Archive for July 2nd, 2013

Homs rebels resist Syria army fierce onslaught

July 02, 2013

The Daily Star

BEIRUT: President Bashar Assad’s troops pressed a fierce three-day assault against rebels in the central city of Homs Monday but failed to make any new advances, opposition activists said.

Fighting between rebels and regime loyalists raged on the edges of some 14 rebel-held districts, the British based opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Hezbollah fighters from neighboring Lebanon were fighting alongside government forces on one of the city’s main fronts, it added.

“The shelling of Homs rebel areas continues, and it is fierce,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said.

“But the army has made no advances. They haven’t been able to take any new areas back.”

His group reported that the army was shelling the Khaldiyeh and Old City districts which have been under tight army siege for more than a year.

“Clashes raged on the edges of the districts. The army and [pro-regime militia] National Defense Force lost 32 men in two days,” Abdel-Rahman said.

“We can confirm now that Hezbollah is taking part in the fighting on the Khaldiyeh front, and that they are using the [majority Alawite neighborhood of] Zahra as a base,” he added.

Opposition activist with the Syrian Revolution General Command, Abu Rami told The Daily Star it was the most ferocious assault the city had seen.

“They are trying to kick the rebels out of about 14 districts,” he said, adding that so far the rebels had managed to hold ground.

“About 20 Assad soldiers and militia have been killed, but on our side there have also been about 30 casualties,” he said via Skype.

“It seems this is the worst campaign on the besieged districts of Homs.”

The opposition Syrian National Council urged the international community to intervene, also calling on other rebel fighters to join the defense.

“The Coalition calls on all battalions of the Free Syrian Army to come to the aid of Homs in all means possible,” it said in a statement.

“We also emphasize the need for immediate, effective and decisive action by the Friends of Syria group, through the establishment of a no-fly zone.”

Meanwhile Arab states in the Gulf urged the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting to prevent a “massacre” in Homs.

In a statement, the six Gulf Cooperation Council members announced they are “following with deep concern … the unjust siege Syrian regime forces are imposing on Homs … with military support from the militias of the [Shiite] Lebanese Hezbollah movement and under the umbrella of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.”

The six Gulf monarchies – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – urged the “Security Council to urgently meet to break the siege on Homs and prevent the Syrian regime and its allies from committing horrific massacres.”

Dubbed the “capital of the revolution” by activists, Homs is important because it is on the road linking Damascus to the coast and its central location is also key as a supply route.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, reiterated its call for a U.N. resolution “banning the supply of arms to the Syrian regime which has lost all it legitimacy.”It urged the international community to “protect the Syrian people and help them defend themselves against the heinous crimes carried out” by Assad’s regime “with help of foreign forces.”

In a statement after the weekly Cabinet meeting chaired by Crown Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz, the government urged the European Union to “immediately implement” its decision to lift an embargo on weapons destined for Syrian rebels.

In Hama province, north of Homs, the Observatory said four members of the government’s civilian militias, the National Defense Forces were killed in an suicide bombing in Saboura. SANA news agency said the blast killed three civilians and wounded 18, including women and children.

Elsewhere, the army kept up its shelling of rebel areas in and near Damascus as it tried to secure the capital, the Observatory said.

On Sunday alone, at least 84 people were killed nationwide, 22 of them civilians.

Source: The Daily Star.


Syria war wreaks havoc on drug industry

July 01, 2013

By Lysandra Ohrstrom

The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Thousands of businesses have been destroyed over the course of the Syrian conflict, but few of the war’s economic casualties have had such immediate consequences for public health as the collapse of the country’s pharmaceutical industry. In the late 1980s, Syria’s pharmaceutical sector consisted of two state-owned plants whose combined production accounted for just 6 percent of the country’s needs and the annual expenditure on imported medicine averaged $700 million. By 2010, following a wave of government-led economic liberalization in the early 1990s, Syria boasted 70 privately owned pharmaceutical plants that mainly produced low-cost generic drugs and employed at least 17,000 people – 85 percent of whom were women – according to a survey conducted by the Syrian Health Ministry and the World Health Organization in 2011.

The market was valued at $620 million, more than $400 million of which served the local market and supplied 91 percent of the nation’s pharmaceutical needs. The remainder – which cost anywhere from 30 to 70 percent less than comparable products in neighboring markets – was exported to approximately 52 countries, making Syria the second-largest drug supplier in the region.

Heavily concentrated in Aleppo, the industry has been decimated by the fighting and its many side affects over the past two years. At least 25 Syrian pharmaceutical plants have been completely destroyed by the fighting or taken over by militias, and most of the others have been forced to suspend production due to sky-rocketing costs; the difficulties of transporting, distributing, and storing pharmaceutical shipments across the country; and the inability to access raw materials, according to a representative of one international non-governmental organization operating on the ground in Syria who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A handful of factories continue to operate sporadically at barely a third of their pre-crisis capacities, but overall pharmaceutical production in Syria has dropped 75 percent since 2010, according to the most recent Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan released by the United Nations in June.

Demand for medicine has surged during the same period, and as a result, the country has experienced a critical shortage of pharmaceutical products since July 2012, the SHARP report said. Treatment for chronic diseases has been “severely interrupted,” vaccination coverage has dropped from 95 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in 2013, and pharmaceutical products that were once produced in Syria at affordable prices – such as insulin, oxygen, anesthetics, serums and intravenous fluids – are no longer available.

The aid worker said the government has been in talks with countries such as Iran, Belarus and Cuba about importing medicine, but even if transit difficulties were overcome both government health expenditures and the purchasing power of the population have plummeted severely alongside the value of the pound.

“Even for a rich country, 500,000 injured is nearly impossible to cope with,” the aid worker told The Daily Star. “Around Homs you’ve started to see people selling traditional local medicines at the market because nothing else is available.”

According to interviews with managers or owners of four Syrian pharmaceutical factories that have continued to manufacture throughout the crisis at varying levels, between 10 to 15 such plants in the country are currently operating.

Three in Damascus are reportedly running at full capacity, though the Daily Star was only able to reach one of them for confirmation.

All the sources spoke on condition of anonymity and asked that the names of their companies not be revealed, because so many manufacturing facilities have been targeted in the conflict.

“Before the problems we were No. 7 in the market and still there is a lot of demand for our products,” said the owner of one pharmaceutical factory that is currently operating at 20 to 25 percent of capacity.

“The problem is getting raw materials and the cost of production.”

Before the crisis, drug manufacturers relied on raw materials imported to the port of Latakia or by air to Syria from Europe, Australia and the U.S., according to a joint report by the WHO and the Syrian Health Ministry. The company owner said he was currently importing raw materials through Lebanon, but was having difficulty clearing the shipments through customs because the Lebanese Health Ministry was “giving Syrian manufacturers a lot of trouble about clearing our shipments.”

When his company is able to obtain raw materials, he is forced to sell at a loss because the law requires pharmaceutical manufacturers to abide by prices set by the Syrian Health Ministry which have not been modified since the value of the Syrian pound was 48 to the dollar. “The ministry hasn’t changed the prices and they won’t, so we have to sell the products at a quarter of their market value,” the source said. “We stopped selling on the local market because we were losing money so we are trying to maintain exports because we can sell those in dollars,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Syrian government announced that it would resume financing imported raw materials again after the program was suspended in May. Though the source said the government opened a few new lines of credit for industrialists last week, they were still pricing the pound at 175 to 180 to the dollar, which is far below the black-market exchange rate of a minimum of 200 to the dollar that manufacturers have to buy supplies at, he said, so even with the state funds, he was producing at a loss. “We are trying to convince the prime minister and the health minister that they need to support the industry by raising the price we are allowed to sell medicine for,” the source said. “I cannot pay $5 for something and sell it for $1. I should be able to sell it at $5.50.”

The owner of a different Syrian pharmaceutical company that is currently producing about 40 percent of the medicine it manufactured before the war also cited the prewar medicine prices as one of the many obstacles facing the sector, along with the lack of transit and banking tools at their disposal. “There are problems everywhere in the cycle,” he told The Daily Star. “We are facing huge losses on production costs. Then there is the difficulty shipping within Syria. Then once we finish the transit, we don’t have a distributor. Then when we get shipments to pharmacists they don’t want to hold on to them for more than one or two days, because they are afraid they will get stolen and their stores would become targets.”

He singled out the inability to make and receive transfers through international banks as the single largest impediment to doing business. “Although pharmaceutical products are not subject to international sanctions, the banks don’t differentiate between medical and humanitarian goods and other products so they block us,” he said. “All of our credit lines have been terminated. Whenever we want to transfer money to someone to buy raw materials, they see Syria and they reject transfer. Most suppliers won’t deal with Syria, even if there is a humanitarian need.”

Despite these obstacles, the functioning factories are managing collectively to produce enough to meet between 5 and 10 percent of the nation’s pharmaceutical needs. “The best thing for us would be to stop completely, but for humanitarian reasons we can’t,” he said. “The only solution is for the U.S. to instruct all banks and companies to accept transfers to and from Syria for humanitarian reasons.”

A manager of one of the three factories that is still operating in Damascus at full capacity said that his company was negotiating with the government to increase the price pharmaceutical manufacturers are allowed to charge for certain essential medicines and expects the ministry to announce the new regulations in the near future. When asked whether the factory would still be operating at a loss after the new prices take affect he said, “We are not working at this time for profit.”

Source: The Daily Star.


Insight: Kuwaitis campaign privately to arm Syrian rebels

By Sylvia Westall and Mahmoud Harby

KUWAIT | Thu Jun 27, 2013

(Reuters) – At a traditional evening meeting known as a “diwaniya”, Kuwaiti men drop banknotes into a box, opening a campaign to arm up to 12,000 anti-government fighters in Syria. A new Mercedes is parked outside to be auctioned off for cash.

They are Sunni Muslim and mainly Islamist like many Syrian rebels who have been trying for two years to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect that is a branch of Shi’ite Islam.

Syria’s war has widened a faultline in the Middle East, with Shi’ite Iran and Lebanese militia Hezbollah backing Assad and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab nations supporting his opponents.

“The world has abandoned the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution so it is normal that people start to give money to people who are fighting,” said Falah al-Sawagh, a former opposition member of Kuwait’s parliament, surrounded by friends drinking sweet tea and eating cakes.

In just four hours the campaign collected 80,000 dinars ($282,500). The box moves to a new house each day for a week. Sawagh estimates this type of campaign in Kuwait, one of the world’s richest countries per capita, raised several million dollars during the last Ramadan religious holiday.

Sunni-ruled Kuwait has denounced the Syrian army’s actions and sent $300 million in humanitarian aid to help the millions displaced by the conflict in which more than 90,000 have died.

Unlike Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Kuwaiti government policy is against arming the rebels. But the U.S. ally allows more public debate than other Gulf states and has tolerated campaigns in private houses or on social media that are difficult to control.

Kuwaiti authorities are nevertheless worried that the fundraising for Syria could stir sectarian tensions – Kuwait has its own Shi’ite minority. The West is concerned that support will bolster al Qaeda militants among the rebels.

Some opposition Islamist politicians and Sunni clerics have openly campaigned to arm rebel fighters, using social media and posters with telephone hotlines in public places. Former MP Waleed al-Tabtabie, a conservative Salafi Islamist, posted pictures of himself on Twitter clad in combat gear in Syria.

“There is a great amount of sympathy on the part of the Kuwaiti people to provide any kind of assistance to the Syrian people whether inside or outside Syria,” Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah said when asked about the Reuters report.

Official Kuwaiti fundraising for humanitarian aid goes through United Nations channels, he said, at a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

As for unofficial fundraising, he emphasized that any collection of funds requires a special permit to make sure the money “is going to the right side or to the right party.”

Kuwait’s minister for cabinet affairs, Sheikh Mohammad al-Mubarak al-Sabah, said what was happening in Syria was “heart-wrenching” and understood why Kuwaitis wanted to help.

“Human nature is such that you cannot control what people believe in and how they want to act,” he said.

“What is happening in Syria just inflames the emotions on both sides. That’s why we are trying to steer a middle ground.”


Syria is blocked from international bank transfers from Kuwait because of sanctions, so former MP Sawagh visited the Syrian town of Aleppo last month with cash in his luggage for rebel fighters. He did not say how much he took.

“Our only rule is to collect money and to deliver this money to our brothers which are helping the Syrian people,” said Sawagh, a member of a local group linked to the Muslim Brotherhood which is in power in Egypt and is influential in other Arab states.

Sawagh and others in his campaign also travel to Turkey and Jordan to hand over money to intermediaries.

“They have absolute freedom to spend this money. If they can recruit mujahideen for defending themselves and their sanctity with this money, then this is their choice,” he said, referring to fighters who engage in jihad or holy war.

Washington is worried the money may help strengthen fighters with links to al Qaeda who are hostile not just to Assad but also to the United States and U.S.-allied Gulf ruling families.

It wants Western and Arab allies to direct all aid to Syrian rebels through the Western-backed Supreme Military Council.

A fiery speech by Kuwaiti Sunni Muslim cleric Shafi al-Ajami raised alarm earlier this month with a call for more arms.

“The mujahideen, we are arming them from here, and from the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey,” he said.

The speech was laced with references to the sectarian nature of the conflict and unnerved authorities in Kuwait where Shi’ites make up an estimated 15 to 20 percent minority of the population. Parliament, the cabinet and the ruling emir issued strong rebukes.

“I do not hide from you feelings of anxiety about what emerged recently … manifestations and practices that carry the abhorrent breath of sectarianism which should be denounced,” Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah said on state television. Such acts could “lure the fire of fanaticism and extremism,” he said.


Ajami spoke following a call by prominent cleric Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian based in Qatar, for jihad in Syria after fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group, intervened to help Assad’s army.

The calls to holy war by several influential clerics in the region only encouraged more donations, Kuwaitis said.

“Women have also been donating their gold,” said Bader al-Dahoum, a former Islamist opposition MP.

“After the fatwas (edicts), people are giving more.”

The men at the diwaniya said one large Kuwaiti family planned to equip 28 mujahideen in Syria, estimating the cost at 700 dinars per fighter. Smaller families sponsor two or three, while a member of one of Kuwait’s powerful merchant families donated 250,000 dinars.

Weapons supplied by Qatar and its allies include small arms such as AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenades, hand grenades and ammunition, according to a Qatari official. Qatar also provides instructions on battlefield techniques.

Campaigning for funds to arm the rebels makes certain politicians more popular in Kuwait, said Osama al-Munawer, a former opposition MP.

“I was a member of the National Assembly and people were blaming us – why don’t you give them weapons?” he said.

“They said, food – they have it, but they need to defend themselves because the situation is very bad.”

(Additional reporting by William Maclean and Ahmed Hagagy; editing by Anna Willard and Janet McBride)

Source: Reuters.