Archive for February 8th, 2016

Turkey under pressure as Syrians mass at border

February 06, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey came under mounting pressure to open its border Saturday as tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing a government onslaught sought entry and the European Union called on Ankara to grant them refuge.

As many as 35,000 Syrians have massed along the closed border, according to Suleyman Tapsiz, governor of the Turkish border province of Kilis. He said Turkey would provide aid to the displaced within Syria, but would only open the gates in the event of an “extraordinary crisis.”

The Norwegian Refugee Council said thousands of Syrians have arrived at seven of the main informal camps close to the Turkish border. The group said the camps were already at capacity before the latest influx, and that aid groups are working around the clock to deliver tents and essential items to the displaced.

Filip Lozinski, an NRC supervisor in the area, told The Associated Press that many refugee families were forced to sleep out in the open, some under trees, because they could not find shelter. At a meeting in Amsterdam between EU foreign ministers and their Turkish counterpart, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini urged Turkey to open its borders to “Syrians in need for international protection,” and said the EU is providing aid to Ankara for that purpose.

EU nations have committed 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) to Turkey for helping refugees as part of incentives aimed at persuading it to do more to stop thousands of migrants from leaving for Greece. Turkey already hosts some 2.5 million Syrian refugees.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Saturday that his country maintains an “open border policy for these people fleeing from the aggression of the (Syrian) regime as well as airstrikes of Russia.”

He said Turkey had already allowed in more than 5,000 recently displaced Syrians, but did not address the restrictions along the border. Some of the refugees found shelter in Afrin, a Kurdish enclave to Aleppo’s north controlled by a militia known as the YPG, said a Kurdish official, Idris Naasan. The militia hoped to prevent a humanitarian disaster and help those stuck at the border, he said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces have been advancing across the north in recent days behind a curtain of heavy Russian airstrikes, and could soon encircle rebel strongholds in Aleppo, once the country’s largest city and commercial hub. This week alone, Russian warplanes hit close to 900 targets across Syria, including near Aleppo.

Those living in parts of the city held by the rebels since 2012 fear they could be the next victims of siege tactics used across Syria by all sides in the war, which have caused widespread malnourishment and starvation.

“There is a big wave of people leaving Aleppo City because they are scared Al-Castello Highway — the only way out — will be cut off,” said Osaid Pasha, an Aleppo-based activist who recently fled to Turkey.

“There are still a large number of civilians inside the city,” he said. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem meanwhile said government forces were “on track to end the conflict” following the recent gains around Aleppo.

“Like it or not, our battlefield achievements indicate that we are headed toward the end of the crisis,” he told a press conference in Damascus. He called on rebel fighters to “come to their senses” and lay down their weapons.

The advance of Syrian troops and the blistering Russian airstrikes in Aleppo and elsewhere led to the breakdown of indirect peace talks launched earlier this week in Geneva, with the opposition saying there was no point in negotiating under fire. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura hopes to resume the talks by Feb. 25, but it’s unclear if either delegation will return.

Saudi Arabia, a key backer of the opposition, meanwhile said it is ready, in principle, to send ground troops to Syria, albeit in the context of the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State group.

But al-Moallem warned that Saudi or other foreign troops entering his country would “return home in wooden coffins,” a line he repeated three times during the one-hour press conference. Russia’s Defense Ministry has said it has “reasonable grounds” to suspect that Turkey, another opposition ally, is preparing for a military invasion of Syria.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking during a visit to Senegal on Friday, dismissed the Russian claim as “laughable” and blamed Moscow for the deaths of civilians in Syria. Iran, another military ally of Syria, ridiculed Saudi Arabia.

The semi-official Fars news agency quoted Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, as saying he didn’t think the Saudis were “brave enough” to send ground troops. “They talk big,” Jafari said. “But even if it happens, it won’t be bad because they would be definitely defeated.”

Iran on Saturday held funerals for six soldiers, including a senior Guard commander, Gen. Mohsen Ghajarian, who were killed in northern Syria while fighting alongside government troops. Iran has said it has dispatched military advisers to Syria, but denies sending combat troops. A number of Iranians have been killed in recent months, including several high-ranking commanders.

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, an ally of Iran and Syria, has also sent reinforcements to Syria. The Syrian state news agency SANA reported Saturday that a member of Hezbollah’s “war media” department, which films military battles for the group, was among those killed in fighting north of Aleppo.

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, Albert Aji in Damascus, Joseph Krauss in Cairo and Dominique Soguel in Istanbul contributed to this report.

Hundreds of Syrian Turkmens enter Turkey

Saturday, 06 February 2016

Some 2,000 Turkmens have crossed into Turkey Saturday after fleeing attacks from Russian and Syrian regime forces in northwestern Syria, according to the Turkish disaster agency.

The displaced were fleeing Russian and Syrian attacks of Turkmen Mountain in Syria Bayirbucak.

According to the Turkish Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), nearly 600 families have taken refuge in Guvecci camp near Yayladagi, a border town in the Hatay province of southern Turkey.

The officials said the more migrants would be allowed into Turkey in the coming days.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Thursday that more than 5,000 Turkmens and Arab refugees had been accepted into Turkey in the last week alone, following the airstrikes.

Predominantly Turkmen areas of northwestern Syria have been under attack by regime forces – backed by Russian air power – since November of last year.

Recent attacks in these areas have displaced thousands of Turkmens, a Turkic ethnic group concentrated mainly in Syria and Iraq, prompting many to seek refuge in southern Turkey.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/23770-hundreds-of-syrian-turkmens-enter-turkey.

Thousands more Syrians rush toward Turkey to flee fighting

February 05, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Thousands of Syrians rushed toward the Turkish border Friday, fleeing a fierce government offensive and intense Russian airstrikes near Syria’s largest city of Aleppo.

Turkey, an ally of the Syrian opposition, promised humanitarian help for the displaced civilians, including food and shelter, but it did not say whether it would let them cross into the country, already burdened with hundreds of thousands of refugees.

“The attacks and bombings by the Russian planes and the Syrian regime have left our brothers with nowhere else to go,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu said in a televised speech. The U.N. estimated that nearly 40,000 newly displaced people have massed in recent days in several border areas of northern Syria, including about 20,000 near the Bab al-Salam border crossing. Turkish authorities increased security at the crossing and the pro-government A Haber news channel said all police and military leaves were canceled.

The international aid group Mercy Corps said that among those fleeing toward Turkey were residents of rebel-held areas of Aleppo who feared they would soon be besieged by government forces, while others were running from troops advancing in rural areas.

The Syrian government offensive began earlier this week in rural areas north of Aleppo, the provincial capital, and appears aimed at eventually encircling the city. Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad captured several towns and villages, driving a wedge into rebel-held areas and cutting off a supply road to Turkey.

Once Syria’s thriving commercial center, Aleppo has been divided since 2012 between government- and rebel-controlled districts. A government siege of rebel strongholds could isolate tens of thousands of civilians and would deal a devastating blow to the morale of groups fighting to topple Assad for the last five years.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest expressed concern that government forces backed by Russia threatened Aleppo. “It does look like a terrible humanitarian situation inside of Syria and it is poised to get worse. And that is something that we continue to be quite concerned about,” Earnest said.

“There is no denying that the efforts of the Russian military to buck up and strengthen the Assad regime’s grip on power only gives the Assad regime less of an incentive to come to the negotiating table and act constructively in conversations there,” he added.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia of using imprecise “dumb bombs” that have killed large numbers of civilians. “This has to stop. Nobody has any question about that,” Kerry told reporters at the State Department.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the “intense Russian airstrikes mainly targeting opposition groups in Syria are undermining the efforts to find a political solution to the conflict.” A U.N.-led attempt to launch indirect talks between a government delegation and opposition representatives in Geneva was adjourned Wednesday amid acrimonious bickering. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said the process will resume Feb. 25.

The opposition’s chief negotiator, Mohammed Alloush, told The Associated Press late Thursday that his delegation is unlikely to return to Geneva because of what he said was a “merciless” bombing campaign by Russia and the Syrian air force this week.

At the United Nations, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow plans to present new ideas on how to restart the talks, including a cease-fire, at a Feb. 11 meeting of key countries in Munich. He said Moscow hopes others in the 17-nation group will “shoulder responsibility” in restarting the talks.

Tensions ran high outside the U.N. Security Council, as Britain and France blamed Syria’s offensive near Aleppo for the suspension of talks. French Ambassador Francois Delattre said the opposition couldn’t be expected to negotiate “with a gun to their heads,” and British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said Churkin “needs to look in the mirror and understand where the responsibility lies.”

The Syrian rebels were able to hold positions in the Aleppo area before, but the Russian bombing, along with reinforcements sent to Assad by his allies in Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, appear to have tilted the balance in the battlefield.

London-based analyst Ayman Kamel, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Euroasia Group, said he expects Assad’s forces to regain control of Aleppo at some point this year, barring further foreign intervention.

“I don’t think Aleppo is necessarily the most important city in the country, but it is very symbolic,” he said. “If rebels lose their presence in Aleppo, then they are largely going to be demoralized, and it’s part of a larger campaign of them losing influence in northern Syria.”

Russia began its airstrikes in late September, ostensibly going after Islamic State extremists who control large areas of northeastern Syria. However, critics say Russian warplanes have struck a wide range of opposition targets in order to bolster Assad, a longtime ally.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said its warplanes hit 875 targets across Syria this week, including in the area of the current offensive. Mercy Corps, which has been delivering food to civilians in northern Syria, said it had to stop distributions in opposition-held areas of Aleppo earlier this week because the sole access road became too dangerous.

The Russian airstrikes north of Aleppo have “hugely increased” in the past two weeks, said Rae McGrath, head of Mercy Corps operations in Turkey and northern Syria. The human rights advocacy group Amnesty International urged Turkey to admit the displaced. Turkey “must not close its doors to people in desperate need of safety,” said Amnesty’s Global Issues Director Sherif Elsayed-Ali.

Turkish TV showed Syrians walking between long rows of large white tents at Bab al-Salam, and Davutoglu said tens of thousands more were on the move. Abdulgani Fettah told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency that he escaped to the border after his hometown of Bab came under heavy bombardment.

“We are asking that Turkey looks after us and opens its doors to us,” Fettah said. “We are in difficulty because of the cold. There are sick people, children, women, and wounded people. They came to the border in difficult conditions.”

There were conflicting estimates of the number of displaced near the border. The U.N. said up to 20,000 people gathered at the Bab al-Salam crossing. Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, said another 5,000 to 10,000 people reached the town of Azaz and that 10,000 arrived in the town of Afrin.

The Turkish Islamic charity IHH said about 50,000 people arrived since Thursday in the area of Bab al-Salam. The group is erecting tents on the Syrian side of the border, said spokesman Serkan Nergis. The charity runs about 10 camps for displaced Syrians on the frontier.

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Bassem Mroue in Geneva and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed reporting.

Syrian refugee teachers help fill the education gap

February 02, 2016

QAB ELIAS, Lebanon (AP) — In the refugee camp in eastern Lebanon where Fatima Khaled lives with her two daughters, only three children found a spot in the local school.

So when parents found out that Khaled was an educator, they begged her to teach their children. An unemployed teacher who fled Damascus three years ago, Khaled could not find work in Lebanon. “I came here and tried to find a job, but no one would hire me,” she said. “Parents here suggested the idea. They told me I could teach and help the children.”

Khaled, 30, has been teaching literacy and basic arithmetic for over a year, first out of her living room, and now out of a shed built by her husband. While humanitarian actors meet in London on Thursday to fund the education of Syrian refugees, Khaled’s is one of a multitude of anonymous shoestring initiatives filling the gap on the ground. With local schools overwhelmed and aid money so far falling short, only 59 percent of Lebanon’s 338,000 school-age Syrian refugees receive an education, according to the UNHCR. Some 238 public schools offer a second shift to accommodate more refugees, yet the United Nations estimates that twice as many second shifts are needed to accommodate them all.

Such teaching initiatives help fill more than an educational void for refugees. Ahmed Shareef’s teaching career nearly came to an end when a Tunisian fighter from the Islamic State group summoned him, in his village of West Atchan outside the Syrian city of Aleppo. As principal of the local school, Shareef had ordered a teenage student to trim his beard and the militant wanted to know why.

“I didn’t ask him to shave it, just trim it,” Shareef told him. The fighter told him to scrap philosophy and history from the curriculum because those courses were “blasphemy” and demanded that girls leave school after the 6th grade. When Shareef asked why, he says the man replied: “When you grow a beard I will tell you why.”

Not long afterward, 38-year-old Shareef packed his bags and fled to Lebanon with his wife and children. Two years later, Shareef teaches Syrian children how to read and write out of a plywood and tarp-covered tent in Qab Elias, a village in the Bekaa valley of Lebanon where most of his fellow villagers had resettled to flee the fighting.

Since none of the camp’s approximately 100 children found a spot at the local school and Shareef couldn’t find a teaching job, he gives free lessons to children aged 5 to 12 who have had their education disrupted by the conflict. On a normal day, over 30 rowdy students sit on the floor. The class schedule is determined by the weather; when rain floods the tent, class is dismissed.

Like Khaled, Shareef does not earn a salary. He lives on the $100 a month the UNHCR allocates his family. But Khaled admits that money is hardly a motivation for her. The work, even if unpaid, is as much a lifeline for herself as it is for her students.

“I cannot not teach,” she says smiling. “I’ve been teaching since I was 18 and when I arrived here I couldn’t stand doing nothing.”

Syrians fleeing war find unlikely refuge in Sudan

Thursday, 28 January 2016

As European countries close their doors and neighboring countries struggle to cope, an increasing number of Syrian refugees are seeking refuge in an unlikely destination – Sudan.

Battling with an economic crisis and rebellions in its own far-flung hinterlands, the African country has nevertheless opened its doors, offering Syrians safety and citizen status, with its allure of access to public healthcare and schools, Reuters reported.

A survey conducted by the Syrian Support Committee in July 2015 found more than 100,000 Syrians living in the country as a direct result of the war, a number that has since grown.

Anas Khalid, a Syrian who arrived in Khartoum in 2007, long before the Syrian war, opened a restaurant to cater for the influx of his countrymen in Sudan.

“All the young men that work with me have fled the war. I employ around 40 Syrians between two branches and house them all,” Khalid explained.

“Before the Syrians began migrating here in masses I worked at a Syrian restaurant and a factory. I started up the restaurant as a way of helping the young men coming in who I knew would struggle to find work and pay rent.”

“He’s my relative and he’s my relative,” he said, pointing towards men carving a rotating slab of chicken and exchanging money with customers. “I know most of them from back home and knew they were coming. Any man over the age of 18 has no choice but to leave or join the military and face certain death.”

A shared language and the promise of help from old friends and relatives already in Sudan has encouraged more Syrians to make a life there. The streets of Khartoum are now lined with Syrian restaurants.

Every week, two flights arrive from Damascus. Syrian families effortlessly pass through passport control with no need for visas, in stark contrast to the strict border controls they face around the world.

“We began pushing to accommodate Syrian refugees just over a year ago,” says Ahmed Gizouli, Commissioner of Refugees for Sudan. “Initially, there was a small number but this eventually increased, following the orders of the president to allow Syrian refugees entry without a visa.”

While Syrians are thankful to escape dangers and psychological stress of the war back home, they face economic challenges in Khartoum.

Housing shortages and foreign demand have driven up the price of land and rent, leaving newcomers with little time to get on their feet.

Abdelkareem Abuzamar, a 28-year-old working in Khalid’s kitchen, arrived in Sudan from Turkey in the summer of 2015 after struggling to find work in the saturated job market there.

“I got in touch with a Sudanese family on Facebook and told them about my plans to move to Sudan. They met me at the airport and welcomed me into their home,” he said.

“I stayed with them for a month before getting in touch with Anas, my neighbor back home in Syria, and started work with him.”

Though he works 12-hour shifts, Abuzamar still struggles to make ends meet.

“I’m engaged to a Syrian girl I met here but my wages won’t cover the cost of rent. It’s stressful because the cost of living is going up and the wages are staying the same,” he said.

In July, an initiative called Shukran Sudan, Arabic for “thank you Sudan”, was launched by a group of Syrians who handed out sweets and water to passing cars.

“If Sudan closes its doors, Syrians have two options: Turkey or the sea,” said Mazin Abu El-Kheir, founder of the Syrian Support Committee and a dual Syrian-Sudanese citizen from before the war. “And everyone has seen the tragedies that happen at sea.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/africa/23608-syrians-fleeing-war-find-unlikely-refuge-in-sudan.

Jordan decries Israeli plan to build Western Wall ‘prayer plaza’

Sunday, 07 February 2016

Jordanian officials are calling on Israel to halt plans to build a new “prayer plaza” at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, located in the flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

Jordan’s official Petra News Agency on Saturday quoted Communications Minister Mohammad Momani as saying that the proposed plaza would violate the site’s Islamic heritage.

Sacred to Jews, the Western Wall is situated in East Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which for Muslims represents the world’s third holiest site.

Both Jordanian and Al-Aqsa Mosque officials say construction of the proposed prayer plaza would damage the Umayyad Palaces, a seventh-century Islamic archaeological site.

The Petra News Agency reported Thursday that Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, the Jerusalem-based director of the Awqaf (the Jordanian foundation responsible for the upkeep of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites), had written a letter to the Israeli authorities calling for management of the Umayyad Palaces to be handed over to the Awqaf.

Israel has already erected temporary platforms at the site of the proposed prayer plaza, which will be set up next to the retaining wall of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound – known to Jews as the “Temple Mount” and considered sacred by both faiths.

The planned plaza is intended to provide a space at the Western Wall in which Jewish women can read the Torah (the Jewish holy book), as Orthodox Jews are opposed to the presence of women in the main areas reserved for prayer.

Since Israel’s 1967 occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank, Jordan – via the Awqaf – has been responsible for safeguarding and managing Jerusalem’s Islamic heritage sites, especially the iconic Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Since then, a “status quo” has been maintained at the site in which non-Muslims are prohibited from performing prayer activities.

Amid mounting tension over access to the site and accusations that Israel was altering this status quo by allowing groups of Jews – in increasing numbers – to visit Al-Aqsa, Jordan and Israel agreed last October to a US-backed deal to install surveillance cameras to monitor activity inside the mosque compound.

Until now, however, the two sides have failed to agree on how to install the cameras and on who should be able to control the video feeds.

On Sunday, Israeli daily Haaretz quoted Israeli officials as saying that a solution may not be found before the Jewish Passover holiday in April, when large numbers of Jews usually visit the flashpoint site.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/23776-jordan-decries-israeli-plan-to-build-western-wall-prayer-plaza.

‘No real Jordanian effort to protect Al-Aqsa Mosque,’ Mufti says

Wednesday, 03 February 2016

Head of the Supreme Islamic Committee in Jerusalem Sheikh Ekrema Sabri said on Tuesday that there has been no real efforts or measures by the Jordanian Awqaf to challenge the situation for Muslims at Al-Aqsa Mosque, Safa news agency reported.

Sabri said that the “official and popular silence” on the Israeli ban on certain Muslims praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque “encourages” the continuation of Israeli violations.

Sabri blamed the “rightest” Israeli government, which “supports” the extremist groups, for preventing Muslims from performing their prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque. He also blamed the “silence” of the Arab and Islamic nations, who he said “gave up support for the Mosque”.

He added: “The end of this prevention is coming soon. We support you and pray for you. Oppression will backfire on the oppressors.”

He said the Supreme Islamic Committee would likely hold a press conference on Wednesday to speak about this issue.

Palestinian men and women banned from Al-Aqsa Mosque organised a sit-in at its gates on Tuesday. Israel forces responded with violence and dispersed them.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/23707-no-real-jordanian-effort-to-protect-al-aqsa-mosque-mufti-says.