Archive for October, 2015

Turkey: Assad should stay in Moscow to give Syrians ‘relief’

October 21, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s prime minister says he wishes that Syrian President Bashar Assad stayed in Moscow longer to give his people “relief” and start the political transition.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke Wednesday in response to journalists’ questions about Assad’s visit to Moscow a day earlier. It was the Syrian leader’s first known trip abroad since the war broke out in 2011.

Davutoglu said: “If only he could stay in Moscow longer, to give the people of Syria some relief; in fact he should stay there so the transition can begin.” Davutoglu also reiterated Turkey’s position that Assad should have no role in Syria’s future, insisting that efforts to find a solution to the Syrian crisis should focus “not on a transition with Assad, but on formulas for Assad’s departure.”

Turkish jets shoot down drone at its border with Syria

October 17, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey shot down an unidentified drone that flew into its airspace Friday near the Syrian border, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country’s air campaign backing a Syrian government offensive has killed hundreds of militants.

A U.S. official said the downed drone was Russian, but Moscow staunchly rejected the claim. The incident underlined the potential dangers of clashes involving Russian, Syrian and U.S.-led coalition planes in the increasingly crowded skies over Syria. Russian and U.S. military officials have been working on a set of rules to prevent any problems.

The Turkish military said it issued three warnings before shooting down the aircraft with its fighter jets. It didn’t specify how it had relayed the warnings to the operators of the drone. The drone crashed 3 kilometers (about 2 miles) inside Turkish territory, said Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu. “We have not been able to establish who the drone belongs to, but we are able to work on it because it fell inside Turkish territory,” he added.

Earlier this month, Turkey had protested two incursions by Russian warplanes, which also drew strong condemnation from Turkey’s NATO allies. The U.S., Russia and the Syrian government all operate drones in the region.

The drone was definitely not American, and the U.S. believes it was Russian, said a U.S. defense official, who was not authorized to discuss details of the incident and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Moscow strongly denied ownership of the drone. “I state with absolute responsibility that all our drones are either performing tasks or staying at the base,” said Col.-Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, a deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, speaking at a meeting with foreign military attaches in Moscow.

The Lebanon-based pro-Syrian Al-Mayadeen TV quoted an unidentified Syrian military official as saying that no Syrian or Russian warplane or drone was shot down over Turkey. Seeking to soothe Turkey’s anger over violation of its airspace by Russian aircraft, Moscow sent a high-level military delegation to discuss preventing such incidents.

“They apologized a few times, said it happened by accident, and that they have taken measures so that it will not occur again,” Sinirlioglu said of Thursday’s talks in Ankara with the Russian delegation.

Since 2013, Turkey has shot down a Syrian military jet, a helicopter and a surveillance drone that strayed into Turkish airspace. The incidents occurred after Ankara changed its rules of engagement following the downing of a Turkish fighter jet by Syria.

Turkey, which patrols the border with F-16s, has also reported numerous incidents of harassment by Syrian fighter planes or Syria-based surface-to-air missile systems locking radar on the aircraft. Russia began its air campaign Sept. 30, and Syrian troops and allied militiamen launched a ground offensive in central Syria a week later. They have so far met stiff resistance from rebels using U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles that have impeded swift breakthroughs, although they have taken a few villages from rebels in the past week.

On Friday, Syrian troops supported by Russian air power and fighters from Iran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group pressed an assault against rebels in central Syria and launched another offensive in the northern province of Aleppo to try to recapture territory, according to activists and the government. The multiple-front offensives appear aimed at stretching rebel lines and keeping the insurgents off-balance.

A Syrian military spokesman said in a televised statement that the army launched an operation in the Damascus rebel-held neighborhood of Jobar as well as the suburb of Harasta. He added that troops now control of all hills that overlook Harasta and the nearby suburb of Douma, a stronghold of Islam Army rebel group.

The attack appears aimed at securing President Bashar Assad’s seat of power that has been shelled recently from rebel-held areas. The fighting is particularly intense in the central province of Homs, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said about 60 people were killed in Russian airstrikes and fighting. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network that follows the war, put the death toll at 57.

The Russian military has rejected claims of civilian casualties, saying its planes haven’t targeted populated areas. At a meeting in Kazakhstan of leaders of former Soviet nations, Putin said his air force has achieved “impressive” results in Syria.

“Dozens of control facilities and ammunition depots, hundreds of terrorists and a large number of weapons have been destroyed,” he said. Putin said the Russian air campaign against the Islamic State group and other radicals in Syria will continue “for the period of the Syrian troops’ offensive operations against terrorists.” He would not elaborate.

Between 5,000 and 7,000 people from Russia and other former Soviet countries are fighting alongside Islamic State militants, he said. “We can’t allow them to use the experience they have just gained in Syria back home,” he added.

Russian jets have flown 669 sorties since Sept. 30, including 394 this week, said Kartapolov, the Russian general. He emphasized the urgent need for a U.S.-Russian agreement on avoiding clashes, which is being negotiated.

“The sky over Syria is swarming with aircraft,” Kartapolov said. “Such intense and uncoordinated use of air power in Syria’s relatively small airspace may sooner or later lead to an incident.” In a bid to dispel claims by the U.S. and its allies that Moscow is focused on moderate rebels instead of its declared targets of Islamic State militants, Kartapolov said the Russian Defense Ministry would send a detailed map showing positions of the IS and Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate targeted by the Russian aircraft.

“Our aircraft have been used on targets outside of populated areas,” he said. Kartapolov also criticized the U.S.-led coalition for striking a power plant near Aleppo, leaving the city without electricity and paralyzing its water supply and sewage system, something he said could only increase the flow of refugees.

In a separate interview with the daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Kartapolov shrugged off the U.S. claim that four of 26 cruise missiles launched at targets in Syria by the Russian navy from the Caspian Sea had crashed in Iran.

“The Pentagon may say whatever it wants,” he said. “All our missiles reached their targets.” Kartapolov said the Russian jets haven’t yet faced any surface-to-air missiles and warned that their use by rebels would signal a foreign involvement.

Following a similar statement by Putin, the general ruled out Russian military involvement in ground action in Syria. He said Russian air and land assets in Syria will be pulled together with its Soviet-era Tartus navy facility in one base.

Kartapolov wouldn’t offer any further details, and Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, refused to comment on the issue. Russian warships in the Mediterranean helped provide cover for its air base in the coastal province of Latakia and could take part in attacks on targets in Syria, Kartapolov said.

Isachenkov reported from Moscow. AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington, Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Rights group says US-backed Kurds displacing Arabs in Syria

October 13, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have forcefully displaced thousands of Syrian civilians, mostly Arabs, and demolished villages in northern Syria, often in retaliation for the residents’ perceived sympathies for the Islamic State group and other militants, Amnesty International said Tuesday.

Amnesty said its findings were based on visits to 14 towns and villages in the provinces of Hassakeh and Raqqa this summer, areas that are under Kurdish control. It said the abuses amount to war crimes.

The rights group said at least two villages were entirely demolished. In at least eight other villages, the residents were forced to leave, sometimes threatened with being shot or targeted in U.S. airstrikes. It said the victims were mainly Arab, but also included Turkmens and other Kurds.

Amnesty quoted Kurdish fighters as saying the displacement was carried out for security purposes. A Kurdish official in northern Syria told The Associated Press that forces may have committed minor violations against people suspected of ties to the IS group, but that such actions were not based on ethnicity. The official was not authorized to brief media and so spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Kurds, Syria’s largest ethnic minority, have carved out a semi-autonomous enclave in the north since the start of the civil war in 2011. Kurdish fighters have been among the most successful ground forces battling the IS group. Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, they defeated the IS group in the Syrian border town of Kobani earlier this year and have since expanded their territory along the border with Turkey.

But Amnesty adviser Lama Fakih said the Kurds’ treatment of civilians amounted to collective punishment. “In its fight against IS, the (Kurdish administration) appears to be trampling all over the rights of civilians who are caught in the middle.”

The London-based group called on Kurdish officials to end such abuses, compensate the families for their losses and hold those responsible accountable.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.

Russia, Jordan to coordinate militaries on Syria

October 23, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian news reports say Moscow and Jordan have agreed on creating a center in Amman for coordinating their military activities in Syria.

The reports say the agreement was reached Friday during talks in Vienna between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Syrian counterpart, Nasser Judeh. Lavrov said the center in the Jordanian capital would coordinate the military air campaigns of the two countries over Syria.

Russia began extensive airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 30, which Moscow says are targeting camps and facilities of the militant Islamic State group.

Now in Germany, a Syrian doctor wrestles with war memories

October 22, 2015

SAARLOUIS, Germany (AP) — By any measure, Dr. Osman al-Haj Osman has been a success among the tens of thousands of Syrians who have streamed into Europe. He received asylum in Germany. He’s taking lessons in the language, is getting help from the state in finding a job and was able to bring wife and kids to join him.

But the 33-year-old surgeon is haunted by doubt over whether he made the right decision for his family in immigrating to such a different world. He’s also burdened by memories of his country’s civil war and the way in which his two young sons were branded by its horrors before they fled his home city of Aleppo in northern Syria more than a year ago.

“Everything around me, I feel, is temporary. Until now, I find it really hard to write my home address as anywhere other than Aleppo,” he said on a rainy afternoon in September in Saarlouis. In 2012, Osman was the senior doctor at a front-line hospital in a rebel-held district of Aleppo under siege by Syrian government forces. Round the clock, casualties flowed into the Dar al-Shifaa hospital, civilians and rebels, wounded or dying in the intense urban warfare and heavy bombardment by Syrian forces.

Looking constantly exhausted, Osman hardly ever took off his often blood-stained, green surgery scrubs as he and the overwhelmed staff tried to deal with the wounded. “I have to make a choice between a child with a 10 percent chance of survival and one with a 25 percent chance,” he told the AP at the time. When a wounded rebel died, often his comrades would burst into rage at the staff, convinced more could have been done.

Osman’s wife and two young sons were living in the hospital with him. His older boy, Omar, who was 4 at the time, would walk among the maimed or dying, passing the pools of blood on the floor and the occasional severed limb. He would play in the hospital hallways or make joke announcements on the hospital PA system.

Now looking back, Osman said he regrets bringing his family into the hospital. He’d wanted his wife and children near him, but he said he hadn’t realized until it was too late the trauma he had inflicted on his children. The boys now draw pictures of tanks, warplanes, wounded people and wrecked houses.

Omar still has nightmares. Osman recalled running errands in the streets of Aleppo with the boy, who, whenever a plane passed overhead, would ask his father if it was about to bomb them. Osman recalled another question Omar asked him once. “Papa, who created the world? The person who created it, can’t he see what’s happening to it?”

Dar al-Shifaa closed in November 2012 after a government airstrike hit a neighboring building, heavily damaging the hospital and killing four inside. Osman eventually worked at a clinic with Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, trying to lay low as Islamic militants gained increasing power in the rebel-held districts of the city.

In August 2013, the militants arrested him, and he was questioned by an Egyptian militant who told him that MSF was headed by a “kafir,” an infidel. Later in detention, he heard the Egyptian talking to other militants, telling them they would eventually have to kill him — but not now, they had other priorities. So they let him go. He left MSF three months later.

Finally in early 2014, he fled with his family to Turkey. After months of looking for work, he decided to head for Europe. His wife had resisted the idea of coming to Germany. Still, she and their kids — Omar, now 7 years old, and Rushd, 5 — arrived in Turkey on Tuesday.

He shares her doubts about life in a different culture. “Many young Syrians abandon their identity soon after they arrive here,” he said, speaking as he was reunited with Mohammed al-Haj, a 26-year-old Syrian who had volunteered in the same Aleppo hospital. Al-Haj had just arrived after a 14-day journey from Turkey across Greece and the Balkans, sneaking across borders.

Now living in the state of Saarland, Osman has applied to two hospitals for jobs. He takes German lessons in the town of Saarlouis, not far from the town he lives in. With asylum, he gets a stipend of around 1,000 Euros ($1,100) a month.

“The situation in Germany is now good for Syrians,” he said. “But there are no guarantees it will continue to be the same. What if a terror attack happens and is blamed on Muslims? I must have a Plan B.”

Osman believes the danger of Islamic terror on German soil doesn’t necessarily stem from the possibility militants have slipped in with the refugees streaming into Europe. He said militant ideas are already here in Germany.

He recounted an incident in the nearby town of Merzig in July when a Syrian man harshly berated a 12-year-old Syrian boy for wearing shorts in the mosque, accusing him of disrespecting the place, leading to a fight with others trying to calm the man down.

Regardless of what may happen, Osman is filled with gratitude for Germany. “I have a debt to repay to Germany, the country that helped me when no one else did,” he said. The stipend, he said, he’ll pay back quickly through income tax once he starts working. “But I can never repay the moral debt I owe to Germany.”

Racism, insomnia plague Syrian refugee family in Germany

October 16, 2015

HEIDENAU, Germany (AP) — For the Syrian refugee family, one reprieve from crushing boredom in the asylum center is short walks to a lake. But in a town teeming with neo-Nazis, the excursions can bring more distress than relief: A man recently stormed out of a coffee shop and screamed at two women of the Habashieh family to take off their hijabs “because we’re in Europe!” Another time, people inside a car yelled: “Auslaender raus!!” — Foreigners out!!

Fear and frustration, however, have been tempered by kindness. A volunteer from nearby Dresden has befriended the Habashiehs, who fled Syria’s civil war and are now living in a temporary facility in the eastern town of Heidenau after arriving in Germany last month, following a perilous journey from Damascus.

Julius Roennebeck helps the family — Khawla Kareem, 44; her 19-year-old daughter Reem; sons Mohammed, 17, and Yaman, 15; and 11-year-old daughter Raghad — with practical things such as getting warm blankets, juice and aspirin, and has bought them German-language books. More than anything, the family appreciates how Roennebeck, who plays French horn at Dresden’s famed Semper Opera house, has driven the family to outings in Dresden and the nearby medieval town of Pirna.

“Julius is just wonderful,” Reem says of the tall German musician. “He has been so kind to us.” For Roennebeck, the kindness doesn’t feel like a chore: “I just really like this family so much, they’re great people.”

The outings with Roennebeck are an oasis in a desert of misery that has left the family — except for little Raghad — depressed and listless. Most of the family gets up late in the morning, because they hardly sleep at night in the hall crammed with 700 other asylum seekers. Next to them is a new family with a little baby screaming for hours. Sometimes the young men get cabin fever so badly they start playing soccer inside the former home improvement center in the middle of the night. The officials turn off the light at 11 p.m., but the sounds of hundreds of people whispering in countless foreign languages echo through the building, creating a deafening buzz.

When it finally quiets down in the early morning hours, most of the family drifts into a deep slumber. But for Khawla Kareem, it’s time to get up. Facing Mecca, she kneels down for the dawn prayer, and spends her day agonizing about their situation. Sitting on her narrow cot in their little curtained-off space, she often regrets taking her children away from their familiar life in Damascus. Desperate to shield them from the war, Khawla Kareem handed the family savings to traffickers who took them across the Mediterranean in a rubber boat, guided them on hidden trails across the Balkans, and eventually sped them in a minibus to Berlin.

Back home in Syria, Khawla Kareem, whose husband died three years ago, was the boss of the household. Now she feels powerless. “She had to make all the decisions herself, she worked as an elementary teacher, raised us kids, cleaned the house every day,” says Reem. It was a tough life, especially keeping the children safe from war — but here, Khawla Kareem’s inability to speak German makes her feel as if she’s lost control of her destiny.

She can’t send her kids to school, giving her a sense that they’re wasting their lives. It upsets her to watch Raghad spend her days running around with other refugee kids, while her boys play cards with Syrian men all night long. The bathrooms are so dirty, she doesn’t even want to use them.

It’s the limbo that’s the hardest on the mother. After two weeks in Berlin and a month in Heidenau, the Habashiehs still haven’t been able to file their asylum application. On Tuesday, Khawla Kareem checked the center’s blackboard for their names in vain. Again, the family had not been called up for any of the procedures, not even the initial health check. The examination, which includes an X-ray for tuberculosis and checks for itching and lice, is also a precondition to collecting weekly pocket money of about 30 euros per person.

The reason for the months-long delay in processing the asylum applications is the huge crush of people seeking refugee status. In September alone, some 164,000 people were pre-registered as asylum seekers; for all of 2015 the German government is expecting about a million newcomers. Despite the cold autumn weather, thousands are still trekking across the Balkans and entering Germany via the Austrian border.

German authorities are hiring additional staff to speed up the procedures. Still there’s a backlog. Some experts estimate it may take up to a year for Syrian refugees to receive asylum status. Syrians will most certainly be allowed to stay in Germany — in contrast to many applicants from countries like Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo or Albania, which the government considers safe. But there’s not much they can do while awaiting a decision. They’re not allowed to work for their first three months in Germany, and they are not allowed to leave the county they are placed in until they are granted asylum. Often schools are too far away for children to attend on a regular basis.

Reem has been shouldering much of the responsibility for the family since arriving in Germany. She keeps up a brave face, knocking on officials’ doors every other week to make sure the family’s papers didn’t get lost, and talking to medical staff if one of them falls ill.

The pretty young woman with big hazel eyes rarely allows herself a weak moment, but she, too, is sinking under the strain. “Since last week, I’m not my active self anymore,” she admits. “I even couldn’t make myself get out of bed in the morning.”

Only little Raghad stays in high spirits. She gives her mom hugs and kisses when she cries, and spends hours roller-blading in front of the shelter. She seems to be mastering German better than the rest of the family.

And she has made lots of new friends, especially among security staff. “There are Kevin and Frank, and there’s a female guard with blue eyes and another one who recently dyed her hair pink, but now it’s black again — they all are my friends,” she chatters away, waving to a grim-looking guard. He breaks into a smile.

“I’ve made two more friends, a Kurdish girl and another Syrian, and we ride bicycles or play hopscotch,” Raghad says, pulling a big gray hat with silver sparkles down her head, shivering on a gray October day. “But really, I miss studying and school more than anything.”

Suddenly, she runs over to her guard friends to show off the new German words she has learned: “Es ist sehr kalt in Deutschland!” It’s very cold in Germany.

 

Syrian refugees see European dream evaporate in new home

September 18, 2015

CHEMNITZ, Germany (AP) — It was pitch-dark by the time the Syrian refugee family arrived in the eastern German town that was to be their new home. As they prepared to get off the train, a drunken skinhead stumbled past with a glare that made 11-year-old Raghad huddle closer to her mom.

The five members of the Habashieh family took a taxi to the asylum center assigned to them by a computer in Berlin. It was a former army barracks used by the Soviets and by the Nazis before them, surrounded by towering fences topped with barbed wire.

That’s when Raghad lost it and began to cry. “I’m scared, I hate this,” she burst out, staring at the forbidding gates. For the Habashiehs — mother Khawla Kareem, 19-year-old daughter Reem, sons Mohammed, 17, and Yaman, 15, and little Raghad — it was the end of a draining day, the latest in a string of draining days in a terrifying journey to a new life. It has taken them from bombed-out Damascus; over the choppy Mediterranean on a rubber dinghy; across the Balkans at the mercy of human traffickers; and finally through Austria by minibus and into the promised land of Germany.

Beyond the gates, young migrant men lined up in the gloom, dimly illuminated by floodlights, waiting to get plastic bags stuffed with rolls and wrapped cheese, a late dinner. A police officer with a gun in his belt stood nearby, surveying the scene.

The sinister barracks, in a depressed part of Germany that’s a far cry from the vibrancy of Berlin, gave the Habashiehs their first inkling that the land of dreams may not be all that they had hoped for.

The latest leg of the Habashiehs’ odyssey began in the afternoon in the German capital. Having received their papers — stamped with passport photos — a new address and train tickets, they boarded a red double-decker train Wednesday that wound its way south to Chemnitz, through endless pine tree forests, past green lawns and countless wind turbines with red lights blinking into the gathering gloom.

Inside the train, the Habashiehs sat together in a compartment with their three huge black suitcases, plastic bags stuffed with shoes, winter coats and toys, as well as two umbrellas — all the new belongings they have amassed since arrival in Germany.

After two weeks in Berlin, the family was being uprooted again and heading back into the unknown. Unlike Berlin, with its immigrant neighborhoods, dozens of mosques and Arabic and Turkish stores dotted over the city, Chemnitz — known as Karl-Marx-Stadt during Communist times — has only three mosques and fewer than 500 Syrians among the city’s 14,000 foreign inhabitants.

The family wondered what it was getting into.

“I heard from people that the place where we are going to in eastern Germany is not good,” Khawla Kareem said, “and the people there do not accept foreigners.”

Wearing a black headscarf adorned with yellow flower patterns, the elementary school teacher said she was having second thoughts about whether it was the right decision to flee with her children to Germany. Her husband died three years ago, so it’s up to her to make all the decisions. Deep down, she knows that the ongoing war back home in Syria made life too dangerous there.

As unfamiliar landscapes sped by, Raghad practiced some of the German words she has picked up so far. Her mother mumbled a Muslim phrase at sunset, breaking fast with orange juice and some cold left-over French fries. The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha was one week away, and Khawla Kareem was fasting from dawn until dusk as some believers do in the ten days before the feast.

In the past, before Syria was ravaged by a brutal civil war, the family would sometimes slaughter a sheep for the holiday, according to tradition, but this year they probably won’t be celebrating. After all, they don’t even know where they will be sleeping a week from now.

When she found out her family had to leave Berlin for eastern Germany, Khawla Kareem was so worried that she considered tearing apart their papers and filing a new asylum application, in hopes of getting relocated to a better place.

“But then I was telling myself that I don’t want to do anything illegal, that this is our fate, that we will persevere until residence will be granted,” she said. “And then I can pick the best place for my children also for schools and to go to universities.”

While the majority of Germans have been giving the recent floods of refugees a warm welcome, a vocal minority has been staging violent protests in front of asylum homes, especially in eastern Germany. Earlier this year, Saxony’s capital of Dresden for months saw weekly rallies by tens of thousands of people protesting the perceived Islamization of the West.

Overall, Germany expects as many as a million refugees by the end of this year, with hundreds of thousands coming from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

While several other European countries have been trying to seal off their borders to keep out the migrants, Germany has surprised the world with its welcoming attitude toward refugees. However, the sheer volume of people — with thousands crossing the southern border into Germany every day — has cities and communities on the edge and struggling to find accommodation for the newcomers. In September alone, Germany expects more than 100,000 asylum-seekers.

Another grim surprise awaited the exhausted Habashieh family at the asylum center.

When Khawla Kareem handed their papers to a guard, he ushered them into the compound through a revolving door. There, another guard told them through gestures that the center was full, and they had to be relocated again. None of the officials spoke much English or Arabic, so they couldn’t find out where they were being sent.

The family sat on the lawn in front of two white tents with all of their belongings, until six in the morning. Finally, a bus picked them up and drove them about an hour away, to a cavernous hall filled with hundreds of asylum seekers.

Inside, black cots had been set up behind white sheets, a hopeless effort to grant some privacy.

Nobody told them where in Germany they were. It was only with the help of the GPS on her smartphone that Reem, the oldest daughter, finally found out they were somewhere on the outskirts of Dresden.

They still don’t know how long they will have to stay there.

“We have no idea what will happen next,” Reem said. “It’s a nightmare.”