz, Syria. (AP)
Updated 11 February 2019
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Airstrikes kill 16 civilians as US-backed Syrian forces battle to take last Daesh pocket

  • Seven children among the dead, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said
  • The SDF announced the final push to expel hundreds of diehard extremists from that patch on the Iraq border

NEAR BAGHOUZ: US-led coalition air strikes on the last Daesh pocket in Syria on Monday killed 16 civilians, including at least seven children, a war monitor said.
Eight women and one elderly man were also among the civilians killed while trying to flee towards the Iraqi border, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The coalition was not immediately available for comment, but has repeatedly said it does its utmost to avoid targeting civilians.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by artillery fire from a US-led coalition continued to battle a fierce extremist fightback Monday.
Mushrooming black clouds rose over the embattled extremist holdout in eastern Syria, as missiles and a warplane streaked through the sky.
More than four years after the extremists declared a “caliphate” across large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq, several offensives have whittled that proto-state down to a tiny holdout.
The SDF on Saturday announced the final push to expel hundreds of diehard extremists from that patch on the Iraq border.
The US-led coalition maintained a steady beat of bombings on the last Daesh pocket on Monday after an early morning Daesh counterattack caused several SDF casualties.
“IS launched a counterattack on our forces and we are now responding with rockets, air strikes and direct clashes,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told AFP.
The sound of bombs echoed dozens of kilometers away and columns of dark grey smoke could be seen from SDF territory.
Bali said there were “dozens of SDF hostages held by IS” inside their last foothold, but denied reports of executions.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters had pressed on Monday morning in the face of tough obstacles.
“The SDF are advancing slowly in what remains of the IS pocket” on the edges of the village of Baghouz, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
But land mines, Daesh snipers, and tunnels the extremists have dug out for their defense are hindering the advance, he said.
Backed by coalition air strikes, the SDF alliance has been battling to oust the extremists from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor since September.
Since December, tens of thousands of people, most women and children related to Daesh fighters, have fled to SDF territory.
US-backed forces have screened the new arrivals, weeding out potential extremists for questioning.
On Monday, dozens of coalition and SDF fighters were stationed at a screening point for new arrivals from Daesh areas.
Coalition forces stood over about 20 men who were crouching on the ground.
Some 600 people were able to reach SDF territory on Sunday after fleeing the fighting, the Observatory said.
Among them, were 20 suspected IS members, including two French women, seven Turks, and three Ukrainians, said the monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria.
The SDF — which has said it expects the final offensive to be over in days — announced Sunday that it had taken some 40 positions from the extremists following direct combat involving light weapons.
The alliance had earlier said that up to 600 jihadists as well as hundreds of civilians could remain inside a patch four square kilometers (one mile square).
Spokesman Bali said Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the man who pronounced the cross-border “caliphate” in 2014, was not among them, and likely not in Syria.


Israel’s Arabs poised to gain new voice after tight election

Updated 43 min 9 sec ago

Israel’s Arabs poised to gain new voice after tight election

  • The Arab bloc appears to have met or fallen short of its performance in 2015, when it won 13 seats

JERUSALEM: Israel’s Arab coalition appears poised to emerge as the main opposition bloc following Tuesday’s election, a historic first that would grant a new platform to a long-marginalized minority.
Near-complete results Wednesday indicated the Joint List won about a dozen seats in the 120-member assembly, coming third after the Blue and White party of former military chief Benny Gantz and the right-wing Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In absolute terms, the Arab bloc appears to have met or fallen short of its performance in 2015, when it won 13 seats.
But this time around, due to the shifting constellation of Israeli politics, it would be well-placed to lead the opposition if a national unity government of the two largest parties is formed, as seems likely.
That would put a representative of Israel’s Arab citizens closer to the center of power than ever before and strengthen their ability to influence the national agenda.
A TARGET OF INCITEMENT
Israel’s Arab minority makes up about 20% of the population of 9 million, and is descended from Palestinians who stayed in Israel after it was established as a state in 1948. They officially enjoy full citizenship, including the right to vote, but they lived under martial law until 1966 and still suffer widespread discrimination.
Decades of marginalization have bred voter apathy, and in April’s elections more than half the Arab electorate stayed home. This time around, Arab leaders joined forces and mobilized turnout, vowing to topple Netanyahu and push for improvements in public services.
Arab citizens have close family, cultural and historical ties to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and largely identify with the Palestinian cause. That has led many Israelis to view them as a fifth column and a security threat. Netanyahu has repeatedly branded them as terrorists and traitors in a bid to energize his right-wing base, in remarks widely condemned as racist incitement.
In the closing hours of the 2015 elections, Netanyahu warned that Arabs were voting in “droves.” This time around, he pushed for the placement of cameras at polling stations in Arab districts based on unfounded claims of widespread fraud, saying Arabs were trying to “steal” the election . Facebook suspended an automated chat function on his account for 24 hours last week after it published a post saying, “Arabs want to annihilate all of us.”
Netanyahu appeared to double down in his election-night speech, saying no Israeli government could include “anti-Zionist Arab parties” that “reject the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and “praise bloodthirsty terrorists who murder our soldiers, citizens and children.”
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VICTORY AT THE POLLS
Netanyahu’s tactics appear to have backfired.
The increased turnout among Arab voters propelled the bloc to a strong showing and may have denied Netanyahu the right-wing coalition he had desperately sought.
“There is no other prime minister who incited against us like Netanyahu,” Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, told Israeli media as the initial results trickled in. “There’s a limit. The Arab citizens undoubtedly felt that they became a persecuted minority, an endangered minority.”
Arab leaders seemed to savor Netanyahu’s apparent comeuppance. “We voted in droves,” Ahmad Tibi, an Arab member of parliament, tweeted in Hebrew.
The Joint List is unlikely to sit in any Israeli government because that would entail endorsing military operations against the Palestinians. Many Jewish-majority parties still refuse to sit with Arabs as political partners.
But the Arab parties’ increased clout could allow them to block right-wing legislation like the law narrowly passed last year defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. An informal alliance supporting the ruling coalition from the outside could also help deliver legislation to improve housing, education and law enforcement in long-marginalized Arab communities.
The Arab bloc is also expected to advocate for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians at a time when none of Israel’s main parties has made the peace process a priority.
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A NEW PLATFORM
Neither Gantz nor Netanyahu have enough support to form a government without the Yisrael Beitenu party led by Avigdor Lieberman, who has emerged as kingmaker .
Lieberman, a right-winger with a history of incendiary remarks about Arabs, has demanded a national unity government with Likud and Blue and White. That would leave the Joint List as the largest party outside the government and make Odeh Israel’s first-ever Arab opposition leader.
In his official duties as opposition leader, Odeh would hold monthly consultations with the prime minister and meet with visiting dignitaries. He would be granted a state-funded bodyguard, access to high-level security briefings and an official platform to rebut the prime minister’s speeches in parliament.
“This is a very significant, unprecedented level for us,” Odeh told Army Radio. “When presidents from around the world come they’ll meet with us as well.” He has described the prospect of an Arab leader receiving security briefings as “interesting.”
Odeh says his bloc also mobilized support from Israeli Jews, some of whom welcomed its success.
Nahum Barnea, a prominent columnist with Israel’s main daily Yedioth Ahronoth, said the Joint List’s achievement should be measured not in the number of seats it won but in “its ability to build bridges to the mainstream of Israeli politics and society.”
“It is unthinkable to continue to exclude and to humiliate forever 20% of the electorate,” he wrote. “Their expectations in all that pertains to integration, influence and respect all emanate from the ground up. Those expectations have to be met somehow.”