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.”


Dubai expands coverage of COVID-19 vaccination program

Dubai expands coverage of COVID-19 vaccination program
Updated 10 min 10 sec ago

Dubai expands coverage of COVID-19 vaccination program

Dubai expands coverage of COVID-19 vaccination program
  • Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can also now be administered to all individuals 16 years and above
  • Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can now be injected to anyone aged 18 and above

DUBAI: Dubai has expanded the coverage of its COVID-19 vaccination program, with residents aged 40 and above holding valid resident visas now allowed to register and receive jabs at any of the emirate’s inoculation facilities.

Dubai’s health authority likewise said that elderly individuals aged 60 and above with a valid resident visa issued in any emirate can register for the vaccine, provided they can prove they are residing in Dubai, according to state news agency WAM.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can also now be administered to all individuals 16 years and above, instead of 18 years, while the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can now be injected to anyone aged 18 and above, instead of those between 18-65 years.

Gulf nationals with a valid Emirates ID can also now get vaccinated at Dubai health facilities, the report added.

The UAE, which leads the world on COVID-19 vaccinations, has embarked on a widescale campaign to inoculation to achieve mass immunity and will help reduce the number of cases and control the spread of coronavirus.

About 66,539 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were administered overnight, bring the total doses at 6,094,956 with a rate of vaccine distribution of 61.62 doses per 100 people.

Health officials meanwhile confirmed 2,721 new infections overnight, bringing the total number of recorded cases in the UAE to 396,771.


Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French prosecutors

Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French  prosecutors
In this file photo taken on May 22, 2017, smoke rises from buildings following a reported air strike on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. (AFP)
Updated 03 March 2021

Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French prosecutors

Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French  prosecutors
  • People in Khartoum watch a movie at the Sudanese European Film Festival at an outdoor cinema for visitors adhering to COVID-19 restrictions. (AFP)

PARIS: Lawyers representing survivors of a chemical weapons attack in 2013 in Syria have filed a criminal complaint against Syrian officials whom they blame for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in a rebel-held area.
France is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, and its investigating judges have a mandate to determine whether crimes against humanity were committed anywhere in the world.
The case, which about a dozen people have joined, follows a similar one opened in Germany last year. It offers a rare legal avenue for action against the government of President Bashar Assad.
Attempts by Western powers to set up an international tribunal for Syria have been blocked by Russia and China at the UN Security Council.
“This is important so that the victims have the possibility to see those responsible being brought to justice and held accountable,” Mazen Darwish, who heads the Paris-based Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), said.
The SCM filed the complaint along with two other NGOs: the Open Society Foundation’s Justice Initiative and Syrian Archive.

BACKGROUND

France is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, and its investigating judges have a mandate to determine whether crimes against humanity were committed anywhere in the world.

France’s intelligence services concluded in 2013 that a sarin gas attack on the Eastern Ghouta region just south east of Damascus that killed 1,400 people had been carried out by Syrian government forces.
The complaint is based on what the lawyers say is the most comprehensive body of evidence on the use of substances such as sarin gas in Syria.
“We have compiled extensive evidence establishing exactly who is responsible for these attacks on Douma and Eastern Ghouta, whose horrific effects continue to impact survivors,” said Hadi Al-Khatib, founder and director of Syrian Archive.
A UN-commissioned investigation to identify those behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria concluded in 2016 that Syrian government forces had used chlorine and sarin gas.
Darwish said he expected another case to be opened in Sweden in the coming months.


Sahara tension: Moroccan row deepens with Germany

Sahara tension: Moroccan row deepens with Germany
Soldiers of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SARD) parade during celebrations marking the 45th anniversary of the creation of the SARD Saturday, Feb.27 2021 near Tindouf, southern Algeria. (AP)
Updated 03 March 2021

Sahara tension: Moroccan row deepens with Germany

Sahara tension: Moroccan row deepens with Germany
  • A senior Moroccan government official confirmed on Tuesday that the letter was authentic, but said it was not meant to be made public

RABAT: Morocco’s Foreign Ministry has suspended ties with the German Embassy because of “deep misunderstandings,” notably related to the disputed Western Sahara.

Morocco is angered by German criticism of former US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for moves by Rabat to normalize its relations with Israel.
A letter leaked online from Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita to the rest of the government orders officials to suspend “all contact, interaction and cooperation” with the German Embassy and embassy-related activities.
A senior Moroccan government official confirmed on Tuesday that the letter was authentic, but said it was not meant to be made public.
The official also noted the appearance of a flag of the pro-independence Polisario Front outside the state assembly in the northern German city of Bremen. Germany’s Foreign Ministry said it was aware of media reports about the letter.
The Algeria-backed Polisario Front fought for independence for Western Sahara after Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975. UN peacekeepers now monitor a 30-year-old cease-fire between Moroccan forces and Polisario supporters.
The UN has expressed concern that Trump’s decision could thwart negotiation efforts in the long-running Western Sahara conflict.


Iraq starts vaccinations with jabs gifted from China

Iraq starts vaccinations with jabs gifted from China
Iraqis get vaccinated against Covid-19 with Chinese Sinopharm vaccine at a private nursing home in Baghdad on March 2, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 03 March 2021

Iraq starts vaccinations with jabs gifted from China

Iraq starts vaccinations with jabs gifted from China
  • The public health infrastructure in Iraq, a country of 40 million, has been severely worn down by decades of war, under-investment and corruption

BAGHDAD: Iraq began coronavirus vaccinations on Tuesday, inoculating medical staff hours after a military plane brought in 50,000 Sinopharm jabs donated by China.
The campaign was launched as Iraq battles a second wave of COVID-19 infections, with more than 4,600 new cases a day, and ahead of a three-day visit by Pope Francis from Friday.
“The vaccines arrived overnight and we immediately distributed them to health centers and began the vaccinations,” Health Minister Hassan Al-Tamimi said at Baghdad’s Medical City hospital compound.
“We will be carrying out more vaccinations tomorrow in the provinces and remote areas.”
Aside from health workers, security forces and the elderly will be first to receive the free-of-charge vaccine, his ministry said on a citizens’ registration platform which, however, was not functional.
The public health infrastructure in Iraq, a country of 40 million, has been severely worn down by decades of war, under-investment and corruption.
The Health Ministry has said it agreed with the Chinese ambassador in Baghdad to purchase another 2 million Sinopharm doses, but provided no details on the cost or the timing. Iraqi authorities said in January they had approved three vaccines for use, but there have been repeated delays and contradictory statements from health authorities.
The ministry said it was expecting to receive a total of 16 million jabs through the global Covax scheme, through which wealthy nations are meant to allocate vaccines for poorer countries.

SPEEDREAD

The ministry said it was expecting to receive a total of 16 million jabs through the global Covax scheme, through which wealthy nations are meant to allocate vaccines for poorer countries.

That figure appeared to be based on Covax’s pledge that, subject to funding, it could help poorer countries vaccinate 20 percent of their populations — or 8 million people in Iraq.
The ministry has also said it would receive 3 million AstraZeneca jabs, but the World Health Organization has only approved the distribution of 2 million of those doses to Iraq through Covax.
The ministry also says it has secured funding from the World Bank for 1.5 million jabs from Pfizer/BioNTech, but the deal requires a parliamentary vote which has yet to be held.
Sinopharm affiliate the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products says its vaccine has an efficacy rate of 72.51 percent, behind rival jabs by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, which have 95 percent and 94.5 percent rates respectively.


Hezbollah gunmen fight off bid to arrest Rafik Hariri’s killer

Hezbollah gunmen fight off bid to arrest Rafik Hariri’s killer
Updated 37 min 30 sec ago

Hezbollah gunmen fight off bid to arrest Rafik Hariri’s killer

Hezbollah gunmen fight off bid to arrest Rafik Hariri’s killer

BEIRUT: Gunfire broke out in south Beirut on Tuesday night when Hezbollah fought off an apparent attempt by Lebanese security forces to arrest the man convicted of assassinating former prime minister Rafik a.

Information circulating on social media said officers tried to raid a house thought to be the hideout of Salim Ayyash, 57, who is wanted by the Lebanese state at the request of the International Tribunal for Lebanon. Hezbollah fighters opened fire, surrounded the security patrol, and detained its members and their vehicles.

Amateur video footage on social media shows shots being fired and a Hezbollah fighter shouting: “Attack them and disarm them.”

An activist close to Hezbollah told Arab News: “The security patrol wanted to arrest wanted suspects accused of a crime, it is not true that there was a clash with Hezbollah."

Rafik Hariri died in a suicide bombing of his car in Beirut in February 2005. The Special Tribunal tried Ayyash in his absence, and sentenced him to life imprisonment in August 2020 for conspiracy to commit a terrorist act. Hezbollah has said it will never hand him over.

Desert Storm: 30 years on
The end of the Gulf War on Feb. 28, 1991 saw the eviction of Iraq from Kuwait but paved the way for decades of conflict
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