Syrian regime gains ground in opposition bastion

Members of the Syrian Civil Defense, or White Helmets, gather at the site of a reported airstrike on the town of Ariha, in the south of Syria's Idlib province on Wednesday. (AFP)
Updated 01 August 2019

Syrian regime gains ground in opposition bastion

  • Damascus vows to capture Idlib if ‘Russia does not reach a diplomatic solution with pro-opposition Turkey’

BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces have gained some ground in the country’s last opposition bastion during a Russian-backed offensive that aid agencies warn is growing bloodier.

The wave of violence in northwest Syria since late April has killed more than 400 civilians and forced more than 440,000 to flee toward the Turkish border, the UN said last week.

Syria’s army seized a handful of villages, fields and hills in the Hama countryside in the past two days, a military media unit for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which fights alongside Damascus, said on Thursday.

The region — including Idlib province and parts of nearby Hama — is part of the last major stronghold of armed opposition to Syria’s Bashar Assad, who has vowed to reclaim all of Syria, though his side has not made major advances in this latest assault.

In rare public comments, the Syrian army’s political chief pledged to seize Idlib if Russia, Assad’s key ally, does not reach a diplomatic solution with Turkey, long an opposition backer.

Airstrikes by the Syrian regime and its allies have hit schools, hospitals, markets and bakeries, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said last week. She denounced the “apparent international indifference” to the mounting civilian casualties.

Bombing has escalated in the last four weeks, killing and wounding more people than at any time this year, the nonprofit Doctors Without Borders said on Wednesday night.

At least 33 children were killed since the end of June, more than during all of 2018, the charity Save the Children said last week. “Bodies, some torn into pieces or burned beyond recognition, are still being recovered from the rubble,” it said.

Maj. Gen. Hasan Hasan, head of the Syrian Army’s political bureau, said on Thursday that the military path to eliminate “terrorism” in the north is ongoing.

He told the pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper that it would be good if Moscow or Tehran could find a solution through talks with Ankara, which has Turkish forces stationed in the northwest.

“But at the same time, when matters reach a dead end, then the Syria Arab Army which cleansed all these vast areas ... will not stop at all, neither at Idlib nor at any area,” he said.

The dominant force in Idlib is Tahrir Al-Sham, formerly the Nusra Front, and factions backed by Turkey also have a presence in the region.

The regime has described its operations as responses to militant violations and has denied targeting civilians during the eight-year war.

Idlib falls within a “de-escalation zone” agreed on last year.


Lebanese protests swell as cabinet to hold key meeting

Updated 21 October 2019

Lebanese protests swell as cabinet to hold key meeting

  • Hundreds of thousands of people from across Lebanon’s sectarian divides rallied on Sunday
  • The protests have grown steadily since public anger first spilled onto the streets Thursday

BEIRUT: Lebanese protesters were expected to return to the streets for a fifth day Monday, with Prime Minister Saad Hariri holding a cabinet meeting to try to calm the unprecedented demonstrations.
Hundreds of thousands of people from across Lebanon’s sectarian divides rallied against corruption and the entire political class Sunday, the largest such demonstrations in the country for years.
Early Monday morning protesters began to block main roads and prevent employees going to work, while calls on social media urged people to boycott work.
Banks, universities and schools closed their doors Monday, with Hariri expected to offer reforms in a bid to stem the anger.
“It’s a day of destiny for us. All our hard work and efforts in previous days and years were to get us to this moment,” said Roni Al-Asaad, a 32-year-old activist in central Beirut.
“If they could have implemented these reforms before, why haven’t they? And why should we believe them today?”
At the nerve center of the demonstrations near the country’s houses of government in central Beirut, volunteers were once again collecting rubbish from the streets, many wearing face masks and plastic gloves.
The protests have grown steadily since public anger first spilled onto the streets Thursday evening in response to a proposed tax on calls via WhatsApp and other messaging services.
While the government quickly dropped that plan, the leaderless protests morphed into demands for a sweeping overhaul of the political system, with grievances ranging from austerity measures to poor infrastructure.
Hariri had given his coalition partners three days to support reforms he said were crucial to get the economy back on track.
On Sunday evening a cabinet official said that the parties had agreed.
The cabinet will hold a meeting chaired by President Michel Aoun at 10:30 a.m. (0730 GMT) to discuss the reforms.
Demonstrators said Hariri’s proposals would not be enough, with demands for the entire political class to resign.
“All of them are warlords,” said Patrick Chakar, 20. “We waited 30 years or more for them to change and they didn’t.”
More than a quarter of Lebanon’s population lives below the poverty line, the World Bank says, while the political class has remained relatively unchanged since the end of a devastating 15-year civil war in 1990.
Lebanon ranked 138 out of 180 in Transparency International’s 2018 corruption index, and residents suffer chronic electricity and water shortages.
Lebanese media hailed the demonstrations.
Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is close to Shiite Muslim militant party Hezbollah, published a picture of protesters carrying a giant flag on its front page with a commentary on “Test Day: Power or People?”
The French-language newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour said “The hour of truth has arrived,” while the English-language The Daily Star said: “Lebanon’s only paths: reform or abyss.”