UN Security Council bickers as Syrians continue to suffer

UN Security Council bickers as Syrians continue to suffer
UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen announced Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, that the next round of talks toward revising the war-battered country's constitution will start in Geneva on Jan. 25 and urged the parties to move to actual drafting. (AP/File)
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Updated 21 January 2021

UN Security Council bickers as Syrians continue to suffer

UN Security Council bickers as Syrians continue to suffer
  • UN officials urge the international community not to turn its back on the plight of the nation’s people
  • A combination of crises has created ‘a slow tsunami that is crashing across Syria,’ says envoy

NEW YORK: Emotions ran high during a meeting of the UN Security Council on Wednesday, as permanent members traded jabs and accusations.
It came as Geir Pedersen, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, and Mark Lowcock,  under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, delivered the latest sobering warnings about the plight of the Syrian people, after a decade of death and destruction caused by the Civil War.
They urged the international community not to turn its back on Syrians and the humanitarian crisis they face.
Bashar Jaafari, the former Syrian representative to the UN and the country’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, blamed the situation on Western nations. He accused them of “pillaging Syria’s wealth” and launching “unfounded accusations” against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and said the West promotes violence and hate and perpetuates the spread of “terrorism without borders.”
He also accused Western countries of employing double standards, and suggested that if the Jan. 6 attack by a right-wing mob on the American Capitol had happened in a non-Western country, it would have been labeled a “Spring,” an “Orange Revolution” or an expression of freedom. But “because (it) happened in a Western capital (it was) condemned by the world,” he said.
Jaafari also directed allegations of “terrorism” by Turkey toward his counterpart from the country, who refused to respond on the grounds that “he (Jaafari) is not a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”
The meeting was convened at the request of Tarek Ladeb, the permanent representative to the UN of Tunisia, which holds the presidency of the Security Council this month. It took place as the Syrian Constitutional Committee prepares to gather for a fifth round of talks in Geneva next week under the auspices of Pedersen.
The committee is a part of a UN-facilitated process seeking a reconciliation between the Assad regime and the opposition through changes to the existing constitution or the drafting of a new one. 
Almost 10 years of war have left millions of Syrians “with deep trauma, grinding poverty, personal insecurity and lack of hope for the future,” Pedersen told the Security Council. “For many, the daily struggle just to survive crowds out most other issues.”
He said the COVID-19 pandemic, the spillover from the crisis in Lebanon, and internal factors such as war economies, corruption and mismanagement have combined to create “a slow tsunami that is crashing across Syria.”
He stressed the need to ensure that any additional sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime must avoid escalating the plight of the Syrian people.
While he said it is true that the past 10 months have been the calmest since the beginning of the conflict, Pedersen added that military escalations in the northeast continue to disrupt this relative peace, along with Israeli assaults, continuous Daesh attacks, mutual shelling and airstrikes in Idlib and unrest in the southwest.
Attacks continue to cost lives, he said, and Syrians face a host of other threats including abduction, arbitrary detention, increased criminal activity and the intensification of terrorist attacks. 
“This is a fragile calm (that) could break down at any moment,” said Pedersen.
He acknowledged that the political process has not resulted in any tangible changes as yet, nor any real vision of the future for Syrians, but stressed the need to persist with confidence-building measures such as unhindered access for humanitarian aid groups, an enduring nationwide ceasefire, and access to detainees.
While free and fair elections, based on the provisions of Security Council Resolution 2254, still “seem far into the future,” Pedersen said that “more serious and cooperative international diplomacy “could unlock genuine progress and could chart a safe and secure path out of this crisis for all Syrians.”
Lowcock painted a grim picture of the humanitarian crisis in Syria. He told the council that Syrians are dealing with severe levels of food insecurity, along with fuel shortages and power cuts during a harsh winter, and a growing dependency on child labor.
Bad weather is forcing people to “spend entire nights standing up in their tents due to rising flood waters,” Lowcock added, and he warned that a new wave of COVID-19 infections could also be imminent. 
He highlighted the desperate conditions in the notorious Al-Hol refugee camp, which is home to thousands of wives and children of former Daesh militants. There has been a surge in violent incidents there in recent months, but he said security measures must be employed without endangering the residents, violating their rights or restricting humanitarian access. Most of the 62,000 people living in the camp are below the age of 12, he said, and “growing up in unacceptable conditions.”
Lowcock reiterated the UN’s commitment to providing humanitarian assistance but said it requires “adequate funding, improved access and an end to the violence that has tormented Syrians for nearly a decade.”
In her final statement to the council, Kelly Craft, the departing US ambassador to the UN, choked back tears as she shared tragic stories from Syrian refugee camps she visited in Turkey, and pleaded for the world not to abandon the people of Syria.
“Wake up to the horrors of this conflict” and take action to restore peace, she said.
“Bombed, starved, displaced and tormented by the Assad regime and its supporters, (these) are the people, the majority of whom are women and children, who have entrusted us in this council to keep them safe — to keep them alive,” she added.
Craft condemned the “political dynamics that afflict this council and continue to deny the Syrian people a path toward peace, stability, and hope. This council is failing millions of civilians of Syria, not just today but for more than a decade. It is appalling.”
She accused the Assad regime of deliberately stalling the progress of the constitutional committee to distract the attention of the international community from the thousands of civilians killed or injured by the regime “and its craven allies’ barbaric attacks,” as it gears up for “a sham presidential election this year.”
She added: “Any such election would be illegitimate (and) the US will not recognize (it.)”
Craft said any election must ensure the participation of Syrians who are refugees, internally displaced or part of the diaspora, and reiterated that the US will withhold reconstruction funding until the UN’s political process in Syria is complete.
She berated her Russian colleagues who, she said, “tell a very different story (about Syria) to this body — a story breathtaking in its dishonesty and cynicism.”
After wishing Craft well for the future, Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, said: “I will now turn to the Russian story on Syria.”
He criticized the UN for “keeping its mouth shut” while the proceeds from Syria’s natural resources “are not flowing into Syria’s coffers.” He also defended the Assad regime, saying that “Damascus is doing everything it can to keep the economy afloat” while international sanctions cause it to collapse.
UK Ambassador James Paul Roscoe rejected this suggestion and said the true cause of the tragedy in Syria is the regime’s “nepotism, corruption and brutal attacks against its people.” He called for the regime to be held accountable for its crimes.
Pedersen reiterated that the UN’s resolution on Syria stipulates that the political process in the country “must be Syrian-owned and led, but the conflict is highly internationalized, with five foreign armies active in Syria.”
The world cannot, therefore, “pretend that the solutions are only in the hands of the Syrians, or that the UN can do it alone,” he added as he called for “a more serious and cooperative international diplomacy.”


Explosion hits Israeli-owned ship in Mideast - AP

Explosion hits Israeli-owned ship in Mideast - AP
Updated 10 min 19 sec ago

Explosion hits Israeli-owned ship in Mideast - AP

Explosion hits Israeli-owned ship in Mideast - AP
  • The crew and vessel were safe, according to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: An explosion struck an Israeli-owned cargo ship sailing out of the Middle East on Friday, renewing concerns about ship security in the region amid escalating tensions between the US and Iran.

The crew and vessel were safe, according to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy. The explosion in the Gulf of Oman forced the vessel to head to the nearest port.

Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, identified the stricken vessel as the MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship.

Another private security official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, similarly identified the ship as the Helios Ray.

Satellite-tracking data from website MarineTraffic.com showed the Helios Ray had been nearly entering the Arabian Sea around 0600 GMT Friday before it suddenly turned around and began heading back toward the Strait of Hormuz. It was coming from Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and still listed Singapore as its destination on its tracker.

The blast comes as Tehran increasingly breaches its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers to create leverage over Washington. Iran is seeking to pressure Biden to grant the sanctions relief it received under the deal that former President Donald Trump abandoned nearly three years ago.

Capt. Ranjith Raja of the data firm Refinitiv told the AP that the Israeli-owned vessel had left the Arabian Gulf Thursday bound for Singapore. On Friday at 0230 GMT, the vessel stopped for at least nine hours east of a main Omani port before making a 360-degree turn and sailing toward Dubai, likely for damage assessment and repairs, he said.

While details of the explosion remained unclear, two American defense officials told the AP that the ship had sustained two holes on its port side and two holes on its starboard side just above the waterline in the blast. The officials said it remained unclear what caused the holes. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss unreleased information on the incidents.

A United Nations ship database identified the vessel’s owners as a Tel Aviv-based firm called Ray Shipping Ltd. Calls to Ray Shipping rang unanswered Friday.

Abraham Ungar, 74, who goes by “Rami,” is the founder of Ray Shipping Ltd., and is known as one of the richest men in Israel. He made his fortune in shipping and construction.

According to the Nikola Y. Vaptsarov Naval Academy, where Ungar provides support and maritime training, he owns dozens of car-carrying ships and employs thousands of engineers.

The US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said it was “aware and monitoring” the situation. The US Maritime Administration, an agency of the Transportation Department, issued a warning to commercial shippers early Saturday acknowledging the explosion and urging ships to “exercise caution when transiting” the Gulf of Oman.

While the circumstances of the explosion remain unclear, Dryad Global said it was very possible the blast stemmed from “asymmetric activity by Iranian military.”


Yemen’s children starve as UN seeks billions to avoid vast ‘man-made’ famine

Yemen’s children starve as UN seeks billions to avoid vast ‘man-made’ famine
Updated 22 min 37 sec ago

Yemen’s children starve as UN seeks billions to avoid vast ‘man-made’ famine

Yemen’s children starve as UN seeks billions to avoid vast ‘man-made’ famine
  • Some 80 percent of Yemenis need help, with 400,000 children under the age of five severely malnourished
SANAA/NEW YORK: Ahmadiya Juaidi’s eyes are wide as she drinks a nutrition shake from a large orange mug, her thin fingers grasping the handle. Her hair is pulled back and around her neck hangs a silver necklace with a heart and the letter A.
Three weeks ago the 13-year-old weighed just nine kilograms (20 pounds) when she was admitted to Al-Sabeen hospital in Yemen’s capital Sanaa with malnutrition that sickened her for at least the past four years. Now she weighs 15 kilograms.
“I am afraid when we go back to the countryside her condition will deteriorate again due to lack of nutritional food. We have no income,” her older brother, Muhammad Abdo Taher Shami, told Reuters.
They are among some 16 million Yemenis — more than half the population of the Arabian Peninsula country — that the United Nations says are going hungry. Of those, five million are on the brink of famine, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock warns.
On Monday the United Nations hopes to raise some $3.85 billion at a virtual pledging event to avert what Lowcock says would be a large-scale “man-made” famine, the worst the world will have seen for decades.
Some 80 percent of Yemenis need help, with 400,000 children under the age of five severely malnourished, according to UN data. For much of its food, the country relies on imports that have been badly disrupted over the years by all warring parties.
“Before the war Yemen was a poor country with a malnutrition problem, but it was one which had a functioning economy, a government that provided services to quite a lot of its people, a national infrastructure and an export base,” Lowcock told reporters. “The war has largely destroyed all of that.”
“In the modern world famines are basically about people having no income and then other people blocking efforts to help them. That’s basically what we’ve got in Yemen,” he added.

Algeria anti-govt protesters hit streets after year-long hiatus

Algeria anti-govt protesters hit streets after year-long hiatus
Algerian anti-government protesters take part in a demonstration in the capital Algiers, on February 26, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 27 February 2021

Algeria anti-govt protesters hit streets after year-long hiatus

Algeria anti-govt protesters hit streets after year-long hiatus
  • Demonstrators kept up weekly protests after Bouteflika’s resignation, demanding a sweeping overhaul of a ruling system in place since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962

ALGIERS: Thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets of Algeria’s capital on Friday as the Hirak pro-democracy movement gathers renewed momentum after a year-long hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite a ban on gatherings over the pandemic, crowds gathered in several neighborhoods of Algiers in the early afternoon and marched toward the city center, AFP journalists said.
“It’s awesome. It’s like the big Friday Hirak protests,” one demonstrator said.
The Hirak protests were sparked in February 2019 over former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term, and the long-time leader was forced from power in April that year.
Demonstrators kept up weekly protests after Bouteflika’s resignation, demanding a sweeping overhaul of a ruling system in place since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962.
They only suspended marches last March due to coronavirus restrictions, but calls have recently circulated on social media for a return to the streets.

BACKGROUND

The Hirak protests were sparked in February 2019 over Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth presidential term, and the long-time leader was forced from power in April that year.

Protesters on Friday were met by security forces who used truncheons and fired tear gas when a crowd forced its way through a police barrier to reach the Grand Post Office, the main Algiers rallying point of the Hirak protests, footage posted on the Interligne news site showed.
The crowd chanted “Civil state, not military state” — a key rallying cry of the protests, which refers to the military establishment that holds sway over Algerian politics.
Police vans took up positions near main squares in the city center and roadblocks were set up on several major roads leading into the capital.
Rallies were also held in some provinces, including in northeastern Kabylie and northwestern Oran, where a prominent human rights activist, academic Kadour Chouicha, was arrested, according to prisoners’ rights group CNLD.
In Algiers, people among the crowd said there appeared to be at least as many people in the streets as last Monday, when thousands marched to mark the second anniversary of the Hirak protests.


UN agency’s decision to cut aid to Gaza Strip refugees raises concern

UN agency’s decision to cut aid to  Gaza Strip refugees raises concern
Young Palestinians take part in a protest against what they say are food aid cuts by the UN Relief and Works Agency in the Gaza Strip. (File/AFP)
Updated 27 February 2021

UN agency’s decision to cut aid to Gaza Strip refugees raises concern

UN agency’s decision to cut aid to  Gaza Strip refugees raises concern
  • “UNRWA, in its new vision for the distribution of foodstuffs, wants to produce a fairer and more transparent system for new groups that will be included in the base of beneficiaries of food aid”

GAZA CITY: Mohammed Rashwan is worried for his family of 10 after a decision from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to reduce aid to Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip.
He was diagnosed with cancer about seven years ago and relies on the relief aid provided by the agency.
“A single basket of aid is not enough for us for a month, but it used to fill part of our needs, in addition to relief aid from local institutions,” he told Arab News.
He qualified as being a member of the poorest group of beneficiaries and so received double aid, known as the “Yellow Coupon.” 
But on Feb. 20 UNRWA said it was canceling this coupon, which helps 770,000 Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip. The strip is home to 2 million Palestinians.
Rashwan described the decision as “unjust” because it did not take different living conditions into consideration.
Under the new system, he will lose about half the aid he used to receive every three months, and there will instead be a unified food basket system for all beneficiaries.
Last Sunday he, along with other angry refugees, protested the coupon’s cancellation by closing UNRWA supply centers.
A meeting held last Monday by the Joint Committee for Refugees with the director of UNRWA’s operations in Gaza, Matthias Schmale, failed to dissuade the agency from its decision.

FASTFACT

Cancer victim Mohammed Rashwan describes the UN Relief and Works Agency’s decision as ‘unjust’ because it does not take different living conditions into consideration.

Committee member Bakr Abu Safiya said there was agreement between different refugee representative bodies about challenging the UNRWA decision, with the agency being given a Monday deadline to pledge a written letter rescinding its decision.
Abu Safiya added that it was too early to talk about options if UNRWA stuck to its guns, but stressed there would be “a program of action and we will not violate the rights of refugees, and the matter may reach the point of demanding the firing of Schmale.”
Schmale, who was appointed to the post in Oct. 2017, has not enjoyed a good relationship with refugee representatives in Gaza.
Abu Safiya described Schmale as “elusive” since taking office and said he had made decisions that were “harmful to refugees, such as reducing services, stopping employment, and fabricating a crisis of employees’ salaries.”
The meeting with Schmale was “stormy and did not produce a result,” he said.
“We will wait for an official position until Monday, after which the response will be considered.”
UNRWA was established in 1949 by a UN General Assembly resolution. It provides services in various sectors to about 5.6 million Palestinian refugees registered with it in its five fields of operations: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
UNRWA media adviser, Adnan Abu Hasna, said the agency would adhere to its decision and not back down.
“UNRWA, in its new vision for the distribution of foodstuffs, wants to produce a fairer and more transparent system for new groups that will be included in the base of beneficiaries of food aid.”
According to Abu Hasna, the new system would benefit tens of thousands more refugees, with an increase of 10 kilos of flour per person.
But Abu Safiya described the new system as a “crime against refugees” and accused the agency of manipulating the numbers of beneficiaries.


US launches strike against Iranian forces in Syria

Thursday’s strike signaled the first military action undertaken by US President Joe Biden, who took office in January. (Reuters/File Photo)
Thursday’s strike signaled the first military action undertaken by US President Joe Biden, who took office in January. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 27 February 2021

US launches strike against Iranian forces in Syria

Thursday’s strike signaled the first military action undertaken by US President Joe Biden, who took office in January. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Airstrikes were retaliation for rocket attack against American forces in Erbil, Pentagon officials say

CHICAGO: A US airstrike in Syria targeted facilities belonging to an Iranian-backed armed group, killing one fighter and wounding several others, according to the Associated Press. However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the war in Syria, said as many as 22 fighters were killed. 

Thursday’s strike signaled the first military action undertaken by US President Joe Biden, who took office on Jan. 20.

Pentagon officials said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack at the International Airport in Erbil on Feb. 15 that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.

Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen US military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend US troops in Iraq and send a message to Iran.

“I think the very limited nature of the strike means both that it is unlikely to cause an escalation, and it is unlikely to change Iranian behavior,” said Justin Logan, a Fellow at the Conservative Cato Institute. 

“Just as limited strikes from Iran-linked militias are unlikely to change US policy in Iraq. What is the point? There is a schoolyard logic to the strike — he hit me first — but the question ought to be about what effect it is expected to produce.”

US Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, said the attacks were clearly intended to target Iranian regime proxy militia groups operating in Syria.

“The American people deserve to hear the administration’s rationale for these strikes and its legal justification for acting without coming to Congress,” Kaine said in a statement. 

“Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional, absent extraordinary circumstances. Congress must be fully briefed on this matter expeditiously.”

Kaine, who has challenged presidential actions to expand military force without congressional authorization, introduced legislation to prohibit a war with Iran without bipartisan support from the Senate and the House, but the bill was vetoed by former President Donald Trump.

Former US ambassador to Morocco, Edward Gabriel, defended the strikes saying they were a necessary response given Iran’s violence against American targets.

“This attack, coming on the advent of US-Iranian talks, sends the important message that we, the United States, will not allow Iranian-sponsored attacks on US personnel and will respond to any such threat accordingly,” said Gabriel, who is a member of the Arab Americans for Biden coalition.

“It was measured and indicates that the Biden administration seems prepared for a negotiation with Iran that not only deals with curbing Iranian nuclear ambitions, but will also not tolerate Iranian proxy aggression in the region anymore.”

Ali Safavi, an official with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, said the Iran regime only understands a policy of firmness.

“So long as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its proxy groups and militias continue to operate in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, wreaking havoc in the Middle East, incidents such as the ones in Erbil, Ballad, and Baghdad will persist,” Safavi said.

“Tehran only understands the language of firmness; weakness only emboldens it.”