Russia-backed conference on Syrian refugees dismissed as ‘dog and pony show’

Russia-backed conference on Syrian refugees dismissed as ‘dog and pony show’
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Syria's President Bashar Assad is seen on screen as he speaks during the international conference on the return of Syrian refugees in Damascus on Nov. 11, 2020. (SANA/Handout via REUTERS)
Russia-backed conference on Syrian refugees dismissed as ‘dog and pony show’
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Russia's special envoy on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev speaks during the international conference on the return of Syrian refugees in Damascus on Nov. 11, 2020. (SANA/Handout via REUTERS)
Russia-backed conference on Syrian refugees dismissed as ‘dog and pony show’
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Ali-Ashgar Khaji, senior aide to Iran's foreign minister, speaks during the international conference on the return of Syrian refugees in Damascus on Nov. 11, 2020. (SANA/Handout via REUTERS)
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Updated 13 November 2020

Russia-backed conference on Syrian refugees dismissed as ‘dog and pony show’

Russia-backed conference on Syrian refugees dismissed as ‘dog and pony show’
  • US State Department officials describe it as a distraction that is using millions of refugees as ‘political pawns’

NEW YORK: The US State Department on Thursday dismissed as a distraction a Russian-backed conference in Damascus that called for the return of millions of Syrian refugees to the war-ravaged country.

Richard Albright, deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said it is no more than a show that bears no relation to the grim reality of the situation in Syria.

Joel Rayburn, the US special envoy for Syria, said the conference was “just a dog and pony show meant to distract from the fact that the Russians and the Assad regime have not done what the international community has been pressing them to do, which is to end the war and move to a political solution under UN Security Council resolution 2254.”

During the joint briefing, Albright also accused Russia and the Syrian regime of using refugees as “political pawns” to lend legitimacy to the regime. 

“This blatant disregard for the lives at stake is reprehensible,” he said, pointing out that the position of the UN is that conditions in Syria are not yet conducive to the safe and sustainable return of refugees.

“The few returns that have taken place have all too often been met with secondary displacement, continued dependence on international assistance and, in some cases, forced conscription, detention, forced disappearances and other human-rights violations,” Albright added.

“Displaced Syrians know this, and that’s why they’re not going back.”

The briefing came as the conference in Damascus entered its second day, with the aim of facilitating the return home of millions of people displaced by the Civil War. Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a televised speech that they “want to return home” but fear “terrorists and jihadists.”

Since the war began in 2011, more than half of the Syrian people have fled their homes. Millions are now refugees in other countries.

Albright said that a million Syrians were displaced by a regime offensive between December 2019 and February this year. This was “a pace of displacement faster than at any other time in the nine-year conflict,” he added,

“The Syrian government has a choice,” said Rayburn. “They can either take irreversible steps toward a peaceful resolution of this nearly decade-long conflict, or they can face further crippling sanctions and diplomatic isolation.”

On Nov. 9, the US administration implemented the fifth tranche of its Caesar Act sanctions, targeting Syrian military commanders, MPs, senior government figures and financiers. A total of 94 individuals and entities have been blacklisted since the first sanctions were announced in June.

The Caesar Act attracted overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans in Congress, where it was backed by more than 500 of the 535 members. 

“There’s a bipartisan mandate for the Syria policy that we have been executing, and that is unlikely to change,” Rayburn said. 

Delegates at the conference in Damascus included representatives of 27 countries, including Iran, Venezuela and China. The UN and its organizations were not represented, nor were any of the major refugee-hosting countries. 

“Some of the countries that joined (the conference) are the same ones that continue to kill and injure civilians in Syria, forcing millions to flee,” said Rayburn. “These countries falsely suggested that Syria is now safe for refugees to return.

“Russia and the Assad regime in particular are seeking to raise funds for rebuilding a Syria that they themselves are responsible for destroying, while the Assad regime continues to fund military operations — at many millions of dollars a month — against its own citizens, and the Syrian regime is continuing to disappear Syrians who do return to areas under the regime’s control.”

Asked by Arab News what effects the US sanctions are having on the Syrian regime, Albright said they have damaged its “ability to mask the resources that it’s been using to attack and keep a stranglehold on the Syrian people.”

He added: “The impact has been quite deep on the Assad regime; the leaders at the top are desperate to get out from under the sanctions’ pressure. They are worried that it will continue to build.”

Rayburn said the US campaign of political and economic pressure is being carried out in concert with the EU, and vowed that the diplomatic and economic isolation of the Syrian regime will continue until a political solution is implemented, based on UN Security Council resolutions.

“We simply think you can’t have political reconciliation without accountability for what has happened,” he added. “Until there’s accountability and justice, there cannot be meaningful discussions around refugee returns.”

Rayburn also warned that “any attempt to reestablish or upgrade relations with the Syrian regime without addressing (its) atrocities undercuts efforts to promote accountability and move toward a lasting, peaceful and political solution to the Syrian conflict.”


UN: 100,000 children in Ethiopia’s Tigray face deadly hunger

A youngster assists with food distribution organized by the Amhara government near the village of Baker, 50 km southeast of Humera, in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region. (AFP)
A youngster assists with food distribution organized by the Amhara government near the village of Baker, 50 km southeast of Humera, in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region. (AFP)
Updated 45 min 35 sec ago

UN: 100,000 children in Ethiopia’s Tigray face deadly hunger

A youngster assists with food distribution organized by the Amhara government near the village of Baker, 50 km southeast of Humera, in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region. (AFP)
  • Our worst fears about the health and well-being of children ... are being confirmed

ADDIS ABABA: The UN children’s agency said on Friday that more than 100,000 children in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray could suffer life-threatening malnutrition in the next 12 months, a 10-fold increase to normal numbers.
UNICEF spokesperson Marixie Mercado said that one-in-two pregnant and breastfeeding women screened in Tigray were acutely malnourished.
“Our worst fears about the health and well-being of children ... are being confirmed,” she told a briefing in Geneva.
Spokespeople for the prime minister and a government task force on Tigray — where fighting between rebellious regional and federal forces have continued since November — did not immediately respond to requests for comment on UNICEF’s statement.
Babies like 20-month-old Aammanuel Merhawi are suffering the most. He is a third below normal weight for his age. His feverish eyes glisten and his ribs are visible as he heaves, vomiting supplementary food fed through a nasal tube. All are signs of severe malnutrition.
“My milk dried up,” his mother, Brkti Gebrehiwot, told Reuters at Wukro General Hospital in northern Tigray on July 11.
Aid agencies say they are about to run out of the formula used to treat 4,000 severely malnourished children every month.

FASTFACT

Aid agencies say they are about to run out of the formula used to treat 4,000 severely malnourished children every month.

At least three children have died in Wukro hospital since February, nurse Tsehaynesh Gebrehiwot said.
She provided their medical records: Four-month-old Awet Gebreslassie weighed 2.6 kg, a third of normal weight; one-year-old Robel Gebrezgiher weighed 2 kgs, less than a quarter of normal weight; and Kisanet Hogus, also a year old, weighed 5 kgs — just over half of normal weight.
All died within days of admission.
In Adigrat General Hospital further north, Reuters saw medical records confirming the death of three more malnourished children.
Doctors in both hospitals said they saw between four to 10 severely malnourished children monthly before the conflict erupted in November. Now numbers have more than doubled. The UN says that around 400,000 people are living in famine conditions in Tigray, and more than 90 percent of the population needs emergency food aid.
In a statement on Thursday evening, the Ethiopian government blamed Tigray regional forces for blocking aid and said it had stockpiled reserve wheat in the region.
It gave no details on the stockpile’s location or plans for distribution.
The TPLF was unavailable for comment but has previously said it welcomes aid. The UN says Tigray needs 100 trucks of food daily to prevent mass starvation; only one 50-truck convoy has gotten through in the past month.


Ennahda chief threatens to mobilize Tunisians for street demonstrations

Ennahda chief threatens to mobilize Tunisians for street demonstrations
Updated 57 min 40 sec ago

Ennahda chief threatens to mobilize Tunisians for street demonstrations

Ennahda chief threatens to mobilize Tunisians for street demonstrations
  • Rached Ghannouchi says President Kais Saied's locking of parliament's doors was a "very serious error"
  • Saied took over executive powers last week "to save Tunisia" as the coronavirus outbreak worsened and economy faltered

TUNIS: Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Islamist-inspired party Ennahda, has warned that “if there is no agreement on the return of parliament, on the formation of a government and its presentation to parliament, the Tunisian street will undoubtedly mobilize.”

Ghannouchi, who is also the parliament speaker, claimed that President Kais Saied had “put locks on parliament, a tank at its door, that’s a very serious error to say the least.”

He was speaking after the president froze parliament and took over executive powers, saying he had to save Tunisia, which is suffering from a coronavirus outbreak and a failing economy.

Ghannouchi said: “Since the start, we have called on the people to fight the coup d’etat with all peaceful means, and this resistance will continue with peaceful means.”

Prosecutors in Tunisia have launched an investigation into allegations of illegal foreign campaign funding and anonymous donations to Ennahda.

FASTFACT

Ghannouchi claimed that President Kais Saied had ‘put locks on parliament, a tank at its door, that’s a very serious error to say the least.’

Investigations have also been opened into the national anti-corruption agency — which is itself suspected of corruption — and into the Truth and Dignity Commission created to confront abuses during Tunisia’s decades of autocratic rule.

The probes follow Saied’s dismissal of the prime minister and key Cabinet members, and the 30-day suspension of parliament, which is dominated by Ennahda.

Ghannouchi admitted there had been “mistakes in the economic and social fields, and Ennahda bears a part of the responsibility, which corresponds to the part of power it has held.”

He said the parties in parliament had made the mistake of not managing to establish a constitutional court and that Saied had used the absence of a constitutional court “to monopolize the interpretation of the constitution and to make himself the constitutional court, and that’s an error in which we all bear a part of the responsibility.”

Ghannouchi voiced regret at the lack of dialogue with the presidency. “We are ready to make all concessions so that democracy can return to Tunisia,” he added.

“There is no dialogue today with the president nor with his advisers. But we think we need a national dialogue. We are trying to use all peaceful means — dialogue, negotiations, street pressure, pressure from organizations ... internal and external pressure — to bring back democracy.”


German NGO Sea-Watch rescues nearly 100 migrants in Mediterranean

Migrants wait in a boat to be rescued by the crew of the German NGO migrant rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 in international waters off the coast of Libya, in the western Mediterranean Sea, July 30, 2021. (REUTERS)
Migrants wait in a boat to be rescued by the crew of the German NGO migrant rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 in international waters off the coast of Libya, in the western Mediterranean Sea, July 30, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 31 July 2021

German NGO Sea-Watch rescues nearly 100 migrants in Mediterranean

Migrants wait in a boat to be rescued by the crew of the German NGO migrant rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 in international waters off the coast of Libya, in the western Mediterranean Sea, July 30, 2021. (REUTERS)

BEIRUT: German NGO Sea-Watch said on Friday it had rescued nearly 100 migrants in the Mediterranean, many of whom were injured, some with severe “fuel burns” — chemical burns caused by exposure to gasoline mixed with seawater.
Migrant boat departures from Libya and Tunisia to Italy and other parts of Europe have increased in recent months with better weather.
According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 1,100 people fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa and the Middle East have perished this year in the Mediterranean.
Late on Thursday, the vessel Sea-Watch 3 rescued 33 migrants from two boats which had been intercepted by the Libyan coast guard in the search and rescue zone of the Mediterranean assigned to Malta, the NGO said.
Among them were nine unaccompanied minors, of which three were very small children, and a woman who was seven months pregnant.  The rescued came from South Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco, Ivory Coast and Mali, according to a Reuters witness aboard the Sea-Watch 3.

BACKGROUND

Migrant boat departures from Libya and Tunisia to Italy and other parts of Europe have increased in recent months with better weather.

Many migrants were already on a coast guard ship but jumped into the sea when they saw the NGO vessel approach, according to the witness. All were brought onboard the Sea-Watch 3 by its crew.
In a second operation at dawn on Friday, Sea-Watch 3 rescued over 60 people from an overcrowded wooden boat within the Libyan search and rescue zone. Most of the rescued were Libyans, the Reuters witness said.
Among the migrants being treated for their injuries on board the Sea-Watch 3 on Friday were a father and son who suffered burns after a fire broke out on their boat, while others suffered fuel burns.
“As it is often the case with such boats, many of the people suffered fuel burns, some of them severe,” Sea-Watch said in a statement.


Qaddafi’s son wants to restore lost unity of Libya

In this file photo taken on August 21, 2008 the son of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, Seif al-Islam, announces his withdrawal from political life on August 20, 2008, in the town of Sebha, 800 kilometres south of the capital Tripoli. (AFP)
In this file photo taken on August 21, 2008 the son of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, Seif al-Islam, announces his withdrawal from political life on August 20, 2008, in the town of Sebha, 800 kilometres south of the capital Tripoli. (AFP)
Updated 31 July 2021

Qaddafi’s son wants to restore lost unity of Libya

In this file photo taken on August 21, 2008 the son of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, Seif al-Islam, announces his withdrawal from political life on August 20, 2008, in the town of Sebha, 800 kilometres south of the capital Tripoli. (AFP)
  • It is time for a return to the past. The country — it’s on its knees ... There’s no money, no security. There’s no life here. Seif Al-Islam

TRIPOLI: Seif Al-Islam, the son of slain leader Muammer Qaddafi, wants to “restore the lost unity” of Libya after a decade of chaos and does not exclude standing for the presidency.
He spoke in a rare interview, given to the New York Times at an opulent two-story villa inside a gated compound at Zintan in the west of the North African country.
For years, mystery had surrounded the precise whereabouts of a man wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The 49-year-old, who before 2011 had been seen as his father’s presumed successor, said politicians in the decade since have brought Libyans “nothing but misery.”
“It is time for a return to the past. The country — it’s on its knees ... There’s no money, no security. There’s no life here,” Seif Al-Islam said in his first appearance in years.
After four decades in power, Muammer Qaddafi and his relatives were the target of a popular uprising in 2011.
Three of the dictator’s seven sons were killed, but the fate of Seif Al-Islam was unknown.
He was captured by a Libyan militia in November 2011, days after his father was killed.
Four years later, a Tripoli court sentenced him in absentia to death for crimes committed during the revolt.
The ICC has repeatedly asked for him to be handed over for trial.
Until the interview, Seif Al-Islam had not been seen or heard from since June 2014, when he appeared via video link from Zintan during his trial by the Tripoli court.
Seif Al-Islam said in the interview that he was a free man organizing a political return, and that his former captors “are now my friends.”
He told the paper the militiamen eventually realized he could be a powerful ally.
In recent years, Libya has been split between two rival administrations backed by foreign forces and countless militias.
In October, after forces of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) routed those of eastern military strongman Khalifa Haftar, the two camps agreed a cease-fire in Geneva.
The security situation has been slowly improving since.
A provisional government was agreed in March, and general elections are expected to take place on December 24.
Any possible return by Seif Al-Islam to Libyan politics would face hurdles, including his conviction by the Tripoli court and the ICC warrant for his arrest.
But the Britain-educated son of Muammer Qaddafi seems undeterred, according to the New York Times.
Seif Al-Islam said “he was confident that these legal issues could be negotiated away if a majority of the Libyan people choose him as their leader.”
The paper quoted him as saying: “I’ve been away from the Libyan people for 10 years. You need to come back slowly, slowly. Like a striptease. You need to play with their minds a little.”
Asked if it felt strange to seek shelter in Libyan homes when he was on the run in 2011, he was as enigmatic as some of the opinions expressed in his late father’s ‘Green Book’.
“We’re like fish, and the Libyan people are like a sea for us,” Seif Al-Islam replied.
“Without them, we die. That’s where we get support. We hide here. We fight here. We get support from there. The Libyan people are our ocean.”


At least four people perish as wildfires sweep Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts

In this image provided by Maxar, a satellite view of smoke rising from wildfires near Oymapinar Dam, southern Turkey, on Thursday July 29, 2021. (AP)
In this image provided by Maxar, a satellite view of smoke rising from wildfires near Oymapinar Dam, southern Turkey, on Thursday July 29, 2021. (AP)
Updated 31 July 2021

At least four people perish as wildfires sweep Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts

In this image provided by Maxar, a satellite view of smoke rising from wildfires near Oymapinar Dam, southern Turkey, on Thursday July 29, 2021. (AP)
  • More than 70 wildfires have broken out this week in provinces o
  • Countries including Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukraine, and Greece have offered emergency help

ANKARA: The death toll from wildfires on Turkey’s southern coast has risen to four and firefighters were battling blazes for the fourth day on Friday after the evacuation of dozens of villages and some hotels.

More than 70 wildfires have broken out this week in provinces on Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts as well as inland areas.

At least four people are reported to have died and dozens have been hospitalized.

Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said fires raged on in six provinces and officials promised to bring to account anyone found responsible for starting them.

Villages and some hotels have been evacuated in tourist areas and television footage has shown people fleeing across fields as fires closed in on their homes.

Pakdemirli said fires were still blazing in the Mediterranean resort region of Antalya and the Aegean resort province of Mugla.

“We were hoping to contain some of the fires as of this morning but while we say cautiously that they are improving, we still cannot say they are under control,” he said.

Wildfire engulfs a Mediterranean resort region on Turkey's southern coast near the town of Manavgat on July 30, 2021. (AFP)

Turkey’s civil aviation agency has come under public criticism for its handling of the crisis. 

Although wildfires during summertime are common in Turkey, this year the fires have reached an unprecedented level.

The mayor of the southern resort town of Marmaris blamed “sabotage” for the fires and said an investigation had been launched. A number of buildings and hotels in tourist zones of Marmaris and Bodrum were evacuated after separate fires.

Countries including Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukraine, and Greece have offered emergency help. Three planes, nine drones, 38 helicopters, 680 firefighting vehicles, and more than 4,000 personnel have been deployed to put out the fires.

Turkey has only three planes available to fight forest fires, but all are leased from Russia for 1.3 million liras ($154,350) per day.

Alpay Antmen, a lawmaker from the southern Mersin province and a member of the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), told Arab News: “We have been monitoring the situation on the ground since the beginning. Fortunately, they contained the fire from reaching the settlements. But this tragic case has shown once again the weakness of state apparatus in such emergency situations.”

He, along with other opposition parliamentarians, have been lobbying the Turkish government for a year to upgrade the country’s firefighting capacity.

“Nobody replied to our parliamentary inquiries, and we all witnessed the result of this incapacity. The Turkish president has 13 private planes in his possession, but why couldn’t they buy one single firefighting plane so far?” Antmen said.

Wildfire engulfs a Mediterranean resort region on Turkey's southern coast near the town of Manavgat on July 30, 2021. (AFP)

Wildfires have broken out elsewhere in the region, with more than 40 in Greece in the last 24 hours, fanned by winds and soaring temperatures, authorities said. On Tuesday, a blaze tore through a pine forest north of Athens, damaging more than a dozen homes before it was brought under control.

Tolga Ozbek, general coordinator of the aviation sector website kokpit.aero, told Arab News that Turkey had increased its annual water carrying capacity to 148,000 tons this year from 80,000 tons in 2018.

“Fighting wildfires requires an integrated approach, using different types of planes and helicopters based on the geographical conditions. Turkey has been leasing its firefighting helicopters for the last 35 years. This has turned out to be costlier than buying some,” he said.

He pointed out that Turkey needed a permanent fleet of firefighting planes and should allocate a reasonable budget for such emergency situations.

“Whatever you invest in fighting fires, it always falls short because the fires can erupt anywhere anytime. While formulating specific policies in this regard, one should always consider the implications of global warming and the ongoing drought in the country,” Ozbek added.

Fires also burned large swathes of pine forest in the mountainous north of Lebanon this week, killing at least one firefighter and forcing some residents to flee.