Syrians vote in election certain to give Assad new mandate

Syrians vote in election certain to give Assad new mandate
The presidential elections in the war-ravaged country are being held May 26. (File/AP/Hassan Ammar)
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Updated 26 May 2021

Syrians vote in election certain to give Assad new mandate

Syrians vote in election certain to give Assad new mandate
  • The vote is the second presidential election since the country’s conflict began 10 years ago
  • No vote will be held in northeast Syria, which is controlled by US-backed Kurdish-led fighters

DAMASCUS, Syria: Syrians in government-held areas of the war-torn country headed to polling stations early Wednesday to vote in a presidential election set to give President Bashar Assad a fourth seven-year term.
The vote is the second presidential election since the country’s conflict began 10 years ago and has been dismissed as a sham by the opposition and Western countries. Two other candidates are running for the country’s top post, which has been held by members of the Assad family for five decades.
They are little known figures, Abdullah Salloum Abdullah and Mahmoud Ahmad Marie. But competition with Assad is largely seen as symbolic.
Starting at 7 a.m., thousands began arriving at polling stations in Damascus, where streets have been decorated with giant posters of Assad and banners praising his rule. Few posters of the two other candidates appeared in the streets.
“We choose the future. We choose Bashar Assad,” read one of many banners raised in the capital Damascus.
No vote will be held in northeast Syria, which is controlled by US-backed Kurdish-led fighters, or in the northwestern province of Idlib that is the last major rebel stronghold in the country.
Still, in some parts of government-held areas, including the southern provinces of Daraa and Sweida, many have rejected the vote calling it “illegitimate.”
The Syrian Democratic Council that runs daily affairs in northeast Syria said in a statement it will not take part in the vote “before political solutions in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions, release of detainees, return of displaced and putting the basis for a political structure far away from tyranny.”
On Sunday, Prime Minister Hussein Arnous traveled to Sweida along with a dozen Cabinet ministers in the first such visit in years to meet local officials. There has reportedly been widespread anger against the vote and overspending on pro-Assad campaigns in the city at a time when much of the region’s population lives in poverty.
The vote this year comes as Syria’s economy is in free fall as a result of Western sanctions, government corruption and infighting, the coronavirus and the financial crisis in Lebanon, Syria’s main link with the outside world.
Some of the voters waiting at polling stations were putting on face masks. Over the past three months, intensive care units in public hospitals in Damascus reached full capacity due to a sharp rise in coronavirus infections, leading doctors to transfer patients to hospitals in other provinces. In March, Assad and his wife, Asma, tested positive for the virus.
The Biden administration has said it will not recognize the result of the Syrian election unless the voting is free, fair, supervised by the United Nation and represents all of Syrian society.
“We are not involved in these elections ... in any way, and we, of course, have no mandate to be,” UN secretary-general’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at the United Nations on Tuesday.
“We are, of course, aware that the elections are taking place. It’s important to remind you in answering the question that ... these are being called under the auspices of the current constitution and not part of the political process that was established under resolution 2254.”
Syria’s Interior Minister Mohammad Rahmoun said 12,102 polling stations were set up in all the Syrian governorates. He said there are more than 18 million illegible voters in Syria and abroad. Syrians living abroad voted last week.
Syria had a population of 23 million before the conflict broke out a decade ago. The fighting has left nearly half a million dead and half the country’s population displaced, more than 5 million of them refugees outside Syria.
The civil war broke out in 2011 when Arab Spring-inspired protests against Assad family rule turned into an armed insurgency in response to a brutal military crackdown.
Assad has been in power since 2000 when he took over from his father, Hafez, who ruled before that for 30 years. Despite the war, which seemed at one point to threaten his rule, Assad remained in power supported by regional powerhouse Iran and Russia, which sent in military advisers and air power to push back the armed opposition.
Fifty-one persons, including seven women, applied to run for president but earlier this month, Syria’s Supreme Constitutional Court accepted only three applications.
Syria began a multicandidate vote in 2014 when Assad won nearly 90 percent of the vote. Before that, Syria held referendums in which Assad and his late father got landslide support.


Lebanon highlights drug seizures as PM ‘smooths rough edges’ of response to Kuwaiti initiative

Lebanon's Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi gives a press conference about a seizure of a cache of captagon tablets in Lebanon's capital Beirut on January 25, 2022. (AFP)
Lebanon's Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi gives a press conference about a seizure of a cache of captagon tablets in Lebanon's capital Beirut on January 25, 2022. (AFP)
Updated 14 sec ago

Lebanon highlights drug seizures as PM ‘smooths rough edges’ of response to Kuwaiti initiative

Lebanon's Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi gives a press conference about a seizure of a cache of captagon tablets in Lebanon's capital Beirut on January 25, 2022. (AFP)
  • Initiative calls for serious steps to rebuild confidence with Gulf states amid concern over Hezbollah weapons

BEIRUT: Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi pledged that the Lebanese state “will spare no effort in thwarting all smuggling operations and preventing harm to our Arab brothers.”

He also announced on Thursday evening that the Anti-Narcotics Office of the Judicial Police, in cooperation with the Anti-Narcotics Division of the Customs, had seized about 12 tons of drugs hidden in boxes of powdered juice bound initially for Sudan.

Two days earlier, the minister revealed that authorities had seized a large quantity of captagon hidden in a tea shipment being sent by sea to an African country and then on to the Gulf.

The seizures come as Lebanon strives to show that it takes the smuggling of drugs to Gulf nations seriously, and highlight the effectiveness of its security and intelligence measures to combat the illicit trade.

As part of efforts to repair strained relations between Lebanon and Gulf states, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmed Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah presented a new initiative during talks in Lebanon last week. It includes 10 items that “represent Arab, Gulf and international conditions for rebuilding confidence with Lebanon,” he said during his visit.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib will deliver an official response to the Kuwaiti initiative on Saturday.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati is trying to smooth the rough edges of the response, according to a source close to the PM, which will include a call for dialogue on the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons on the grounds that Shebaa Farms and Kafr Shuba are still occupied by the Israelis.

The source also said that Mikati reiterates Lebanon’s continuing adherence to the Taif Agreement that ended the civil war in the country, international resolutions and efforts to ensure the best possible relations with the region and the world.

The Kuwaiti initiative has been extensively discussed among members of the ruling Lebanese authority and it is understood the response has undergone several revisions.

Leaked information suggests that the initiative includes “harsh conditions, some of which are impossible to implement, such as Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the disbanding and disarming of all Lebanese militias.”

It also is said to call for Lebanon to adhere to political, economic and financial reforms, rehabilitate state institutions, adopt neutrality, respect the sovereignty of Arab and Gulf countries, halt any political, media or military interference in these countries, respect the decisions of the Arab League, and commit to international resolutions.

Other conditions include disarming all militias and extending government control over all Lebanese territory; serious measures to control Lebanese border crossings and prevent drug smuggling, including the adoption of a clear and decisive security policy that prevents the targeting of Gulf countries by drug-smuggling operations; measures to prevent interference by Hezbollah in the Yemen war; and taking firm steps to prevent any meetings or gatherings that might affect the internal affairs of Gulf states.

Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, said that the Kuwaiti initiative includes conditions that would require time to be implemented, and some that are contentious to the Lebanese.

“Discussing the issue of arms is dangerous,” Bassil, whose bloc constitutes President Michel Aoun’s team in the parliament, told Russia Today.

“There is Israeli aggression and Palestinian invasion happening on Lebanese territories, and external pressure on Lebanon leads to an internal implosion as the conflict becomes a conflict between those who support Hezbollah’s weapons and those who are against them.”

Nabih Berri, the parliament’s speaker, said his position on Hezbollah’s weapons has not changed.

“Some Lebanese lands are still occupied by Israel, which gives these weapons a reason to exist and gives Hezbollah and Lebanon the right to resist the occupation,” he said.

Although Hezbollah has not responded directly to the Kuwaiti initiative, the party announced that Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah will deliver a speech on Monday. It is not known whether he will be supportive of the initiative or renew his criticism of Gulf states.

Lebanon’s Al-Markazia news agency quoted a source close to the party as saying: “Nasrallah will focus on the reasons and motives that dictate Hezbollah’s adherence to the resistance as long as there is an inch of Lebanese territory occupied.”

In his Friday sermon, Sheikh Ahmed Qabalan, a Shiite cleric affiliated with Hezbollah and the Amal movement, addressed “brothers in the Gulf Cooperation Council” and said: “The enemy is Israel, not the Arabs, and the danger lies in Tel Aviv, not in Beirut’s southern suburb.

“The solution does not start with (UN Security Council resolutions). The weapons of the resistance are a guarantee for the Arabs and not against them.

“Today, the resistance’s weapons are a guarantee for Lebanon and the greatest national need to prevent any civil war, sectarian strife or an Israeli or takfiri invasion.”

 


Should the Beirut port blast site be turned into a place of remembrance?

Should the Beirut port blast site be turned into a place of remembrance?
Updated 7 min 4 sec ago

Should the Beirut port blast site be turned into a place of remembrance?

Should the Beirut port blast site be turned into a place of remembrance?
  • A design project envisions a museum, sound-therapy space and amphitheater where the deadly explosion occurred in 2020
  • Sultan El-Halabi was inspired by New York’s 9/11 memorial to imagine a place of remembrance for Lebanon

DUBAI: For Sultan El-Halabi, Aug. 4, 2020, began like any other day in Beirut. He was driving with his mother from their hometown of Chouf to the Lebanese capital, where they checked into a sea-facing hotel to rest.

But shortly after 6 p.m., El-Halabi’s mother said she felt a strange rumbling sensation. El-Halabi crossed the room to the balcony to investigate the cause when all of a sudden, the entire window frame flew off, collapsing right in front of him. They were both lucky to escape uninjured.

“No one could have expected that to happen,” El-Halabi, a 23-year-old architecture graduate, told Arab News from his base in Dubai, more than a year on from the Beirut port blast — a disaster that killed over 200 people and left some 300,000 homeless.

The scars from the blast remain visible on the city skyline. (AFP)

“I remember the view of the city afterward. They were warning people at the hotel to stay indoors because acid or chemicals could be in the air. The sky started changing color. It was more reddish. It was like a war zone. Everything, in just one second, was completely gone.”

More than a year later, the scars remain visible on the city skyline. What is less visible are mental scars the blast has left on those who survived and who lost homes, businesses and loved ones.

“In Lebanon now, you should just live your day as if it’s your last,” El-Halabi said. “Always stay connected with your loved ones because you never know what could happen.”

The tragedy motivated El-Halabi to base his senior graduation project at the American University in Dubai on restoring the devastated port, transforming it into an accessible, multi-functional and job-creating site that can be “given back to the people.”

His project, named “Repurpose 607,” envisages replacing the five damaged warehouse plots with a memorial museum, a sound-healing therapy space, an amphitheater and an underground parking area.

“Everything, in just one second, was completely gone,”  said Sultan El-Halabi, referring to the port tragedy. (Supplied)

The site would also feature a library, offices and a cafe, while a raised, circular footpath would offer visitors an overview of the port.

Flooded with natural light, the sound-healing therapy building would offer meditation and cognitive behavioral sessions to help those suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the blast.

“For many people, until this day, if they hear a slight bang or any weird noise, they would always refer to the explosion or take cover,” El-Halabi said. Sound therapy could help many traumatized Beirut residents find calm and closure.

The proposed memorial museum would include a timeline of Beirut’s history up until the day of the blast and the names of its victims engraved on a large triangulated stone.

The tragedy motivated Sultan El-Halabi to base his senior graduation project on restoring the devastated port. (Supplied)

El-Halabi likens this tribute to how Americans honored the dead in New York following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“They did not rebuild where the Twin Towers were located,” El-Halabi said. “They dedicated that plot of land to the people and they transformed it into a beautiful memorial place to make sure that people’s memories would live on forever. It kind of inspired me to do something similar, but for Lebanon.”

The proposed site would have pedestrian paths as well as greenery and seating areas to offer space for quiet reflection away from the city traffic. A basement area would also be built to include a gallery for Lebanese artists to showcase their work.

The proposed site would have pedestrian paths as well as greenery and seating areas to offer space for quiet reflection. (Supplied)

Aesthetically geometric and bold, it is a place designed to benefit the people, to help them “to overcome the trauma and for them to see the beauty in the site rather than always fearing it,” El-Halabi said.

In his design, only one crucial element of the site remains untouched and preserved — the massive grain silos, which experts claim shielded the city from further damage. “It symbolizes strength and empowerment,” El-Halabi said. “It’s proof to the world that we could overcome any obstacle that we face.”

The young architect acknowledges it could take time for traumatized residents of the Lebanese capital to feel emotionally ready to visit a renovated site. “Of course it could be controversial,” El-Halabi said.

Aesthetically geometric and bold, it is a place designed to benefit the people. (Supplied)

“Many people have different opinions and you can’t change them so easily. Everyone has their own freedom to view things the way they’re supposed to. But, I am able to at least enlighten them with the advantages behind this proposal.”

As a student embracing cutting-edge digital technology, El-Halabi admired the ideas of pioneering architects like Antoni Gaudí and Frank Gehry, and especially Santiago Calatrava, who designed the falcon wing-shaped UAE pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.

The idea has been called “clever and thoughtful.” (Supplied)

Having lived almost all of his life in Dubai, El-Halabi says he has also been heavily influenced by his ever-evolving urban surroundings — considered one of the world’s most dramatic and experimental cityscapes.

“It all started with dunes,” he said, reflecting on Dubai’s astronomical growth over recent decades. “They were able to convert the UAE into a heavenly place. It inspires me a lot. It shows that, in such a short time, nothing is impossible.”

He also subscribes to the notion that architecture is more than its stylistic elements, and should ultimately work to enhance people’s lives.

Sultan El-Halabi likens this tribute to how Americans honored the 9/11 terrorist attacks victims. (Supplied)

“It’s about finding the missing satisfaction of what people need and trying to provide it to them,” he said. “Architecture is more than just designing or placing a building. You need to take into consideration the people and provide facilities for them. It also needs to fit in perfectly with its surroundings.”

In October last year, as part of Dubai Design Week, “Repurpose 607” was among 60 submissions that made it to the MENA Grad Show, where graduates from across the region present their “design meets purpose” projects that address social, health and environmental issues.

“It’s an architectural solution that goes well beyond architecture,” said Carlo Rizzo. (Supplied)

Carlo Rizzo, the show’s 2021 edition editor, praised El-Halabi’s project, describing it as one of the “top entries.”

“Repurpose 607 struck me first of all for its empathy,” Rizzo told Arab News. “It’s an architectural solution that goes well beyond architecture. It looks at the built environment as a platform for building resilience in our communities and takes mental health and wellbeing as a starting point.

“Repurpose 607” was among 60 submissions that made it to the MENA Grad Show. (Supplied)

“To remember the victims and transform the site into a place of healing is not just a clever and thoughtful idea, but an urgent solution addressing a very real need.”

El-Halabi, who currently works for a Dubai-based architectural firm, still hopes to see his Beirut port project brought to life some day.

“I’ve been to Lebanon two times since the explosion,” he said. “Every time I pass by the port, I always picture how it would look in real life, trying to see my project being built there. It could have potential.”

Twitter: @artprojectdxb


Lebanon’s Bahaa Rafik Al-Hariri says he will continue his father’s journey

Lebanon’s Bahaa Rafik Al-Hariri says he will continue his father’s journey
Updated 12 min 26 sec ago

Lebanon’s Bahaa Rafik Al-Hariri says he will continue his father’s journey

Lebanon’s Bahaa Rafik Al-Hariri says he will continue his father’s journey

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Bahaa Al-Hariri said on Friday that he will continue the journey of his father, the late Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri, and would “enter the battle to take back” the country.
Bahaa’s younger brother, Lebanon’s veteran Sunni Muslim leader Saad Al-Hariri, a three times prime minister, said earlier this week that he would not run in a forthcoming parliamentary election and was suspending his role in political life, calling on his political party to do the same.
Saad’s decision opened a new phase in Lebanon’s sectarian politics and will accelerate the fragmentation of the Sunni community which his family dominated for 30 years with Saudi support.
Bahaa, 55, who has not held public office before and largely kept away from politics, said in a recorded speech sent to news outlets that he “will fight the battle to restore the country and restore the sovereignty of the country from its occupiers.”
A businessman whose interests include real estate investments in Lebanon and Jordan, Bahaa, a Lebanese-Saudi national, said that he would continue his father’s path.
He added that “any misinformation or intimidation” alluding to a power vacuum among Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims “serves only the enemies of the country.”
Saad cited Iran’s influence as one of the reasons he saw little hope of positive change for Lebanon.
His move has injected huge uncertainty into Lebanese politics just months ahead of the election, in which Hezbollah’s adversaries had hoped to overturn a majority it won with its allies in 2018.
Bahaa has been an open, fierce critic of his brother’s policy toward Iran-backed Shiite group, Hezbollah.
“The son of the martyr Rafik Hariri will not leave Lebanon, I am with you and very soon I will be among you,” Bahaa said in his speech.


Iran nuclear talks pause as diplomats confer with capitals

Delegations waiting for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA in Vienna, in December 2021. (AFP/File Photo)
Delegations waiting for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA in Vienna, in December 2021. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 28 January 2022

Iran nuclear talks pause as diplomats confer with capitals

Delegations waiting for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA in Vienna, in December 2021. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Russia’s representative at the talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, said the meeting was expected to resume next week

VIENNA: Talks to salvage the tattered 2015 nuclear deal with Iran have paused while diplomats return to capitals for political consultations, European officials said Friday.

“January has been the most intensive period of these talks to date,” British, German and French negotiators said in a joint statement. “Everyone knows we are reaching the final stage, which requires political decisions.”

Russia’s representative at the talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, said the meeting was expected to resume next week.

The United States pulled out of the Vienna accord in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump and reimpose heavy sanctions on Iran. Tehran has responded by increasing the purity and amounts of uranium it enriches and stockpiles, in breach of the accord.

US President Joe Biden has signaled that he wants to rejoin the deal, which is still supported by Russia, the three European powers and China.


Syrian fighters search for Daesh sleeper cells near prison

Syrian fighters search for Daesh sleeper cells near prison
Updated 28 January 2022

Syrian fighters search for Daesh sleeper cells near prison

Syrian fighters search for Daesh sleeper cells near prison
  • About a half-dozen Daesh fighters surrendered Friday morning, among scores of militants hiding in a basement in the northern section of the prison
  • Daesh group's Jan. 20 attack on the prison was the biggest military operation by the extremist group since the fall of their self-declared caliphate in 2019

BEIRUT: US-backed Kurdish-led fighters searched Friday near a Syrian prison for Daesh group militants as dozens of armed extremists holed up in a small part of the jail, a Kurdish official said.
About a half-dozen Daesh fighters surrendered Friday morning, among scores of militants hiding in a basement in the northern section of the prison, according to Siamand Ali, a spokesman for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
He would not confirm or deny a report by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, that SDF fighters discovered the bodies of 18 of their comrades inside Gweiran prison, also known as Al-Sinaa prison, in northeast Syria on Friday.
Daesh group’s Jan. 20 attack on the prison was the biggest military operation by the extremist group since the fall of their self-declared caliphate in 2019. It came as the militants staged deadly attacks in both Syria and Iraq that stoked fears that Daesh may be staging a comeback.
The weeklong assault on one of the largest detention facilities in Syria has turned the city of Hassakeh into a conflict zone. The Kurdish-led administration declared a curfew and sealed off the city, barring movement in and out.
Thousands of people in Hassakeh were displaced in recent days because of the fighting.
The SDF claimed Wednesday it had regained full control of the prison — a week after scores of militants overran the facility. The attackers allowed some to escape but also took hostages, including child detainees, and clashed with SDF fighters in violence that killed dozens.
The SDF had said that between 60 and 90 militants were hiding out in the northern section of the prison.
Ali said the militants are in the basement of a two-story building and that those who remain inside are refusing to surrender. “Our units are surrounding the building and are trying to convince them to surrender,” he said.
The Observatory said SDF fighters are betting that more time will force Daesh militants to surrender as their food dwindles.
The Hawar News Agency, ANHA, an online Kurdish news service, reported that several automatic rifles, a rocket-propelled grenade and hand grenades were confiscated from the Daesh gunmen who surrendered Friday. It added that SDF fighters are conducting search operations in the prison as well as several Hassakeh neighborhoods in search for Daesh sleeper cells.
The SDF said about 3,000 inmates have surrendered since its operation to retake the prison’s northern wing began three days ago.
At least 300 foreign child detainees are believed to be held in the Gweiran facility. Thousands more, mostly under the age of 12, are held with their mothers in locked camps in other parts of northeastern Syria on suspicion of being families of Daesh members. Most countries have refused to repatriate them, with only 25 out of 60 countries taking back their children, some without their mothers.
The Britain-based Observatory put the death toll from the struggle at over 260, including over 180 militants and more than 73 fighters from the Kurdish-led force. At least seven civilians were killed in the fighting, the Observatory said.
The SDF said preliminary information put the force’s death toll at 35.