At UN, Syria accuses adversaries of using pandemic to ‘settle scores’

At UN, Syria accuses adversaries of using pandemic to ‘settle scores’
Syria’s foreign minister Faisal Mekdad addresses the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, on September 27, 2021, at UN headquarters in New York. (AFP)
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Updated 27 September 2021

At UN, Syria accuses adversaries of using pandemic to ‘settle scores’

At UN, Syria accuses adversaries of using pandemic to ‘settle scores’
  • FM Faisal Mekdad pledges to continue to fight to rid country of ‘terrorists’
  • Denounces use of chemical weapons despite their use by Assad regime to quell revolution

NEW YORK: Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has accused the country’s adversaries of using the coronavirus disease pandemic as an opportunity to attack Syria, and issued a warning to the US, Turkey, and the Syrian Democratic Forces that the Assad regime will use “all possible means” to expel them from the country.

Speaking on Monday, the final day of the UN General Assembly, Mekdad said that “the world has experienced unprecedented circumstances, where hospitals reached full capacity, millions of lives were lost, economies contracted” as a result of COVID-19.

But, he continued, “some used the pandemic to settle political scores. Others selfishly ignored the needs of others, choosing to believe they are alone on this Earth.”

The minister, who assumed office less than a year ago, denounced countries who allegedly “took advantage of the pandemic to scale up their unilateral coercive economic measures against those countries and people who differ from them.”

The Syrian representative did not name any state explicitly, but the US has implemented a sanctions regime against Syria and its leadership due to crimes committed over the course of the country’s brutal civil war — including the repeated use of chemical weaponry and other human rights abuses.

Mekdad also pledged that the Assad regime would continue the country’s fight against “terrorists” in Syria, and said those that “continue to support and invest in terrorists will be doomed to fail.”

Throughout his speech, he railed against the US, Turkey, and Israel, taking the opportunity to denounce Israel’s occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights, which was recognized as Israeli territory by the administration of the former US president, Donald Trump, but is considered Syrian by the UN.

He also accused both Turkey and the US of looting Syrian resources and occupying territory within the country. 

“Just as we managed to wipe out terrorists from the majority of Syrian territories, we will work to end the occupation with the same resolve and determination, using all possible means under international law,” said Mekdad.

In a thinly veiled threat against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia convened by the US to fight Daesh, Mekdad said: “As for the few seeking secession in northeast Syria, we warn them against harboring such illusions. By pursuing such ends, they align themselves with those plotting against Syria’s unity — and they will be dealt with accordingly.”

Mekdad also used his speech to rally against the use of chemical weapons, calling them “reprehensible and completely unacceptable under any circumstances by anyone, anywhere at any time.”

He explained that, for this reason, Syria signed up to multilateral conventions against the use of the weapons, and “fulfilled its obligations in record time.”

In 2013, a chemical weapon attack in rebel-held Ghouta, Damascus, attributed to the Syrian government, killed hundreds of people, with some estimates putting the death toll at over 1,500. 

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons also noted as recently as August this year that Syria still has not fulfilled all of its obligations under the chemical weapons treaties — including the requirement to declare what chemical weapons the regime still has stockpiled and where they are being held.

Syria has also ignored requests by the UN body to issue a visa for a team leader in its command post in the country, OPCW said, “which left the command post with only support staff from UNOPS (United Nations Office for Project Services) for the second time this year.”


Sudan military leader denies staging coup day after government deposed

Sudan military leader denies staging coup day after government deposed
Updated 26 October 2021

Sudan military leader denies staging coup day after government deposed

Sudan military leader denies staging coup day after government deposed
  • ‘Condemnations are expected as countries see our actions as a coup, it is not’

DUBAI: Sudan’s top military leader Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan denied that the country’s armed forces staged a coup, but instead said they were trying to rectify the path of the transition.
“Condemnations are expected as countries see our actions as a coup, it is not,” Burhan said Tuesday in his televised address.
Burhan, who headed the transitional government through the Sovereign Council, earlier declared a state of emergency and announced the dissolution of the Sovereign Council following the takeover, which deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
“Hamdok is at my house carrying on a normal life,” Burhan said, but was being kept away for his own safety. The military leader later said Hamdok would be returned to his own home the same day.
“The state of emergency in Sudan will be scrapped as soon as institutions are formed,” Burhan said.
Burhan emphasized that the Constitutional Declaration 2019 had “not been scrapped, only the items pertaining to the civilian partners.”
He said the declaration outlined the transition to the civilian government.
“We are aiming to see through a transition to a civilian government,” he said.
“The mistrust between transitional parties occurred after the signing of the peace agreement in Juba,” Burhan said in his address.
Sudan’s interim government and the Al-Hilu movement, the main rebel group in the country, agreed in March to re-start peace talks in an agreement signed in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.
Burhan said there had been incitement and hostility towards the armed forces, and that danger would had led to a civil war in the country.
He added that he earlier discussed with US special envoy Jeffrey Feltman how to resolve the stalemate between political forces and the army.
Feltman met with Sudanese military and civilian leaders over the weekend in efforts to resolve a growing dispute.
He promised that judicial bodies would be formed in the coming days.
“The armed forces cannot continue the transitional period on its own, we need participation of Sudanese people,” Burhan said.
The military general also said that the legislature that will be formed will include young participants from the revolution.


Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation

Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation
Updated 26 October 2021

Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation

Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation
  • Lines of cars at a Tehran gas station, with the pumps off and the station closeda

DUBAI: Gas stations across Iran on Tuesday suffered through a widespread outage of a government system managing fuel subsidies, stopping sales in an incident that one semiofficial news agency briefly referred to as a cyberattack.
An Iranian state television account online shared images of long lines of cars waiting to fill up in Tehran. An Associated Press journalist also saw lines of cars at a Tehran gas station, with the pumps off and the station closed.
State TV did not explain what the issue was, but said Oil Ministry officials were holding an “emergency meeting” to solve the technical problem.
The semiofficial ISNA news agency, which called the incident a cyberattack, said it saw those trying to buy fuel with a government-issued card through the machines instead receive a message reading “cyberattack 64411.” Most Iranians rely on those subsidies to fuel their vehicles, particularly amid the country’s economic problems.
While ISNA didn’t acknowledge the number’s significance, that number is associated to a hotline run through the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that handles questions about Islamic law. ISNA later removed its reports.
Farsi-language satellite channels abroad published videos apparently shot by drivers in Isfahan, a major Iranian city, showing electronic billboards there reading: “Khamenei! Where is our gas?” Another said: “Free gas in Jamaran gas station,” a reference to the home of the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the outage. However, the use of the number “64411” mirrored an attack in July targeting Iran’s railroad system that also saw the number displayed. Israeli cybersecurity firm Check Point later attributed the train attack to a group of hackers that called themselves Indra, after the Hindu god of war.
Indra previously targeted firms in Syria, where President Bashar Assad has held onto power through Iran’s intervention in his country’s grinding war.
Iran has faced a series of cyberattacks, including one that leaked video of abuses its notorious Evin prison in August.
The country disconnected much of its government infrastructure from the Internet after the Stuxnet computer virus — widely believed to be a joint US-Israeli creation — disrupted thousands of Iranian centrifuges in the country’s nuclear sites in the late 2000s.


Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’

Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’
Updated 26 October 2021

Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’

Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’
  • Ex-UK top prosecutor: ‘We’re just demonstrating an unwillingness to take responsibility. I think it’s an embarrassment’
  • Ex-US intelligence official: London stripping nationals of citizenship ‘is misguided and will make us all less safe’

LONDON: The British strategy of leaving Daesh members and their families in Kurdish-administered camps in Syria is a “coward’s Guantanamo,” Britain’s former top prosecutor has said.

Lord Macdonald, the UK’s former director of public prosecutions, compared the situation in camps in Syria to the US-run Guantanamo Bay prison, which has been used to hold hundreds of people suspected of terrorist crimes or affiliations indefinitely and without trial.

“I think we’re just demonstrating an unwillingness to take responsibility. I think it’s an embarrassment personally … a coward’s form of Guantanamo,” the House of Lords member said while giving evidence at a parliamentary committee on Britons trafficked to Syria.

Rather than repatriating Daesh recruits to face prosecution at home, the UK has chosen to strip them of their citizenship where possible, making it impossible for them to legally return to the country.

Dozens of women and children are among the British citizens currently living in dire conditions in camps run by the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The committee heard that this approach is increasingly at odds with other Western nations such as Denmark, Germany and the US, which are gradually bringing their people home and putting them before juries.

Ministers have considered running trials in Iraq and Syria as a compromise — an idea Macdonald branded “preposterous” on logistical and legal grounds.

Instead, he urged London to “set our justice system loose” and attempt to formally prosecute suspected Daesh members.

“I am confident that many of these individuals would face prosecution because we do know a lot, and many of them have spoken about themselves on social media,” he said. “There are other means by which we can place some restraints on people we have to release.”

Officials and observers have consistently warned that abandoning Britons and other foreign nationals in Syria presents a long-term security threat.

A former senior official in the US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism told the committee that repatriating people from these camps is “the right thing do to from a security perspective.”

Chris Harnisch, deputy coordinator for the department from 2018 until earlier this year, said the Trump administration chose to take back “Americans of all ages.”

Other countries must do the same to “prevent the re-emergence of the caliphate,” and there is “no viable alternative,” he added.

Daesh’s leadership “has made clear that the men, women and children in prisons and camps are strategic assets,” Harnisch said, warning of repeated attempts at large-scale prison breaks.

“The US and UK and the whole world is at more risk,” he added. “Al-Hol is the capital of the caliphate at this point — you have more hardened adherents to ISIS (Daesh) ideology living in that camp than anywhere in the world.”

Escapees, Harnisch warned, could join Daesh campaigns in Syria and Iraq, or travel further afield and return home from there to plan attacks.

He pointed to previous prison breaks by the Taliban in Afghanistan as evidence of the grave threat that the status quo presents.

Harnisch urged the UK to “think twice before stripping nationals of citizenship,” adding: “Such an approach is misguided and will make us all less safe.”

John Godfrey, US special envoy for the global anti-Daesh coalition, said in March this year that there remained around 2,000 foreign fighters in Kurdish-run camps in Syria, with about 10,000 associated family members, the majority of them children.

The British government has previously said prosecuting returning Daesh members presents serious legal challenges as it is difficult to prove the actions they took while in Syria and fighting for the group.

On Monday, a German court sentenced a female Daesh recruit to 10 years behind bars for war crimes committed after joining the group, including the enslavement, horrific abuse and eventual murder of a Yazidi girl she purchased on the Daesh slave markets.


Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest

Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest
Updated 26 October 2021

Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest

Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest
  • Life comes to a halt in the capital Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman across the Nile, with roads blocked either by soldiers or by barricades erected by protesters
KHARTOUM: Roads were blocked, shops were shut, phones were down and mosque loudspeakers blared calls for a general strike in Sudan on Tuesday, a day after the army seized power in a coup that triggered unrest in which at least seven people were killed.
Life came to a halt in the capital Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman across the Nile, with roads blocked either by soldiers or by barricades erected by protesters.
The night appeared to have passed comparatively quietly after Monday’s unrest, when protesters took to the streets after soldiers arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other civilians in the cabinet. A health ministry official said seven people had been killed in clashes between protesters and the security forces.
The leader of the takeover, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, dissolved the military-civilian Sovereign Council set up to guide Sudan to democracy following the overthrow of long-ruling autocrat Omar Al-Bashir in a popular uprising two years ago.
Burhan announced a state of emergency, saying the armed forces needed to protect safety and security. He promised to hold elections in July 2023 and hand over to an elected civilian government then. On Tuesday he dissolved committees that govern trade unions, Arabic news channels reported.
The Sudan information ministry, still loyal to Hamdok, said on its Facebook page the transitional constitution gave only the prime minister the right to declare an emergency and the military’s actions were a crime. Hamdok was still the legitimate transitional authority, it said.
The main roads and bridge between Khartoum and Omdurman were closed to vehicles by the military. Banks and cash machines were shut, and mobile phone apps widely used for money transfers could not be accessed.
Some bakeries were open in Omdurman but people were queuing for several hours, longer than usual.
“We are paying the price for this crisis,” a man in his 50s looking for medicine at one of the pharmacies where stocks have been running low said angrily. “We can’t work, we can’t find bread, there are no services, no money.”
In the western city of El Geneina, resident Adam Haroun said there was complete civil disobedience, with schools, stores and gas stations closed.
The Sudanese Professionals Association, an activist coalition that played a major role in the uprising that toppled Bashir, has called for a strike.
Hamdok, an economist and former senior UN official, was detained and taken to an undisclosed location on Monday after refusing to issue a statement in support of the takeover, the information ministry said. Troops also arrested other civilian government figures and members of the Sovereign Council.
Western governments have condemned the coup, called for the release of the detained civilian leaders and threatened to cut off aid, which Sudan needs to recover from an economic crisis.
The United States has said it was immediately pausing delivery of $700 million in emergency support.
Sudan has been ruled for most of its post-colonial history by military leaders who seized power in coups. It had become a pariah to the West and was on a US terrorism blacklist under Bashir, who hosted Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for war crimes.
Since Bashir was toppled, the military shared power uneasily with civilians under a transition meant to lead to elections in 2023. The country had been on edge since last month when a failed coup plot, blamed on Bashir supporters, unleashed recriminations between the military and civilians.

Israel envoy to brief US over ban on Palestinian groups

Israel envoy to brief US over ban on Palestinian groups
Updated 26 October 2021

Israel envoy to brief US over ban on Palestinian groups

Israel envoy to brief US over ban on Palestinian groups
  • Israel last week designated prominent Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations
  • The announcement has outraged the activist community in Israel

TEL AVIV: Israel is sending an envoy to Washington amid a deepening rift with the Biden administration over six outlawed Palestinian rights groups, a Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday.
Israel last week designated the prominent Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations, sparking international criticism and repeated assertions by Israel’s top strategic partner, the United States, that there had been no advance warning of the move.
Israel’s move marked what critics say was a major escalation of its decades-long crackdown on political activism in the occupied territories. The US State Department has said it would seek more information on the decision.
Joshua Zarka, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, told Israeli Army Radio the envoy would “give them all the details and to present them all the intelligence” during his visit in the coming days.
Zarka said he personally updated US officials on Israel’s intention to outlaw the groups last week, and said he believed Washington wanted a more thorough explanation of the decision.
The rights groups decision is emerging as a test of the relationship between the Biden administration and Israel’s new government, which was formed in June by eight politically disparate parties. The coalition ended the 12-year rule of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s hard-line government enjoyed broad support from the Trump administration, which moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, largely allowed settlement building to continue unfettered, cut funding to the Palestinians and presented a vision for the Mideast that sided with Israel’s positions.
The Biden administration has mostly restored traditional foreign policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. But with the US focused on other pressing domestic and foreign issues, the conflict was expected to take a backseat.
The fractious coalition government has also sought to minimize the Palestinian issue, agreeing not to make major moves that might threaten its stability. But in recent weeks, it has ramped up focus on the conflict, offering a number of goodwill gestures to Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and also pushing forward on building thousands of new homes for Jewish settlers.
Most dramatic was the decision on the civil society groups, which has rattled the coalition and returned focus to the conflict and Israel’s decades-long occupation of territories the Palestinians seek for a future state.
Israel has for years alleged the groups’ links to a Palestinian militant group but even under Netanyahu’s hard-line government, stopped short of labeling them terrorist organizations.
The announcement has outraged the activist community in Israel, which in recent years has also faced pushback from hard-line Israeli governments. In a joint statement Monday, more than 20 Israeli human rights groups, including some of the country’s leading, most established organizations, condemned the step, calling it “a draconian measure that criminalizes critical human rights work.”
The declaration against the Palestinian rights groups appeared to pave the way for Israel to raid their offices, seize assets, arrest staff and criminalize any public expressions of support for the groups. Most of the targeted organizations document alleged human rights violations by Israel as well as the Palestinian Authority, both of which routinely detain Palestinian activists.
The designated groups are Al-Haq, a human rights group founded in 1979, as well as the Addameer rights group, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees.