Battle for Syria’s Idlib takes its toll on migrants, refugees and Turkey’s ties with EU

Battle for Syria’s Idlib takes its toll on migrants, refugees and Turkey’s ties with EU
Migrants arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey. Close to 1,200 people landed on three Greek islands in just two days, with local residents protesting against their arrival. (Reuters)
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Updated 11 March 2020

Battle for Syria’s Idlib takes its toll on migrants, refugees and Turkey’s ties with EU

Battle for Syria’s Idlib takes its toll on migrants, refugees and Turkey’s ties with EU
  • Turkey and Syria came to blows after the confirmed deaths of 33 Turkish soldiers in an air attack
  • Turkey-Greece ties have become more acrimonious in the wake of the surge in Idlib violence

ABU DHABI: On the morning of March 2, a child died after a rickety boat carrying displaced Syrians capsized near the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea.

Within hours, the dead child had become another statistic in the international refugee crisis figures as geopolitical competition between Turkey and Syria, backed by ally Russia, began to hot up.

The death of the unidentified boy came amidst an exponential rise in the number of arrivals on Greece’s shores of displaced Syrians and migrants from other countries headed toward Europe in search of asylum.

Reuters news agency reported, quoting an official source, that during a 24-hour period more than 1,200 migrants, most from Afghanistan and Pakistan, attempted to cross the land border.

Earlier, Suleyman Soylu, Turkey’s interior minister, said on Twitter that more than 100,000 Syrians had left Edirne, a city in northwest Turkey, in the direction of the Greek border.


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Greece has said the asylum seekers are being “manipulated as pawns” by Turkey in an attempt to exert diplomatic pressure on the EU.

The EU’s foreign policy chief has warned refugees to “avoid moving to a closed door,” while the bloc has accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of using the migrants and refugees his country hosts for political purposes.

Until a ceasefire agreement was reached on March 5 in Moscow between the leaders of Russia and Turkey that appears to be holding so far, most of the casualties of the geopolitical competition were occurring in the northwestern Syrian region of Idlib, where Turkish and Syrian fighter jets were locked in dogfights.

From a purely humanitarian standpoint, Erdogan’s use of the asylum seekers’ desperation as a cudgel to pressure the West, coupled with Greece’s heavy-handed response, would appear to have endangered many more lives besides those of Syrians trapped by the fighting in Idlib.

It all began with an intensified Syrian regime offensive to retake the last opposition holdout and the confirmed deaths of 33 Turkish soldiers in an air attack on Feb. 27.

The Russian defense ministry said the Turkish soldiers were killed in a “bombardment” while operating alongside “terrorists” in the Balyun area where, it said, fighters from the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham alliance were attacking Syrian government forces.

In response, Erdogan’s government ordered a counter-offensive along its borders with Syria that briefly raised the specter of a direct confrontation between Turkey, a NATO partner, and Russia.

Simultaneously, Erdogan opened Turkey’s western land and sea borders, declaring bluntly “the doors are now open” to migrants and refugees wanting to leave Turkey for Europe.

Hundreds of migrants have attempted to reach Lesbos since. In just two days, March 2 and 3, close to 1,200 people arrived by boat on Lesbos, Chios and Samos, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Residents of the three Greek islands staged protests and attempted to block the latest wave of arrivals, according to the locally based humanitarian workers.

Erdogan later ordered the Turkish coastguard to stop migrants from crossing the Aegean Sea, but on the question of allowing them to enter Greece via the land border, he has stayed adamant, inexorably setting the stage for clashes.

With full support from the European Council, both Greece and Bulgaria have sent security reinforcements to their borders with Turkey with the stated aim of preventing people from “illegally entering” their respective countries.

Sentiments have been further inflamed by local and regional media’s depiction of displaced Syrians as migrants who were illegally crossing into the EU. A fire engulfed a refugee shelter near Mitilini, the capital of Lesbos, on March 8 under unclear circumstances, possibly portending more trouble.

CNN said the Turkish state broadcaster TRT had a video showing men allegedly sent back across the Evros River with no clothes by Greek security forces. The river forms the natural border between both countries.

The men said they had been subjected to violence and degrading treatment.

Speaking to CNN, Abdel Aziz, a tailor from Aleppo in Syria, said: “We were caught by military or police, they were carrying weapons ... we were left in our underwear, they started beating us up, some people were beaten so hard they couldn’t walk anymore. They burned the IDs and clothes; they kept the phones and money.”

Denying that the government was using excessive force, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told CNN that Europe was “not going to be blackmailed by Turkey,” adding that Greece had “every right to protect our borders.”

If the remarks are any guide, attitudes have hardened on all sides since Turkey closed its border with Syria in 2018, leaving many people displaced by the conflict there to camp along the border on the Syrian side in makeshift shelters.

In 2016, the EU and Turkey had agreed on a joint action plan addressing the European migration crisis.

It involved a reciprocal EU-Turkey approach, wherein Turkey would open its labor market to displaced Syrians under temporary protection and Syrian refugees rescued from Greek islands would be resettled, among other initiatives.

For its part, the EU was to offer Turkey economic support and incentives to halt the flow of migrants and refugees into Europe.

Turkey already hosts about 4 million refugees, including 3.5 million Syrians, but Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military offensive and the subsequent clashes with Turkish forces stationed in Idlib have led to nearly 1 million more fleeing to the south of Turkey’s border.

In effect, intense horse-trading between Turkey and the EU has overshadowed a colossal human tragedy in Idlib — displacement caused by unending conflict and political persecution — and reduced it to a European security problem.

Speaking to the BBC, Ibrahim Abdul Aziz, a Syrian refugee who had been uprooted several times, summed up the dilemma of tens of thousands of his compatriots.

He said: “We moved because of the bombs and came to Darat Izza (town in northern Syria). But then there was more bombing there. Now we don’t know where to go.”

Exploding bombs are not the only worry for Idlib’s populations, a mixture of long-time residents and Syrians evacuated from regions where defeated anti-government groups had surrendered to the regime.

The harsh weather conditions of winter in northern Idlib and Aleppo have compounded the terror and food shortages that residents face on a daily basis. To add to their many worries, there is the risk of a breakdown of the ceasefire.

The deal signed in the Kremlin by Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin establishes a security corridor 6 kilometers to the north and south of the M4, an east-west motorway that, together with the M5, connects the major cities back under the Syrian regime’s control.

Starting from March 15, Turkey and Russia are also due to conduct joint patrols in this area. But unsure of the ceasefire deal’s longevity, Erdogan is threatening to double down on his Greek gamble.

“If the violence toward the people of Idlib does not stop, this number will increase even more,” he said.

“In that case, Turkey will not carry such a migrant burden on its own. The negative effects of this pressure on (Turkey) will be an issue felt by all European countries, especially Greece.”

Yemeni government vows to defeat Houthis as fighting rages outside Marib

Yemeni government vows to defeat Houthis as fighting rages outside Marib
Fighters loyal to Yemen's Saudi-backed government man a position near the frontline facing Iran-backed Huthi rebels in the country's northeastern province of Marib, on June 19, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 30 min 16 sec ago

Yemeni government vows to defeat Houthis as fighting rages outside Marib

Yemeni government vows to defeat Houthis as fighting rages outside Marib
  • Austrian FM: Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia are unacceptable

ALEXANDRIA: Dozens of rebel fighters and Yemeni Government soldiers have been killed during the last 24 hours in fierce fighting outside the central city of Marib as army commanders and officials vowed to defeat the Houthis, local military sources and official media said on Tuesday.

The Iran-backed Houthi militia on Monday night mounted a fresh assault on the internationally recognized government’s forces in Al-Mashjah and Al-Kasara areas, west of Marib, triggering heavy clashes that continued until Tuesday afternoon and claimed the lives of dozens of combatants.

The Ministry of Defense said that dozens of Houthis were killed in the fighting and that they lost a significant amount of military equipment.

Meanwhile, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg on Tuesday condemned the relentless Houthi attacks on civilians in Saudi Arabia, describing them as “unacceptable.”

At a press conference with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Schallenberg said Vienna supports developments taking place across Saudi Arabia in several areas.

Prince Faisal said the Houthi militia has regularly rejected initiatives for a complete cease-fire, and always resorted to escalate the situation.

He said Saudi Arabia and Austria share a “similar vision” regarding the region’s stability.

Yemeni state media did not discuss the army’s casualties from the recent clashes, but government supporters on social media have mourned the death of several soldiers and tribesmen.

Fighter jets from the Arab coalition carried out dozens of sorties in Marib and Sanaa, targeting Houthi military reinforcements heading to the battlefields in Marib, killing at least 20 rebels and destroying several military vehicles.

State media on Tuesday broadcast videos showing government forces exchanging mortar and heavy machine gun fire with the Houthis as a large convoy of vehicles rushed to reinforce government troops.

Bodies of dead Houthis were also seen scattered on the battlefield.

Yemeni Army commanders and government officials said that massive military support, logistics and air cover from the Arab coalition have shored up Yemeni government forces and helped thwart relentless Houthi assaults on Marib.

Lt. Col. Rashad Al-Mekhlafi, a military official at the Yemeni Army’s Moral Guidance Department, told Arab News that military operations and airstrikes in Marib have greatly worn down the Houthis, with the rebels losing thousands of fighters, including many senior commanders.

“The Houthi militia has been largely depleted. The Arab coalition warplanes played a vital role in striking its reinforcements and weapons depots and destroying its equipment,” Al-Mekhlafi said.

To seize control of Marib’s oil and gas fields and power stations, the Houthis resumed a major military offensive in February.

The effort has forced thousands of Yemenis to flee their homes amid warnings from local and international aid organizations that the Houthi invasion of Marib would aggravate the humanitarian crisis and trigger a large displacement, with the city hosting thousands of internally displaced people.

The government and military commanders have vowed to push ahead with military operations in Marib until the Houthis are defeated and justice is brought to rebel leaders who ordered attacks on civilians across Yemen.

Yemen’s official news agency reported on Monday that Prime Minister Maeen Abdul Malik Saeed telephoned senior military commanders in Marib to renew the government’s support to troops and allied tribesmen in their “decisive” battle against the Houthis, vowing to punish the Iran-backed force for disrupting peace efforts to end the war and killing and abducting Yemenis.

The Yemeni Army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Sagheer bin Aziz, also said that its troops and tribesmen have high combat skills and morale.

He said they follow military plans and that “the force of arms” alone would put an end to the Houthi militia’s takeover of power.

“They would destroy the capabilities of the Iranian Houthi terrorist militia and force them to surrender by force of arms, as that is the only way to restore the state and end the suffering of our people,” Bin Aziz tweeted.


Mother and four daughters killed as they looked for fuel amid Lebanon’s petrol shortage

Mother and four daughters killed as they looked for fuel amid Lebanon’s petrol shortage
Updated 56 min 42 sec ago

Mother and four daughters killed as they looked for fuel amid Lebanon’s petrol shortage

Mother and four daughters killed as they looked for fuel amid Lebanon’s petrol shortage
  • Family were preparing for journey to Beirut airport to meet father as he returned from working abroad
  • Lebanon facing vast queues for petrol amid fuel shortage and economic crisis

BEIRUT: A Lebanese mother and her four daughters were killed when their car was hit by a military vehicle as they searched for fuel amid Lebanon’s petrol shortage.

The family were preparing to travel from southern Lebanon to Beirut airport this week to pick up the daughters’ father, who was expected to fly home from working abroad.

Fatima Koubeissi, her twins Tia and Lia, 4, and her two other daughters Aya, 13, and Zahra, 17, were killed when the military vehicle hit their car from behind on Monday night. Another relative, Hussein Zein, 22, who was driving their car, died on Tuesday from his injuries.

The sisters had not seen their father, Imad Hawile, since he went looking for a job in Liberia five months ago, their uncle Qassim Hawile told Arab News.

Amid a worsening economic crisis, Lebanon is suffering massive fuel shortages with long queues outside petrol stations leading to traffic jams on nearby roads.

Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces [ISF] traffic control section reported a number of recent accidents caused by petrol queues.

The family from Al-Sharqeyye village went searching for petrol on Monday afternoon to prepare for the journey to the airport on Wednesday.

“We have not been able to find petrol across the south,” Qassim said.

ISF’s traffic control said the accident involved five cars and took place on the Jeyye-Saida highway.

A cousin of Fatima told Arab News that the accident happened because of a “vehicle that came in the opposite direction of the road wanting to bypass a queue outside a petrol station.
“They (the mother and four daughters) died on the spot,” he said.

Qassim said his brother contracted malaria during his first month in Liberia and then a second time “so he decided to return for better medication.”

“We did not want my brother to know that his family died in the crash but he saw the news and images on Facebook,” said Qassim.

He said the funeral was expected to take place on Thursday.

The accident happened when their driver saw two BMWs rammed into each other so he stopped but the military vehicle came and hit them from the back, sending it into a pick-up truck, Qassim said.
Civil Defense and Red Cross teams attended the scene and moved the injured and the dead to nearby hospitals.

Petrol stations have been constantly low on subsidized petrol for weeks, but shortages worsened in June as people’s fears of rationing and shortages intensified, leading to a large number of petrol stations closing down.

A number of fistfights, heated arguments and shootings have taken place between irritated drivers.
Last week, three people were injured in an accident outside a petrol station where cars were queueing on the highway connecting Beirut to southern.

Sudan asks UN Security Council to meet over Ethiopia’s Blue Nile dam

Sudan asks UN Security Council to meet over Ethiopia’s Blue Nile dam
Updated 10 min 30 sec ago

Sudan asks UN Security Council to meet over Ethiopia’s Blue Nile dam

Sudan asks UN Security Council to meet over Ethiopia’s Blue Nile dam
  • Sudan requests UNSC to discuss GERD and ‘its impact on the safety and security of millions of people’
  • Foreign minister is urging Ethiopia to stop the unilateral filling of the dam

KHARTOUM: Sudan asked the UN Security Council on Tuesday to meet and discuss a dispute over a giant dam being built by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile, a government statement said.
Ethiopia is pinning its hopes of economic development and power generation on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), while the two downstream countries — Egypt and Sudan — are concerned about it and seeking a binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.
Egypt relies on the Nile River for as much as 90 percent of its fresh water and sees the dam as an existential threat. Sudan is concerned about the operation of its own Nile dams and water stations.
Sudan’s Foreign Minister Mariam Sadiq Al-Mahdi called on the Security Council to hold a session as soon as possible to discuss GERD and “its impact on the safety and security of millions of people,” the government statement said.
In a letter to the council head, she called on him to urge Ethiopia to stop the “unilateral” filling of the dam “which exacerbates the dispute and poses a threat to regional and international peace and security,” the statement added.
Ethiopian officials did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Sudan and Egypt had already agreed this month to work together on all levels to push Ethiopia to negotiate “seriously” on an agreement, after African Union-sponsored talks remained deadlocked. The two countries called on the international community to intervene.
Earlier this month, Arab states called on the Security Council to discuss the dispute and Ethiopia’s plans to go ahead with the second filling of the dam this summer even without an agreement with Sudan and Egypt.
Ethiopia rejected the Arab League resolution in its entirety, its Foreign Ministry said.
The country previously rejected calls from Egypt and Sudan to involve mediators outside the African Union.
Sudan said earlier in June that it was open to a partial interim agreement on the multibillion-dollar dam, with specific conditions.

Italy is a ‘strategic partner,’ says interim Libyan leader

Italy is a ‘strategic partner,’ says interim Libyan leader
Updated 22 June 2021

Italy is a ‘strategic partner,’ says interim Libyan leader

Italy is a ‘strategic partner,’ says interim Libyan leader
  • During meeting with Italian PM Mario Draghi in Rome, Mohamed Younes Menfi stresses ‘importance of partnership and cooperation’
  • The head of the Libyan Presidential Council visited Italy on the eve of the second Berlin Conference on Libya

ROME: The chairman of the Libyan Presidential Council, Mohamed Younes Menfi, considers Italy “a strategic partner for Libya.” During a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi in Rome on Tuesday he also stressed “the importance of partnership and cooperation” with the European nation, according to Italian sources.

Menfi also had a lengthy meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella. His visit to the Italian capital, his first official trip to another country since he was appointed in March, came on the eve of the second Berlin Conference on Libya.

German diplomatic sources told Arab News that the main points of final declaration by the conference about the continuing political process should include a call for the immediate withdrawal of foreign mercenaries from Libya, and strong encouragement to Libyan authorities to play their part in ensuring that democratic elections take place in the country by Dec. 24 as scheduled.

According to a press release issued by the Libyan Presidential Council following Menfi’s meeting with Draghi, the Italian prime minister “reaffirmed his country’s support for the political transition in Libya and to the work of the Presidential Council,” and praised the results achieved so far.

Italian sources said that an agreement was reached for greater coordination in matters related to security and to the prevention of illegal immigration from Libya, and Italy has offered to provide further support to help secure Libya’s borders.

The Italian Coast Guard has said that Libya is the main point of departure in North Africa for migrants attempting to reach Italy on often fragile vessels.

UK urged to stand with Iranian people, reject new president

UK urged to stand with Iranian people, reject new president
Updated 22 June 2021

UK urged to stand with Iranian people, reject new president

UK urged to stand with Iranian people, reject new president
  • British Committee for Iran Freedom: ‘Elections in Iran neither free, fair nor representative’
  • Conservative MP urges UK govt to hold Tehran ‘to account for its support of terrorism, systematic human rights abuses’

LONDON: The British Committee for Iran Freedom (BCFIF) on Tuesday urged the UK government to reject newly elected Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and campaign for him to face justice for human rights abuses. 

Raisi won the presidential election on June 18, but the BCFIF said in a statement: “Elections in Iran are neither free, fair nor representative. It reflects the will of the unelected Supreme Leader and serves as a process to further strengthen the theocracy’s grip on power to the detriment of the Iranian people.”

It added: “This was made clear again on June 18 as the Iranian people rejected the theocracy in its entirety with a widespread national boycott of the presidential election farce.”

The BCFIF said Raisi “had an extensive role in the regime’s current and past crimes against humanity, including the 1988 massacre of 30,000 political prisoners and PMOI (People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran) members and supporters in Iran as well as the killing of 1,500 protesters and torture of thousands of arrested protesters during and after the nationwide protests in November 2019.”

In the week after Raisi’s election victory, Sir David Amess, a Conservative MP and co-chairman of the BCFIF, said: “The people of Iran answered the call by the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) Mrs Maryam Rajavi and completely boycotted the election farce in Iran.” 

He added that the BCFIF supports Rajavi’s call “for Raisi to be investigated and face justice in an international tribunal. This issue must be a priority for the UK Government during the 47th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.”

Andrew Rosindell, a Conservative MP and member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said: “With Raisi as president, the regime is signalling that it will continue its repression, persecution of popular dissent and export of terrorism.”

He added: “It is time for our government to follow the recommendations in our report which includes proscribing the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) in its entirety and taking steps to end the impunity of Iranian officials by holding the regime to account for its support of terrorism and systematic human rights abuses.”