Millions of people at risk if UN fails to unite on Syrian aid, envoy warns

A young man pushes a cart with carrying children inside at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected Daesh militantss, in Hasakeh, Syria, on June 23, 2021. (AFP / Delil Souleiman)
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A young man pushes a cart with carrying children inside at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected Daesh militantss, in Hasakeh, Syria, on June 23, 2021. (AFP / Delil Souleiman)
This photo taken on April 19, 2020 shows a large refugee camp in Atma, Idlib province  of Syria. (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed, File)
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This photo taken on April 19, 2020 shows a large refugee camp in Atma, Idlib province of Syria. (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed, File)
Refugees walk about at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected Daesh fighters, in Hasakeh, Syria, on June 23, 2021.(AFP/ Delil Souleiman)
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Refugees walk about at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected Daesh fighters, in Hasakeh, Syria, on June 23, 2021.(AFP/ Delil Souleiman)
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Updated 26 June 2021

Millions of people at risk if UN fails to unite on Syrian aid, envoy warns

Millions of people at risk if UN fails to unite on Syrian aid, envoy warns
  • UN special envoy for Syria: ‘A large-scale cross-border response is essential’ to save lives
  • The assistance is a ‘lifeline for millions of Syrians,’ says US ambassador

NEW YORK: Unity within the Security Council is of critical importance to the survival of millions of Syrians who continue to be in desperate need of life-saving aid, the UN’s special envoy for Syria said on Friday.

“It is absolutely vital to maintain and expand access, including cross-border and cross-line operations,” Geir Pedersen told the 15 members of the council.

His comments came as Western council members appear to be heading for a showdown next month with Russia and China — both of whom are permanent members and hold the power of veto — over the renewal of the mandate for the aid operation in Syria.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned council members on Wednesday that a failure to renew the cross-border mechanism for aid to Syria would have “devastating consequences” for civilians across the war-torn country.

The previous cross-border authorization was approved in 2014 and covered four border crossings. Opposition in the past year from Russia and China to the renewal of all four has resulted in three of them closing, leaving only one still operating, at Bab Al-Hawa on the border with Turkey. The mandate for this crossing will expire on July 10, and so a successful Security Council vote is required if it is to stay open beyond then.

“A large-scale cross-border response is essential for an additional 12 months to save lives,” Pedersen told council members.

The UN estimates that more than 13 million people across Syria need humanitarian assistance to survive.

Russia argues that the international aid operation violates the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzya, has dismissed the need for cross-border assistance as “an anachronism.”

He said his country initially accepted the mechanism because Syria “was (then) riven into parts by terrorists.” He argues that Syria has now been “liberated” and so all aid to the north should go through Damascus.

Nebenzya blamed the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria on the West’s “illegal economic sanctions.”

He added: “We consider this a continuing attempt to oust the legal authorities of the country through economic suffocation.”

China’s representative at the meeting also blamed the economic problems in the country on unilaterally imposed Western sanctions. He called for them to be lifted, and warned that “any scheme to effect regime change in Syria must be utterly renounced.” He also called on the council to separate humanitarian aid from the political process.

However the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who recently visited the Bab Al-Hawa crossing, said the “dire humanitarian crisis directly informs the political situation.”

She called on the council to reauthorize the crossing, describing it as “a literal lifeline for millions of Syrians,” and reinstate two other crossings at Bab Al-Salam and Al-Yaroubiyah. She warned that the political situation will go from bad to worse if Russia and China continue to refuse to renew the cross-border mandate.

“If we cut off cross-border aid, we further destabilize the region — it will encourage more internally displaced people to flee,” said Thomas-Greenfield.

“As everyone made clear to me when I visited the border — refugees, NGO representatives, UN humanitarian workers, local experts — there is no alternative for cross-border assistance. None.”

The American envoy reiterated that her country will not normalize or support any reconstruction aid that benefits the Assad regime.

France’s permanent representative, Nicolas de Riviere, pleaded with the council not to abandon the Syrian people “to the goodwill of the Assad regime,” and instead to return to “the heart of (resolution) 2254.”

Resolution 2254, adopted in December 2018, calls for an immediate ceasefire,  constitutional reforms and “free and fair elections” to be held. It also calls for the release of all detainees, the disclosure of the fate of all people who were forcibly disappeared, and arrangements to be made for the dignified and safe return of displaced people and refugees.

Special envoy Pedersen said that he laments the failure to make any real progress on the political track and regrets the “gulf of mistrust between the parties and the complexity of the situation on the ground,” as he urged the council to unite.

“Trust and confidence will be built through actions not words,” he said. “Key players need to be ready to come to the table with the necessary goodwill and something to deliver.

“I believe we need a new, constructive international dialogue on Syria to discuss concrete steps — steps that should be reciprocal and mutual, defined with realism and precision, implemented in parallel, and which are verifiable.


Three Iranian dissidents to be honored by PEN America

Iranians wearing protective masks cross a main road in Tehran during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP file photo)
Iranians wearing protective masks cross a main road in Tehran during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP file photo)
Updated 18 September 2021

Three Iranian dissidents to be honored by PEN America

Iranians wearing protective masks cross a main road in Tehran during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP file photo)
  • The PEN gala is scheduled for Oct. 5 at its longtime venue the American Museum of Natural History, with Awkwafina serving as host

NEW YORK: Three imprisoned Iranian dissidents will be honored next month at Pen America’s annual gala.
The literary and human rights organization announced on Thursday that writer-filmmaker Baktash Abtin, novelist-journalist Keyvan Bajan and author-critic Reza Khandan Mahabadi are this year’s recipients of the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.
All three are members of the anti-censorship Iranian Writers Association and are serving a collective 15.5 years on charges including endangering national security and “spreading propaganda.”
“Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi are embodiments of the spirit that animates our work at PEN America. They are writers who are called not only to offer prose and ideas on a page, but to live fearlessly — and sacrifice immensely in service of the liberties that underpin free thought, art, culture, and creativity,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.
“By taking up the mantle of leadership within Iran’s literary community, they have served as beacons for countless authors and thinkers whose ability to imagine, push boundaries, and challenge repression under the most dangerous conditions is fed by the knowledge that they do not stand alone.”
The PEN gala is scheduled for Oct. 5 at its longtime venue the American Museum of Natural History, with Awkwafina serving as host.


Spoons become a new symbol of Palestinian ‘freedom’

Palestinians shop at a market in the old city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
Palestinians shop at a market in the old city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
Updated 18 September 2021

Spoons become a new symbol of Palestinian ‘freedom’

Palestinians shop at a market in the old city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
  • Prisoners carried out jail break with the utensil

JERUSALEM: The humble spoon has taken its place alongside traditional flags and banners as a Palestinian resistance symbol, after prisoners were said to have carried out one of Israel’s most spectacular jail breaks with the utensil.

When the six Palestinian militants escaped through a tunnel on Sept. 6 from the high security Gilboa Prison, social networks shared images of a tunnel at the foot of a sink, and a hole dug outside.
A hashtag, “the miraculous spoon,” suggested how the Hollywood-style feat might have occurred.
But whether or not the utensil had really been involved or its role was cooked up was at first unclear.
Then on Wednesday a lawyer for one of the fugitives who has since been recaptured told AFP that his client, Mahmud Abdullah Ardah, said he had used spoons, plates and even the handle of a kettle to dig the tunnel from his cell.
He began scraping his way out from the northern Israeli institution in December, the lawyer, Roslan MaHajjana, said.
Ardah was one of four fugitives later arrested after the army poured troops into the occupied West Bank as part of a massive manhunt.
All six were accused of plotting or carrying out attacks against Israelis.
Two men remain on the loose following the extremely rare escape. Israel has begun an inquiry into lapses that led to the embarrassing incident, which Palestinians see as a “victory.”
“With determination, vigilance... and cunning, and with a spoon, it was possible to dig a tunnel through which the Palestinians escaped and the enemy was imprisoned,” writer Sari Orabi said on the Arabi 21 website.
Palestinian cartoonist Mohammed Sabaaneh says the escape has served up “black humor” and exposed Israel’s security system to ridicule.
He has made several drawings featuring the utensil, including one titled “The Tunnel of Freedom.”
The issue has also stirred admiration outside the Palestinian territories, where spoons have been carried in demonstrations supporting prisoners detained by Israel.
In Kuwait, the artist Maitham Abdal sculpted a giant hand firmly clasping a spoon — the “spoon of freedom,” as he calls it.
Similarly inspired, Amman-based graphic designer Raed Al-Qatnani symbolically depicted six silhouettes taking a bridge to freedom, represented by a spoon.
For him, it also evokes the numerous hunger strikes undertaken by Palestinian prisoners to protest their incarceration.
In Tulkarem, a city in the West Bank occupied since 1967 by Israel, the escape brought back memories for Ghassan Mahdawi. He and another prisoner escaped from an Israeli prison in 1996 through a tunnel dug using not kitchen implements but nails.
He had been arrested for belonging to an armed group during the first Palestinian intifada, which lasted until the early 1990s.
“There’s nothing prisoners can’t do ... and there is always a flaw” in the system, said Mahdawi, who was rearrested and then released after a total of 19 years in custody.
In his view, the most recent escapees may have used tools other than spoons, obtained inside the prison, to carry out what every prisoner dreams of but few accomplish.
“To escape from an Israeli prison is something each inmate thinks about,” Mahdawi said.
To have done it with a spoon, he added, is something that “will go down in history.”


Ex-Algerian leader Bouteflika, ousted amid protests, dies

Ex-Algerian leader Bouteflika, ousted amid protests, dies
Updated 18 September 2021

Ex-Algerian leader Bouteflika, ousted amid protests, dies

Ex-Algerian leader Bouteflika, ousted amid protests, dies
  • Bouteflika became president of Algeria in 1999 as the former French colony emerged from a decade of civil war that killed nearly 200,000 people

ALGIERS: Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who ruled Algeria for two decades before resigning in 2019 as huge protests engulfed the country, died on Friday aged 84, public television announced.
The former strongman had left office in April 2019 under pressure from the military, following weeks of demonstrations over his bid to run for a fifth term in office.
After quitting, he had stayed out of the public eye at a residence in western Algiers.
Bouteflika became president of Algeria in 1999 as the former French colony emerged from a decade of civil war that killed nearly 200,000 people.
Dubbed “Boutef” by Algerians, he initially won respect for helping foster peace, notably with an amnesty law that prompted thousands of Islamist fighters to hand in their weapons.
Bouteflika went on to be elected for three more consecutive five-year terms, most recently in 2014.
Journalist Farid Alilat, who has written a biography of Bouteflika, says that at the height of his rule in the early 2000s, the president had “all the levers of power.”
Crucially, he was backed by the army and the intelligence services.
“He became an absolute president,” Alilat told AFP.
Algeria was largely spared the wave of uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011, with many crediting still-painful memories of the conflict in the 1990s for keeping a lid on tensions.
But Bouteflika’s rule was marked by growing corruption, leaving many Algerians wondering how a country with vast oil wealth could end up with poor infrastructure and high unemployment that pushed many young people overseas.
In his later years, Bouteflika’s ill health started weighing on his credibility as a leader.
Despite suffering a mini-stroke in April 2013 that affected his speech and forced him to use a wheelchair, he decided to seek a fourth mandate despite growing public doubts about his ability to rule.
His bid in 2019 for a fifth term sparked angry protests that soon grew into a mass movement against his regime.
When he lost the backing of the army, he was forced to step down.
The Hirak mass protests continued, with demands for a full overhaul of the ruling system in place since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962.
But while some key Bouteflika-era figures were eventually jailed in corruption cases, including Bouteflika’s powerful brother Said, the long-sought changes did not happen.
Bouteflika’s successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected in late 2019 on record low turnout, with the Hirak calling for a boycott.
A referendum on a constitutional amendment seen as aiming to torpedo the Hirak generated even less interest from voters.
But the protest movement was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic and has struggled to regain momentum as the government cracks down on opposition.
According to the CNLD prisoners’ group, around 200 people are in jail in connection with the Hirak or over individual freedoms.
And with the Bouteflika-era old guard still largely ruling the country, the legacy of two decades of his rule is mixed.
“For his entire life, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was driven by two obsessions: take power and keep it at any price,” said Alilat.
“But it was this obsession... that sparked the revolt that drove him from power.”


Erdogan and Putin to discuss Syria in Sochi

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia. (REUTERS file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 18 September 2021

Erdogan and Putin to discuss Syria in Sochi

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia. (REUTERS file photo)
  • The March 2020 agreement followed weeks of fighting that brought Turkey and Russia close to conflict and displaced nearly a million people

ANKARA: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan will visit Russia later this month for talks with President Vladimir Putin about the violence in northwestern Syria, where Moscow and Ankara back opposing sides, two Turkish officials said on Friday.
Turkey supports fighters who sought to topple President Bashar Assad, while Russia has helped shore up Assad after a decade of conflict.
Both sides have complained about violations of a truce they agreed 18 months ago in the northwestern Idlib region, the last rebel bastion left in Syria, where Ankara says two Turkish troops were killed in an attack on Saturday.
“The main agenda point is Syria, namely Idlib,” a senior Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the planned talks in Russian resort of Sochi. “The conditions set out in the Idlib agreement have not been fully implemented.”
The March 2020 agreement followed weeks of fighting that brought Turkey and Russia close to conflict and displaced nearly a million people.
“There should not be any new instability in Syria,” another Turkish official said.
Erdogan’s planned two-day visit will follow his trip to the UN General Assembly in New York next week, the officials said, without specifying exact dates.
Despite backing opposing sides in both the Syrian and Libyan conflicts, Turkey and Russia have forged close cooperation in the defense, energy and tourism sectors.


Israeli grandfather says he saved, not kidnapped, grandson in Italy

Israeli grandfather says he saved, not kidnapped, grandson in Italy
Updated 17 September 2021

Israeli grandfather says he saved, not kidnapped, grandson in Italy

Israeli grandfather says he saved, not kidnapped, grandson in Italy
  • Eitan Biran's parents, younger brother and 11 other people all died when a gondola plunged to the ground in northern Italy in May
  • Italian media said Shmuel Peleg had driven with his grandson across the nearby border to Switzerland and flown on a private jet to Tel Aviv

JERUSALEM: The grandfather of a six-year-old boy who is the only survivor of an Italian cable car disaster said he was looking out for his grandson’s wellbeing by bringing him to Israel.
He did so against the will of the boy’s family in Italy.
Eitan Biran’s parents, younger brother and 11 other people all died when a gondola plunged to the ground in northern Italy in May. He is now at the center of a custody battle.
The boy moved in with his paternal aunt, Aya Biran, in northern Italy after the accident. A week ago his maternal grandfather, Shmuel Peleg, picked him up for a planned family trip but they never returned, according to the aunt.
Italian media said Peleg had driven with his grandson across the nearby border to Switzerland and flown on a private jet to Tel Aviv.
“What is good for the boy outweighs my personal interests,” Peleg said when told during an interview on Israel’s Channel 12 that Italian authorities are calling his action kidnapping.
“So I decided that I am saving the boy and bringing him to Israel,” Peleg said during the TV interview that aired on Friday. “I took a car, a KIA. I drove with Eitan. The passports were checked at the embassy in Switzerland. Approved. And we took off in a completely legal manner to Israel.”
The boy’s family in Italy has filed a petition in a Tel Aviv family court for his return. Their Israeli lawyer said the court had set a hearing for Sept. 29. It is required to make a ruling within six weeks.
A legal source has said prosecutors in the northern Italian city of Pavia had opened a kidnapping investigation. The prosecutors’ office declined to comment.
Israeli police have said they had received a complaint that a minor had been kidnapped and flown to Israel, and had questioned an unidentified 58-year-old man on suspicion of involvement.
Asked why he did not wait for an Italian court to make a decision, Peleg said “I must say that I lost faith in the Italian judicial system.”
Peleg’s family, through a public relations firm, said earlier in a statement that the Italian consul in Israel came to Peleg’s house to meet with Eitan.
“The message from the consul was that the foreign ministries are working to try to find a compromise between the families,” according to the statement.
Magistrates are still investigating why the cable car, on a line connecting Stresa on the shores of Lake Maggiore to the nearby Mottarone mountain, plunged to the ground.