‘Desperate’ Palestinian refugees starve as battle rages in Damascus

The Guardian reports: Thousands of civilians are trapped in “desperate” humanitarian conditions in a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus where fighting has been raging for days between Islamic State fighters and other extremists, the UN has warned.

UNRWA, the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees, said at the weekend that up to 10,000 residents of the Yarmouk camp in the south of the Syrian capital have gone without food or water for more than a week.

“Civilians in Yarmouk are facing starvation and dehydration alongside the heightened risks of serious injury and death from the armed conflict,” said Christopher Gunness, a UNRWA spokesman. People are trapped in their homes, hunkered down to avoid being hit by bullets and shrapnel, he added.

The camp, a sprawling urban neighbourhood that was once home to 150,000 people, has been ravaged by fighting between Isis and al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, al-Nusra Front, while government forces regularly shell it from outside. “Whatever supplies of food and water they had have long been exhausted,” Gunness said. [Continue reading…]

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Netanyahu vows that Israel will never give up Golan Heights

The Washington Post reports: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to the occupied Golan Heights on Sunday to declare that Israel will retain full control of the mountainous plateau forever and will never return the strategic highlands to neighboring Syria.

As talks on the future of Syria are underway in Geneva, Netanyahu convened a symbolic meeting of his cabinet on a mountaintop in the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War.

In a lead-up to the Geneva talks, representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad signaled that they wanted the discussions to include a possible return of the region.

Netanyahu was having none of it.

“The time has come after 40 years for the international community to finally recognize that the Golan Heights will remain forever under Israeli sovereignty,” he said.

Whatever the outcome of the peace talks, he added, “the border will not change.” [Continue reading…]

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Everything we knew about this ISIS mastermind was wrong

Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan writes: The Pentagon calls him Haji Imam. His other nicknames include Abu Ali al-Anbari, Abu Alaa al-Afri, Hajji Iman, or simply the Hajji, the Arabic word for “pilgrim” but one that is colloquially used to refer to a revered person or gray eminence. Iraqi and American security officials were so confused by his multiple noms de guerre that they identified him as two distinct high-level leaders of the so-called Islamic State; Wikipedia even has two biographies, and two photographs for the one jihadist whose obscurity was in direct proportion to his significance. For Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Shakhilar al-Qaduli — that’s his legal name — is known as a man of many talents. He’d have to be to attain the rank of second-most powerful figure in ISIS, next to the caliph himself.

The U.S. military announced that al-Qaduli—who oversaw ISIS’s intelligence operations — was killed in an airstrike in Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, on March 25. Although his death was proclaimed at least four times before by the Iraqi government and twice by the U.S.-led coalition, this time it might be real. Several ISIS supporters eulogized him on social media, and new details about his curriculum vitae and all-important role within the organization have been disclosed, possibly because operational security is no longer a priority.

That the No. 2 man in the world’s most dangerous terror organization may be dead matters almost as much as we’ve only been able to learn about him in death. Al-Qaduli’s biography has been cloaked in rumor, myth, and misinformation — or disinformation, given that much of what had been produced on his history came from disgruntled al Qaeda sources looking to ruin his reputation following the bin Ladenist’s split from ISIS in 2014. [Continue reading…]

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Will Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIS join forces?

Hassan Hassan writes: In a two-part interview with Al Jazeera in May, Mohammed Al Jolani of Jabhat Al Nusra revealed that Al Qaeda’s central leadership had issued instructions against using Syria as a launch pad for attacks against the West. Although the anti-ISIL air campaign frequently struck his cells in northern Syria, Al Jolani said he was still committed to the strict orders.

Almost a year after the interview, much has changed in Syria and the wider neighbourhood. The organisation’s leadership continues to be pounded by the US-led campaign, which targeted operatives most qualified to plan and launch attacks against the West, loosely dubbed by the Americans as the “Khorassan Cell”. According to Hassan Abu Haniya, an observer of Islamist groups from Jordan, the cell’s commanders in Syria have been all but decapitated after a series of high-level killings. This has caused profound anger among Jabhat Al Nusra and Al Qaeda supporters, who started to question the current live-and-let-live strategy in Syria.

The continuing attacks against both ISIL and Al Qaeda, and their affiliates across the region, have led some sympathisers to wonder why the two jihadist groups do not collaborate. In addition to encouragement by ordinary extremist supporters, prominent jihadist ideologues offered help to narrow differences between the two groups. Abu Qatada Al Filistini from Jordan, for example, called for “management of differences” among warring jihadist and Islamist groups, while Abu Muhammed Al Maqdisi, also from Jordan, recently wrote on Twitter that he was willing to revise his position towards ISIL and join it “to spite the whole world” if it stopped labelling other jihadists as apostates. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS revenue drops nearly a third after loss of territory shrinks tax base

AFP reports: Islamic State’s revenues have dropped about 30% since mid-2015, forcing the group to introduce a range of new taxes, a research group has said.

“In mid-2015, the Islamic State’s overall monthly revenue was around $80m,” said Ludovico Carlino, senior analyst at IHS, which issues regular reports on Isis-controlled territory.

“As of March 2016, the Islamic State’s monthly revenue dropped to $56m,” Carlino said.

An IHS report also said oil production in areas controlled by Isis jihadists was 21,000 barrels a day, down from 33,000 barrels a day.

This was due largely to airstrikes by the US-led coalition and Russia, although IHS warned the decline was only an “interruption of production” because jihadists were able to repair infrastructure quickly. [Continue reading…]

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How Iran coerced Afghan refugees to fight in Syria for Assad

BBC News reports: As the five-year conflict in Syria grinds on, BBC Persian has found evidence that Iran is sending thousands of Afghan men to fight alongside Syrian government forces.

The men, who are mainly ethnic Hazaras, are recruited from impoverished and vulnerable migrant communities in Iran, and sent to join a multi-national Shia Muslim militia – in effect a “Foreign Legion” – that Iran has mobilised to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Many have since fled the battlefield and joined the refugee trail to Europe.

In a small town in Germany, we meet “Amir”, an Afghan man in his early twenties.

He was born to refugee parents in Isfahan, Iran, and is now himself an asylum seeker in Europe.

Like most of the almost three million Afghans in Iran, he lived as a second-class citizen.

Without legal residency or identity documents, he found it hard to get an education or a job. Fear of arrest and deportation was a daily reality.

It was difficult to move around freely, get a driving license or even buy a Sim card for his mobile phone.
But one day, Amir received an offer that changed everything.

“Some Afghans, who were close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, approached me and my mates at the mosque,” he said.

“They suggested we go to Syria to help defend the Shia holy shrines from Daesh,” he added, using an acronym for the previous name of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS).

“They said we’d get passports and have an easy life afterwards. We’d be like Iranian citizens and could buy cars, houses…” [Continue reading…]

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Russian forces remain heavily involved in Syria, despite appearances

The New York Times reports: Russia’s war in Syria is slowly fading from view here, even as events on the ground give every indication that Russian forces remain heavily engaged.

President Vladimir V. Putin, when he talks about it at all, tends to refer to Syria as an accomplished victory, yet hedges a bit. “We did indeed withdraw a substantial portion of our forces,” Mr. Putin said in response to a question on his live national call-in show on Thursday. “But we made sure that after our withdrawal, the Syrian Army would be in a fit state to carry out serious offensives itself, with our remaining forces’ support.”

That support, according to numerous military analysts and diplomatic sources, amounts to virtually the same level of engagement since Russia first deployed in Syria in September. The tenor has changed, however. Syria is gradually becoming another more secretive, hybrid war of the sort that fits into Mr. Putin’s comfort zone, they said.

Russia’s agenda in Syria at the moment is a tightrope act. It wants to keep enough forces engaged in Syria to ensure it can influence any political transition, so that Damascus remains a client. Yet, it does not want to become visibly mired in a messy, prolonged war, as American officials predicted it would.

“The level of Russian involvement in Syria is relatively high, and includes a wide range of assistance to the Syrian government forces,” said Mikhail Barabanov, a senior research fellow at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

He and others suggested that Russia was providing close air support, including attack helicopters on the battlefield; high-precision strikes with missiles like the short-range Iskander; artillery support; special forces backup; intelligence; targeting; electronic warfare and, as seen recently in Palmyra, mine clearance.

Although the bulk of the fighter jets flew home to great fanfare, they were replaced by attack helicopters that are less susceptible to the sandstorms that blow this time of year. [Continue reading…]

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Iranian army boots on the ground in Syria

Alex Rowell writes: The first deployment of foreign regular army ground troops to the front lines of the five-year-long battle between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came with rather less fanfare and controversy than might have been expected.

On April 4, less than two months after US Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress Iran was winding down its direct presence in Syria, Iranian Brigadier General Ali Arasteh declared the Islamic Republic was in fact sending its official armed forces, known as the Artesh, onto the Syrian battlefield for the first time, naming the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade in particular as one among “other units” joining the fray. The occasion marked the army’s first deployment outside Iranian territory since the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

While there have been Iranian ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria since as early as 2012, these had hitherto all belonged to the irregular Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), the parallel military organization established after the 1979 Revolution in part as an ultra-Islamist counterweight to the Artesh, viewed suspiciously at the time for its roots in the secular ancien régime. A contingent of several hundred IRGC militants fighting in Syria surged to an estimated 3,000 last October, coinciding with the Russian air campaign masterminded in the summer of 2015 by the IRGC’s external operations commander Qassem Soleimani. In strictly literal terms, what Secretary Kerry said in February was true: the IRGC itself had by then withdrawn most if not all of the reinforcements added in October. However, those withdrawals have now been offset by the dispatch of the Artesh. [Continue reading…]

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‘Frustrated’ UN Syria envoy says wake-up call needed on aid access

Reuters reports: The U.N. envoy for Syria said on Thursday he was frustrated that there was little improvement in aid deliveries to besieged areas, saying it was a “wake-up call” that had to be heeded.

The United Nations, which is mediating peace talks in Geneva, has been banking on an improvement in the humanitarian situation across Syria after a partial truce brokered by Russia and the United States in late February.

But with the “cessation of hostilities” increasingly shaky, aid access is beginning to drop off.

“(There is) disappointment, frustration indeed, particularly in this period when we are expecting incremental improvements in reaching places which are besieged,” Staffan de Mistura told reporters after meeting envoys from countries which form part of the humanitarian taskforce.

He said the taskforce should take it as a “wake-up call to make sure we don’t just sit passively during these meetings to acknowledge the fact that there are no improvements. We need improvements.”

A document released to reporters from the U.N. Inter-Agency Humanitarian Operations showed that so far in April there had only been four aid operations and only 0.8 percent of people in besieged areas had been reached. [Continue reading…]

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Pope Francis takes 12 refugees back to Vatican after trip to Greece

The New York Times reports: Pope Francis made an emotional visit into the heart of Europe’s migrant crisis on Saturday and took 12 Muslim refugees from Syria, including six children, with him back to Rome aboard the papal plane.

The action punctuated the pope’s pleas for sympathy to the plight of the refugees just as European attitudes are hardening against them.

Those taken to Rome were three families — two from Damascus and one from the eastern city of Deir al-Zour — whose homes had been bombed in the Syrian war, the Vatican said in a statement as the pope departed the Greek island of Lesbos.

”The pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees,” the statement said, adding that the Vatican would care for the three families.

The announcement capped a brief trip by the pope to Greece that again placed the plight of migrants at the center of his papacy.

“We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution,” Francis said during a lunchtime visit to the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, where leaders of Eastern Orthodox Christian churches joined him.

“As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf,” Francis continued. “We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”

Francis’ first papal trip in 2013 was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, to call attention to the refugees who were arriving there from Libya — or drowning before they reached shore. During his February visit to Mexico, Francis prayed beneath a large cross erected in Ciudad Juárez, just footsteps from the Mexican border with the United States, and then celebrated Mass nearby, where he spoke about immigrants. [Continue reading…]

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Fighting surges in Syria amid apparent collapse of truce backed by U.S., Russia

The Washington Post reports: A surge in fighting across Syria on Thursday signaled the apparent collapse of a landmark cease-fire that has been under mounting stress in recent days because of intensifying assaults by government forces and rebels.

The partial truce, which took effect in late February, represented a rare moment of agreement over the Syrian conflict between its most powerful outside players: Russia and the United States.

Although Moscow backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Washington supports his opposition, the powers cajoled their Syrian allies into an agreement to cease hostilities to promote peace talks in Geneva that resumed Wednesday. The burst of fighting will almost certainly complicate those talks — now in their second round — and prolong a civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced millions.

“The more breaches of the truce we see, the more it shows that Assad does not want a political solution,” said the head of the opposition delegation in Geneva, Mohammed Alloush.

The opposition insists that a political solution requires Assad’s exit from power, but the Syrian leader and his allies have firmly rejected this. [Continue reading…]

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Thousands of refugees flee for Turkish border after surprise ISIS attack

The Guardian reports: A new wave of refugees has fled northern Syria for the Turkish border after Islamic State opened fire on communities that had sheltered them, killing at least three people and uprooting thousands more.

The killings came as the terror group pushed back Syrian opposition forces who had edged to within five miles of Dabiq, a highly symbolic village that the group’s leaders believe is the pre-ordained epicentre of a clash that will herald an apocalyptic showdown.

The Isis advance appeared to catch the opposition off guard after 12 days of gains in the same area, which had seen it move closer to Dabiq than at any time in the past three years. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS and Nusra put Yarmouk civilians in line of fire

Al Jazeera reports: Deadly fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Nusra Front has put civilians, mostly Palestinian refugees, in danger yet again in the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus.

Issam, a 54-year-old resident of Yarmouk, said that civilians have called for a temporary humanitarian ceasefire from the armed groups but have yet to receive a response.

“There is not a piece of bread left in this camp,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone while the sound of gunfire rang out behind him. “There isn’t medicine or water for drinking.” [Continue reading…]

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Ordinary Syrians are risking their lives to protect their cultural heritage

By Emma Cunliffe, University of Oxford

I have spent years documenting damage to Syria’s amazing cultural heritage. I have recorded sites ploughed away by farming, built over by housing, robbed for stone, dug by looters, shelled in fighting, demolished by extremists … the list goes on. As the conflict grew, I was repeatedly asked how I could worry about stones when people were dying. Perhaps as many as 470,000 people have been killed, and millions have lost their homes and been forced to flee. And besides, I’ve been told, Syrians don’t care about their heritage. They didn’t before the conflict, and now they’ve got more important things to think about.

Given the list of damage to the country’s ancient remains, you might agree. But you’d be wrong.

The depth of Syria’s history is stunning. The country boasts some of the earliest writing and cities, including biblical Christian and Jewish sites that were still in use before the current war. There are also mosques founded at sites visited by the Prophet Mohammed, Crusader castles, and six UNESCO World Heritage Sites (to name just a few).

[Read more…]

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Syrian refugees in Lebanon are falling into slavery and exploitation

By Katharine Jones, Coventry University

Five years after the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Syrians now make up the largest refugee population in the world. Of the 5m women, men and children who fled Syria, more than 1m sought protection in Syria’s neighbour and former “colony”, Lebanon. But safety eludes them: hundreds of thousands of refugees who’ve fled to Lebanon now face abject poverty, living in precarious and often unsafe accommodation, and scraping by with the barest of means.

A new report from the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, supported by the Freedom Fund, has also found that more and more refugees in Lebanon are falling prey to slavery and exploitation.

One of the biggest problems is child labour. We estimate that 60-70% of Syrian refugee children (those under 18) in Lebanon are working. Rates are even higher in the Beqaa Valley in the east of the country, where children aged as young as five pick beans, figs and potatoes. In towns and cities, Syrian children work on the streets, begging, selling flowers or tissues, shining shoes, and cleaning car windscreens. Children also work in markets, factories, auto repair shops, aluminium factories, grocery and coffee shops, in construction and running deliveries.

Syrian families in Lebanon are increasingly marrying their young teenage daughters to older Syrian men, usually aged in their twenties and thirties. While we did not find evidence of child trafficking as has been reported in the refugee camps of Jordan, girls often do not consent to these marriages, and they cannot realistically choose to leave their husbands. Once married, they very probably have no choice about whether or when to have sex, and are likely to face domestic violence.

Beyond child marriage, sexual exploitation is a growing issue for female refugees in Lebanon. Humanitarian organisations in Lebanon often talk about “survival sex” among refugee populations – for example, sex as a form of payment to people smugglers.

[Read more…]

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