Daesh frustrates aid effort in northwest Syria

Syrian children queue to receive food distributed by aid workers at a makeshift camp north of Aleppo. (AFP/File)
Updated 07 May 2019

Daesh frustrates aid effort in northwest Syria

  • Around 2.7 million of its roughly 3 million residents need humanitarian assistance, according to the UN

BEIRUT: Threats, interference and aid deliveries in jeopardy — relief workers say Daesh terrorists are adding to the huge challenges they face in violence-plagued northwest Syria where a fragile cease-fire is at risk.

The Idlib region, controlled by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, is one of the last areas of the country that the Bashar Assad regime has yet to recapture.

Around 2.7 million of its roughly 3 million residents need humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.

Most rely heavily on food, medicine and other aid brought across from Turkey by the UN and charity groups.

But efforts by the “de-facto authorities” in Idlib “to tamper with, impede or frustrate the delivery of humanitarian assistance including by undermining the safety of humanitarian workers, has been an unfortunate reality,” said Rachel Sider of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

The Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) militant group and its civil wing — the so-called Salvation Government — cemented control over Idlib in the beginning of the year.

“The interference has increased since January,” said a humanitarian worker in Idlib, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

“There is not a single aid organization that has been spared threats, arrests, or closure for very silly reasons,” he said, even as Idlib has come under increased bombardment by the regime and its ally Russia over the past month.

In April, Daesh militants threatened to detain him because he refused to provide them with food baskets his team was distributing at a camp for the displaced in southern Idlib, he added. “They told me I should give them aid,” said the 27-year-old.

He said HTS also detained him for four days seven months ago in Idlib city for photographing aid deliveries without their authorization.

Militants beat him, confiscated his laptop, and broke his camera, he said.

“They told me I should thank God I was being released alive.”

Paul Donohoe of the International Rescue Committee said “aid groups face interference from armed groups in Idlib, such as the restricting of access to vulnerable populations or attempting to influence beneficiary selection and the location of aid delivery.”

He declined to provide more detail but a second humanitarian worker in Idlib, who also asked to remain anonymous, said several projects by international aid agencies have been dropped in recent months because of such meddling.

A plan to provide bakeries in Idlib with free flour was scrapped because the Salvation Government insisted on limiting beneficiaries to bakeries it is affiliated with, the 29-year-old said.

“Our activities as an organization have become very modest since this happened to us,” he added.

The governing body is also trying to ensure its affiliates are among those who secure tenders with aid agencies, which attempt to avoid this through screening, he said. “They want a cut of any project implemented in the area,” he added. The encroachment has sparked concern that relief items and aid money may fall into the wrong hands.

Sider, of the NRC, said: “In this environment, aid agencies cannot completely eliminate the risk of diversion and we’d like donors to recognize this.”

The UN has said it is taking extra measures to combat diversion.

They include “additional screening from partners, suppliers, even workers, staff, and third party monitoring, including the use of modern technology — barcoding, establishing hotlines — to be able to be sure that aid reaches the right people,” the UN regional coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, told AFP.

There has yet to be any major decrease in humanitarian assistance but some donors have cut funding, said Ahmed Mahmoud, Syria director for the Islamic Relief charity.

“So far, five major hospitals have had to close entirely and seven other medical facilities — including hospitals focusing on paediatrics and obstetrics — severely cut back their operations due to funding cuts,” he said.

Though there could also be other reasons, “some donors may have concerns regarding the shifts in control in northwestern Syria, which may have affected their funding decisions.

“As one facility after another shuts its doors, the pressure only grows on those that remain,” he said.

For its part, the Salvation Government denies jeopardizing relief efforts.


Hagia Sophia verdict seen as Erdogan’s attempt to ‘mask economic failure’

Updated 44 min 2 sec ago

Hagia Sophia verdict seen as Erdogan’s attempt to ‘mask economic failure’

  • President signs decree to reopen heritage site — Roman Empire’s first cathedral — as mosque

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree on Friday to reopen Hagia Sophia, the UNESCO world heritage site that was the Roman Empire’s first Christian cathedral, constructed in the sixth century CE, as a mosque.

UNESCO had previously urged Turkish authorities “to engage in dialogue before taking any decision that might impact the universal value of the site.”

The long-predicted move has been widely interpreted as an attempt to rally conservative nationalist voters around the ruling party and its nationalist coalition partner ahead of snap elections that many have forecast will happen next year. Several commentators, however, doubt the efficacy of the move given that — under the current economic conditions — the majority of the Turkish people are focused on more urgent matters.

Around 55 percent of respondents to a poll conducted by Turkey’s Metropoll in June said the main reason for announcing the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque would be to distract from debates on Turkey’s economic crisis and to boost the government’s hand ahead of a snap election.

Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the move is another step in Erdogan’s attempt to impose his “brand of conservative Islam,” in direct opposition to the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular revolution.

“Just as Ataturk ‘un-mosqued’ Hagia Sophia 86 years ago, and gave it museum status to underline his secularist revolution, Erdogan is remaking it a mosque to underline his religious revolution,” Cagaptay said.

The reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, regardless of domestic and international criticism, overlaps with Erdogan’s desire to be the “new sultan” of the country, he continued.

“Erdogan is already patronizing the construction of two mosques in Istanbul. He wants to leave a political and religious imprint behind, and Hagia Sophia completes his ‘trilogy’ of mosques,” he said.

But, Cagaptay noted, there is a tactical aspect to the announcement as well.

“As a nativist-populist leader, Erdogan hopes to rally his base by underlining their ‘victim’ narrative — saying, ’How dare these secularists deny us, pious Muslims, the liberty to pray at Hagia Sophia?’” he said.

BACKGROUND

  • The long-predicted move has been widely interpreted as an attempt to rally conservative- nationalist voters around the ruling party ahead of snap polls.

Cagaptay, along with other experts, believes any boost Erdogan may enjoy following the announcement will likely be undermined by Turkey’s ongoing economic challenges, including high inflation and unemployment rates.

Last year, Hagia Sophia drew 3.7 million tourists to its famed dome, rust-colored walls and ornamental minarets. But many believe Erdogan’s latest move will hurt the country’s popularity as a tourist destination.

“Turkey’s global brand as a Muslim-majority society that is open to its Christian past is going to be irreversibly damaged,” Cagaptay said.

“One of the effects of the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque will be a spike in Islamophobia in the West and elsewhere. Which, of course, Erdogan will then use to his advantage,” Dimitar Bechev of the Atlantic Council tweeted.