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.”


Netanyahu says Israel firmly rejects pressure not to build in Jerusalem

Netanyahu says Israel firmly rejects pressure not to build in Jerusalem
Updated 41 min 22 sec ago

Netanyahu says Israel firmly rejects pressure not to build in Jerusalem

Netanyahu says Israel firmly rejects pressure not to build in Jerusalem
  • Pope Francis has also called for an end to the violence in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM: Israel “firmly rejects” pressure not to build in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday following spreading international condemnation of planned evictions of Palestinians from homes in the city claimed by Jewish settlers.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis expressed his concern at the unrest in Jerusalem, saying: “Violence only generates violence. Let’s stop these clashes.”
“I pray so that this might be a place of encounter and not violent clashes, a place of prayer and of peace. I invite everyone to seek shared resolutions so that the multireligious identity and multiculture of the holy city might be respected and so that fraternity might prevail,” he said after reciting the Regina Caeli prayer.


Syria says fire erupts in main Homs refinery

Syria says fire erupts in main Homs refinery
Updated 09 May 2021

Syria says fire erupts in main Homs refinery

Syria says fire erupts in main Homs refinery
  • The fire erupted in a distillation unit due to a leak in a pumping station
  • There was a large fire and blast at Homs in January this year
AMMAN: Syrian authorities are working on extinguishing a fire that erupted in its main Homs refinery in the west of the nation, state media said on Sunday.
The fire erupted in a distillation unit due to a leak in a pumping station, it said without elaborating.
State television showed live footage of fire engulfing parts of the refinery with black smoke plumes in the distance as firefighters tackled the flames.
There was a large fire and blast at Homs in January this year involving a nearby crude oil loading station and dozens of trucks that transport petroleum products across the country.
Both Homs refinery and Banias on the Mediterranean coast have faced supply shortages in recent months due to erratic supplies of Iranian crude oil to the sanctions-hit country that relies mainly on Tehran for its energy needs.
Syria has over the past year two years faced months of gasoline and fuel shortages, forcing it to ration supplies distributed across government-held areas and to apply several rounds of steep price hikes.

UAE administers over 11 million COVID-19 vaccine doses

UAE administers over 11 million COVID-19 vaccine doses
Updated 09 May 2021

UAE administers over 11 million COVID-19 vaccine doses

UAE administers over 11 million COVID-19 vaccine doses
  • UAE announced 1,735 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of recorded cases to 534,445

DUBAI: The UAE has administered 11,126,889 COVID-19 vaccine doses so far with an additional 78,342 jabs provided to residents overnight, bringing the country’s distribution rate to 112.50 doses per 100 people.

Health officials have embarked on a rapid vaccination campaign to stem the spread of coronavirus, and the country has one of the highest proportions of the population inoculated

The Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP) said the vaccination program was in “line with plan to provide the COVID-19 vaccine to all members of society and efforts to reach acquired immunity resulting from the vaccination,” a report from state news agency WAM said.

This will help reduce the number of cases and control the COVID-19 virus, the reported added.

Meanwhile, the UAE announced 1,735 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of recorded cases to 534,445, as well as three new deaths overnight.

The number of coronavirus-related fatalities is now at 1,610.

The MoHAP also noted that an additional 1,701 individuals had fully recovered from COVID-19, bringing the total number of recoveries to 514,769.


Algeria remembers victims of French rule

Algeria remembers victims of French rule
Algerian youths pose beneath a street name plaque honouring an Algerian lawyer killed by the French during the 1954-1962 Algerian war of independence in Algiers. (AFP file photo)
Updated 08 May 2021

Algeria remembers victims of French rule

Algeria remembers victims of French rule
  • The crackdown led by French General Raymond Duval left as many as 45,000 dead, according to Algerian official figures

ALGIERS: Algeria on Saturday honored thousands killed by French forces in 1945, as the North African country waits for Paris to apologize for its colonial era crimes.
Pro-independence protests broke out after a rally on May 8, 1945 marking the allied victory over Nazi Germany.
The rioting triggered two weeks of bloody repression in which French troops massacred thousands of mostly unarmed Muslim civilians, a key chapter in Algeria’s long independence struggle.
On Saturday, thousands of people took part in a march of remembrance following the same route through the northeastern city of Setif as the May 8 rally 76 years ago, official media reported.
Led by scouts, participants laid a wreath at a monument to Bouzid Saal, a 22-year-old man shot dead by a French policeman in 1945 for refusing to lower his Algerian flag — the first casualty of the violence.
The crackdown led by French General Raymond Duval left as many as 45,000 dead, according to Algerian official figures.
French historians put the toll at up to 20,000, including 86 European civilians and 16 soldiers killed in revenge attacks.
The killings had a transformative impact on the nascent anti-colonial movement, setting the scene for a full-blown independence war nine years later that finally led to independence in 1962.
Algerian officials have continued to call for a full apology from France for its colonial era policies, and President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has described the 1945 killings as “crimes against humanity.”
Government spokesman Ammar Belhimer repeated that demand on Saturday, calling for “the official, definitive and comprehensive recognition by France of its crimes (along with) repentance and fair compensation.”
He also called for help dealing with the toxic waste left behind by 17 nuclear tests France carried out in the Algerian desert in the 1960s.

 


Militias briefly take over Tripoli government headquarters

Militias briefly take over Tripoli government headquarters
Members of the Tripoli Protection Force, an alliance of militias from the capital city, patrol an area south of the Libyan capital. (AFP file photo)
Updated 09 May 2021

Militias briefly take over Tripoli government headquarters

Militias briefly take over Tripoli government headquarters
  • The takeover underscored the tough road ahead for the interim government, which has been tasked with steering Libya through general elections due at the end of the year

CAIRO: In a show of force, armed militiamen briefly took over a hotel in the Libyan capital of Tripoli that serves as headquarters for the interim government, officials said Saturday.
Friday’s development came after the three-member presidential council earlier this week appointed a new chief of the intelligence agency, Libya’s version of the CIA. The militias, which control Tripoli, were apparently unhappy with the choice of Hussein Khalifa as the new spy chief.
Presidential council spokeswoman Najwa Wheba said no one was hurt in the takeover of Hotel Corinthia, in the heart of Tripoli. The hotel was mostly empty on Friday, the Muslim weekend.
After a while, the militias left the hotel, according to an official at the Interior Ministry who spoke on condition of anonymity under regulations. Khalifa and the militia leaders were not immediately available for comment on Saturday.
The takeover underscored the tough road ahead for the interim government, which has been tasked with steering Libya through general elections due at the end of the year. The government has struggled to unite the conflict-stricken nation ahead of the vote.
Wheba said the presidential council has no permanent headquarters and that the hotel is one of the places where the council convenes. Videos circulating on social media show militiamen at the entrance of the hotel.
On Monday, Najla Al-Manqoush, the foreign minister of Libya’s interim government called for the departure of all foreign forces and mercenaries, including Turkish troops, from the oil-rich North African country. That was seen as a rebuke to Turkey and angered pro-Turkey factions in western Libya.
UN Security Council diplomats say there are more than 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya, including Syrians, Sudanese, Chadians and Russians.
Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled longtime ruler Muammar Qaddafi, who was later killed.