Assad’s forces take over Aleppo amid fears of ‘catastrophe’

Syrian army soldiers in western Aleppo province, Syria, in this handout released by SANA on Feb. 16. (SANA/Handout via Reuters)
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Updated 18 February 2020

Assad’s forces take over Aleppo amid fears of ‘catastrophe’

  • The advances have sent hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing toward the border with Turkey
  • Government forces have been fighting since the start of the year to recapture the Aleppo countryside

ANKARA: Syria’s Bashar Assad on Monday made a TV pledge to press on with his military campaign to take full control of Aleppo as the UN called for an immediate cease-fire to prevent “the biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century.”

Assad’s forces claimed to have taken complete control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside following advances that have resulted in the displacement of 900,000 people.

In a rare televised address, Assad said that the one-time economic hub of Aleppo would “return stronger than it was before,” and vowed complete victory “sooner or later.”

The ongoing campaign has sparked a humanitarian catastrophe, which the UN’s head of humanitarian affairs, Mark Lowcock, warned had “reached a horrifying level.”

In a statement, he said the UN believed 900,000 civilians had been displaced since Dec. 1, most of them women and children.

In the past few weeks, regime troops backed by Russian air power have captured more than 1,500 sq. km. of ground in the northwest of the country. 

Lowcock described the violence taking place in northwest Syria as “indiscriminate” and stressed that “the only option is a cease-fire.”

He warned that “the biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century will only be avoided if (UN) Security Council members, and those with influence, overcome individual interests and put a collective stake in humanity first.”

He did not identify any countries, but the message appeared directed first and foremost at Russia.

The regime also announced the reopening of Aleppo international airport. Regime forces have also opened the international roadway from northern Aleppo to the towns of Zahraa and Nubl toward the Turkish border. Their rapid advances have sparked rare clashes between Syria and Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has urged Assad to halt the advance, which also risks shattering an alliance forged between Turkey and Russia. A Turkish delegation was in Moscow on Monday to discuss the crisis, and Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said the delegations would continue talking on Tuesday.

During Monday’s session, the Turkish delegation “stressed the need to quickly reduce tensions on the field and to prevent the further deterioration of the humanitarian situation,” the ministry said. 

Yoruk Isik, an Istanbul-based expert on Turkey-Russia relations, predicted a period of de-escalation in Idlib in the coming few months after the conclusion of consultations between the parties.

He told Arab News that Russian President Vladimir Putin had deliberately stayed away from such negotiations to push Ankara into direct talks with the Assad regime. Isik expected Turkey to withdraw from five observation points in Idlib.

He also said the creation of a buffer zone along the Turkish border was also likely so that Turkey could manage to settle hundreds of thousands of displaced people to Syria’s Afrin province, which would completely change the demography of the region.

Initial investigations point to negligence as cause of Beirut blast

Updated 5 min 34 sec ago

Initial investigations point to negligence as cause of Beirut blast

  • 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures
  • A source said a fire had started at warehouse 9 of the port and spread to warehouse 12, where the ammonium nitrate was stored

BEIRUT: Initial investigations indicate years of inaction and negligence over the storage of highly explosive material in Beirut port caused the blast that killed over 100 people on Tuesday, an official source familiar with the findings said.
The prime minister and presidency said on Tuesday that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures.
"It is negligence," the official source told Reuters, adding that the storage safety issue had been before several committees and judges and "nothing was done" to issue an order to remove or dispose of the highly combustible material.
The source said a fire had started at warehouse 9 of the port and spread to warehouse 12, where the ammonium nitrate was stored.
Tuesday's explosion was the most powerful ever suffered by Beirut, a city is still scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from a deep financial crisis rooted in decades of corruption and economic mismanagement.
Badri Daher, Director General of Lebanese Customs, told broadcaster LBCI on Wednesday that customs had sent six documents to the judiciary warning that the material posed a danger.
"We requested that it be re-exported but that did not happen. We leave it to the experts and those concerned to determine why," Daher said.
Another source close to a port employee said a team that inspected the ammonium nitrate six months ago warned that if it was not moved it would "blow up all of Beirut".
According to two documents seen by Reuters, Lebanese Customs had asked the judiciary in 2016 and 2017 to ask the "concerned maritime agency" to re-export or approve the sale of the ammonium nitrate, removed from the a cargo vessel, Rhosus, and deposited in warehouse 12, to ensure port safety.
One of the documents cited similar requests in 2014 and 2015.
"A local and international investigation needs to be conducted into the incident, given the scale and the circumstances under which these goods were brought into the ports," said Ghassan Hasbani, former deputy prime minister and a member of the Lebanese Forces party., an industry network dealing with legal cases, had said in a 2015 report that the Rhosus, sailing under a Moldovan flag, docked in Beirut in September 2013 when it had technical problems while sailing from Georgia to Mozambique with 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.
It said that, upon inspection, the vessel was forbidden from sailing and shortly afterwards it was abandoned by its owners, leading to various creditors coming forward with legal claims.
"Owing to the risks associated with retaining the ammonium nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port's warehouses," it added.