No overlooking Syria’s suffering amid global coronavirus concerns

A combination of “Syrian news fatigue” and the natural tendency to focus more on one’s own problems left the Syrian tragedy off most news media’s radar in 2020. (AN Photo)
A combination of “Syrian news fatigue” and the natural tendency to focus more on one’s own problems left the Syrian tragedy off most news media’s radar in 2020. (AN Photo)
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Updated 29 December 2020

No overlooking Syria’s suffering amid global coronavirus concerns

A combination of “Syrian news fatigue” and the natural tendency to focus more on one’s own problems left the Syrian tragedy off most news media’s radar in 2020. (AN Photo)
  • Pandemic gave the world another reason to turn its eyes from a humanitarian catastrophe without an end
  • Areas of Syria under President Bashar Assad’s control witnessed an economic downturn

MISSOURI, US: Few people around the world seem likely to rue the end of 2020, a year that proved trying for the entire world. For the long-suffering Syrian people, this seems doubly true — COVID-19 probably struck most Syrians as just one more in a litany of risks and hardships they have been facing for years, and hardly the most dangerous one at that.

Even as former Daesh bases are transformed into COVID-19 wards in places like Manbij and Tabqa (near Raqqa), most coronavirus cases probably go unreported. With a troubling surge in infections, Syrians lack the means or the tools to deal with yet one more serious threat. As a result, yet more people die.

For the international community, the coronavirus pandemic also gave them one more reason to turn their eyes from a humanitarian catastrophe that few want to hear about any more. A combination of “Syrian news fatigue” and the natural tendency to focus more on one’s own problems left the Syrian tragedy off most news media’s radar in 2020.

As 2020 comes to a close, perhaps we should therefore at least take the opportunity to consider the continuing horror in Syria. This year brought Syria new statistical records of the worst kind: The death toll now stands at roughly 500,000.

The number of displaced Syrians is a staggering 13 million (roughly half of Syria’s pre-war population). A bit less than half of the displaced are refugees — meaning they have crossed an international border and now reside outside of Syria (mostly in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraqi Kurdistan) – while more than half are displaced within Syria.




Members of the displaced Syrian family of Tareq Abu Ziad, from the southern countryside of the Idlib province, breaking their fast together in the midst of the rubble of their destroyed home on May 4, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

Of the roughly 6.2 million displaced within Syria, large numbers are in the north: Sunni Arab opposition fighters, their families and others fearing the regime have coalesced in Idlib province, the last bastion of the Syrian rebellion.

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds, Christians, Yazidis and secular Arab Sunnis fled Turkey’s 2018 and 2019 invasions of Afrin and areas east of Afrin and remain displaced as well. While Ankara in 2019 outlined a plan to move hundreds of thousands or more of the Syrian refugees in Turkey to the new areas in Syria that it now occupies, few proved willing to go.

People generally prefer a safe return to the part of their home country they are actually from, rather than going to occupy someone else’s house in a completely different (and impoverished) region. Those that Turkey displaced in the north have seen their homes, farms and businesses occupied by Ankara’s Islamist proxy Syrian militias and face no prospect of returning under such circumstances.




Displaced Syrian girls wear face masks decorated by artists during a COVID-19 awareness campaign at the Bardaqli camp in the town of Dana in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, on April 20, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

In still Kurdish-controlled parts of northeastern Syria (often called “Rojava”), the COVID-19 pandemic meant more border closings and even less international aid than before. The UN even acceded to the Assad government’s demand that any assistance for these areas — including even testing for COVID-19 — pass through Damascus. As a result, little gets through to Rojava. Even test results for COVID-19 come back from Damascus months late if at all.

INNUMBERS

Syria

* 207,000 - Civilian casualties of Syrian war since 2011.

* 25,000 - Number of civilian casualties who are children.

* 31% - Proportion of housing units damaged or destroyed.

* 6.5m - People internally displaced by war as of 2019.

* 6.65 - Total number of Syrian refugees as of 2018.

* 41,280 - Syrian asylum-seekers in Germany in 2019.

In Idlib, people continue to fear the Assad regime more than anything. Few harbor any doubts about the regime’s desire and willingness to settle scores with those who rose up in rebellion in 2011. The past year saw Assad’s army and pro-Assad militias continue to press in on Idlib province, enjoying Russian air support and bombing runs as they do so. Turkey, whose presence in Idlib is welcomed by most of the people there (unlike in Afrin and other predominantly Kurdish areas east of it), spent the year abandoning an increasing number of its outposts in Idlib.

Many therefore fear an imminent return of the regime and resulting roundups and massacres — all while the world averts its eyes. The people of Idlib have nowhere left to run to except Turkey, which with a plummeting economy and some 3.5 million Syrian refugees already within its borders, does not want to admit more. Especially in the COVID-19 era, what limited international aid people in Idlib and other Syrian areas enjoyed has plummeted to next to nothing.




A member of the Syrian Violet NGO disinfects tents at a camp for displaced people in Kafr Jalis village, north of Idlib city, on March 21, 2020 as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. (AFP/File Photo)

The areas of Syria under Assad’s control also witnessed more of an economic downturn during the past year. With the Syrian pound next to worthless, zero foreign investment and aid from Iran and Russia mostly limited to military matters, it would be hard to overstate the extent of Syrian economic collapse.

A financial crisis this year in neighboring Lebanon, where many Syrians kept what meager savings they had, further exacerbated the situation. Lebanese banks froze withdrawals from depositors. Some 80 percent of Syrians now live below the poverty line. Strapped for cash, the Assad regime even turned on some of its own economic elite — trying to squeeze them for money to help prop up the state.

Beginning in April, an apparent row among top members of the ruling family erupted straight into public view. On one side of the dispute was Bashar Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, whose father Mohammed Makhlouf was the brother of Anisa Assad, the late mother of Bashar.




An apparent row among top members of the ruling family erupted in April. On one side of the dispute was the regime of Bashar Assad (L) and on the other was Bashar Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf (R), pictured here in a viral video in May. (AFP/File Photos)

On the other side was the regime, which means Bashar and possibly his wife Asma, which was demanding that Syriatel, Rami Makhlouf’s telecoms company, pay some $185 million in back taxes.

On April 30, Rami Makhlouf posted the first of a series of videos on Facebook decrying the government’s actions against him and his financial empire. The clash between the Makhlouf and Assad families was viewed by many as a fight mainly over a revenue pie that has shrunk drastically since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.

Also in 2020, new protests broke out in southern Syria, even in solidly regime-held area, over the worsening economic situation.

With much of Syria still a mass of rubble, few seem capable of discerning any light at the end of the tunnel. International pledges of assistance to rebuild and even foreign aid workers arriving in person both remain unlikely.

The rest of the world remains focused on COVID-19 and their own economic woes. But without such outside help, the Assad regime only reasserts its iron grip on a devastated landscape and hopeless people.

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David Romano is Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University


Deals signed during Egyptian PM’s Libya visit

Deals signed during Egyptian PM’s Libya visit
Updated 20 April 2021

Deals signed during Egyptian PM’s Libya visit

Deals signed during Egyptian PM’s Libya visit
  • During Mostafa Madbouly’s visit, several agreements were signed between the two governments, most notably on the establishment of power stations in Libya
  • Libya is considered a natural extension of the Egyptian market, due to the geographical proximity and long history of trade exchange and cooperation between the two countries

CAIRO: Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, accompanied by a team of ministers, visited Tripoli on Tuesday to discuss economic and political cooperation with the Libyan Government of National Unity.

It followed instructions from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is planning a visit to Libya.

During Madbouly’s visit, several agreements were signed between the two governments, most notably on the establishment of power stations in Libya to strengthen its energy networks.

Libya is considered a natural extension of the Egyptian market, due to the geographical proximity and long history of trade exchange and cooperation between the two countries.

Egyptian companies are awaiting government decisions regarding participation in the reconstruction of Libya, which they hope will produce new opportunities in a renewed market.

According to local sources, Madbouly’s visit is focussed on investments in the country, Egyptian labor issues and the reopening of diplomatic missions.

Last month, El-Sisi discussed with the head of the Libyan Presidential Council, Mohamed Al-Menfi, prospects for enhanced cooperation between the two countries.

El-Sisi stressed Egypt’s full and absolute support for the new executive authority in Libya in all fields and for its success in holding general elections at the end of the year.

He said Egypt was fully prepared to provide its expertise to the Libyan government to help restore its national institutions, especially security and police forces, to achieve greater stability.

Since the beginning of the Libyan crisis, Egypt has promoted political settlement by hosting the warring factions in key meetings.


Chemical weapons watchdog weighs measures against Syria

Chemical weapons watchdog weighs measures against Syria
Updated 20 April 2021

Chemical weapons watchdog weighs measures against Syria

Chemical weapons watchdog weighs measures against Syria
  • OPCW members are proposing to strip Syria of its rights at the agency in response to findings government forces used poison gas
  • U.N. director at Human Rights Watch hopes the move will encourage countries to prosecute individuals for criminal responsibility

AMSTERDAM: Members of the global chemical weapons watchdog considered a proposal on Tuesday to strip Syria of its rights at the Hague-based agency in response to findings that government forces repeatedly used poison gas.
A draft document, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters, was circulated among the 193 members at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
It was proposed by 46 nations, including the United States, Britain and France.
Syria and its military ally Russia have repeatedly denied using chemical weapons in the decade-old conflict, which has turned the once-technical agency into a flashpoint between rival political forces and deadlocked the UN Security Council.
The Russian and Syrian delegations at the OPCW did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The draft decision, which must win a two-thirds majority of members attending and voting during a meeting of the OPCW’s governing Conference of States Parties this week, proposes revoking voting rights and banning Damascus from holding any offices within the OPCW.
The draft, which could be put to a vote on Wednesday, said the ongoing use “establishes that the Syrian Arab Republic failed to declare and destroy all of its chemical weapons” after joining the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013.
Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch, hopes the move will encourage countries to prosecute individuals for criminal responsibility.
“While this may be largely symbolic, it’s an important step toward holding the Syrian leadership accountable for their war crimes while confronting the biggest compliance crisis that parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention have ever faced,” he said.
Several investigations at the United Nations and by the OPCW’s special Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) concluded that Syrian government forces used the nerve agent sarin and chlorine barrel bombs, in attacks between 2015 and 2018 that investigators said killed or injured thousands.
Last week, the OPCW’s IIT concluded there were “reasonable grounds to believe” that Syria’s air force dropped a chlorine bomb on a residential neighborhood in the rebel-controlled Idlib region in February 2018. Syria dismissed the findings.


Jordan's public prosecution ends investigation into 'recent events threatening security'

Jordan's public prosecution ends investigation into 'recent events threatening security'
Updated 20 April 2021

Jordan's public prosecution ends investigation into 'recent events threatening security'

Jordan's public prosecution ends investigation into 'recent events threatening security'
  • The results of the investigation for those involved ‘constituted a clear threat to the security and stability of the kingdom’

LONDON: An investigation into recent events that threatened to undermine Jordan’s security and stability has ended, the kingdom’s public prosecution said on Tuesday.
Brig. Gen. Hazem Al-Majali said: “The Public Prosecution of the State Security Court has completed its investigations relating to the events that the kingdom was exposed to recently.”
On April 5, Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Safadi announced that more than a dozen individuals had been arrested on charges of undermining the security of the state.
“It became clear from the investigation that it contained different and varied roles and facts for those involved, which would have constituted a clear threat to the security and stability of the kingdom,” Brig. Gen. Al-Majali added.
He also said the State Security Prosecution is working on completing the final stages of the investigation and the legal procedures required to refer them to the State Security Court,” Jordanian news agency Petra reported.


Egypt fires top railway official after deadly train crashes

People gather by an overturned train carriage at the scene of a railway accident in the city of Toukh in Egypt's central Nile Delta province of Qalyubiya on April 18, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)
People gather by an overturned train carriage at the scene of a railway accident in the city of Toukh in Egypt's central Nile Delta province of Qalyubiya on April 18, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 20 April 2021

Egypt fires top railway official after deadly train crashes

People gather by an overturned train carriage at the scene of a railway accident in the city of Toukh in Egypt's central Nile Delta province of Qalyubiya on April 18, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Raslan, who headed the railway authority since July 2018, was replaced Mustafa Abuel-Makarm
  • Country has seen three accidents in less than a month that left at least 29 people dead, some 320 injured

CAIRO: Egypt’s transportation minister on Tuesday said he sacked the country’s top railway official, following three train accidents in less than a month that left at least 29 people dead and some 320 injured.
The firing of Asharf Raslan, head of the railway authority, was part of a wide ranging overhaul of the rundown railway system's leadership amid public outcry over repeated train crashes.
Raslan, who headed the railway authority since July 2018, was replaced Mustafa Abuel-Makarm, the office of Transportation Minister Kamal el-Wazir said in a statement.
The changes included the main departments of the railway authority that manages train traffic in the Arab world’s most populous country.

READ MORE

At least 11 people were killed and nearly 100 injured in a train accident in Egypt on Sunday. Click here for more.

The overhaul was designed to “inject a number of competent professionals” amid efforts to upgrade the poorly-maintained network.
The changes came after a passenger train derailed Sunday north of Cairo, killing at least 11 people and injuring at least 98 others. That followed another train crash in the Nile Delta province of Sharqia last week that left 15 people wounded.
After Sunday’s crash, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi announced the establishment of an official commission to investigate its causes. Prosecutors also launched their own probe.
On March 25, two passenger trains collided in the southern province of Sohag, killing at least 18 people and injuring 200 others, including children. Prosecutors blamed gross negligence by railway employees for that crash.
The country’s railway system, one of the world's oldest, has a history of badly maintained equipment and poor management.

READ MORE

Saudi Arabia said on Sunday it expresses its deep sorrow for the train accident north of the Egyptian capital Cairo. Click here for more.

The government says it has launched a broad renovation and modernization initiative, buying train cars and other equipment from European and U.S. manufacturers to automate the system and develop a domestic railcar industry.
El-Sissi said in March 2018 that the government needs about 250 billion Egyptian pounds, or $14.1 billion, to overhaul the run-down rail system.
Hundreds of train accidents are reported every year. In February 2019 an unmanned locomotive slammed into a barrier inside Cairo’s main Ramses railway station, causing a huge explosion and a fire that killed at least 25 people. That crash prompted the then-transportation minister to resign.
In August 2017, two passenger trains collided just outside the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, killing 43 people. In 2016, at least 51 people were killed when two commuter trains collided near Cairo.
Egypt’s deadliest train crash was in 2002, when over 300 people were killed after a fire broke out in an overnight train traveling from Cairo to southern Egypt.


Turkey seeks jail terms for 97 over student protests

Turkey seeks jail terms for 97 over student protests
Updated 20 April 2021

Turkey seeks jail terms for 97 over student protests

Turkey seeks jail terms for 97 over student protests
  • Indictment says suspects defied ban on rallies imposed to combat coronavirus pandemic
  • Prosecutors seeking 6 months to 3 years in jail for suspects' participation in unlawful rallies

ISTANBUL: Turkish prosecutors on Tuesday demanded jail terms for 97 people who joined student protests against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s appointment of a party loyalist as a top university’s rector.
According to Anadolu state news agency, the indictment said the suspects defied a ban on rallies imposed as part of measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Prosecutors are seeking jail terms from six months to three years because of the suspects’ non-compliance with a law on “unarmed participation in unlawful rallies and refusal to disperse despite the warnings,” Anadolu said.
No date was given for the first hearing.
The protest movement — the biggest to rattle Erdogan’s rule in years — kicked off when the Turkish leader appointed longstanding ruling party member Melih Bulu as rector of Bogazici University at the start of the year.
The rallies began inside the campus grounds before spreading to the streets of Istanbul and other big cities with the backing of government opponents and supporters of broader LGBT rights.
The indictment specifically refers to a February 1 protest in Istanbul in which several groups defied police warnings and rallied outside the university’s locked gate.
Police roughly rounded up 108 people that day.
Ninety-seven of them were later released and a probe was launched against them by the prosecutor’s office, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors are conducting separate inquiries against the 11 remaining people, one of whom is underage.
The student demonstrations had echoes of 2013 protests that sprang up against plans to demolish an Istanbul park before spreading nationally and posing the first big political dilemma for Erdogan.
He has compared student protesters to “terrorists” and the rector at the root of the demonstrations has refused to give in to demands to step down.